- Jan 28, 2003I came across this posting at one of the sites. Could this happen to
Orthodox Christians in India one day?
One of the world's earliest Christian cultures totters on the edge of
by Thomas C. Oden
Our Turkish-speaking drivers were taking us through the Fertile
Crescent, that crossroads of great civilizations, but it did not
appear very fertile. On this visit to eastern Turkey, religious
freedom advocate Paul Marshall and I saw little cultivated land and a
striking level of depopulation. We met the only two monks remaining
in the monastery of the village of Sare (or Sarikoy). They were
resigned, calm, and ready for the apocalypse.
Syriac-speaking Christians in this area have persisted through more
than a dozen centuries of Muslim, Ottoman, and now Turkish rule. They
languish between the secularizing government of the Republic of
Turkey and an Islamic culture that views them as heathen outsiders.
The government has long given them minimal "freedom of worship" while
decisively restricting property rights for local congregations. Nor
do authorities allow them any avenues of new growthcommunication,
speech, normal press freedom, or economic development.
Syriac-Aramaic comes as close as any living language to what Jesus
spoke. It is the liturgical and poetic language of these Christians.
Yet authorities forbid Christians on Turkey's southeastern border
with Syria, Iraq, and Iran to teach that languagenor can their
schoolchildren learn any subject in it. Christians in Syria, by
contrast, legally teach and worship in that language.
Besides the secular and Islamic opposition, modern forces also
threaten. Dams for electric power and irrigation are filling up the
great valley of the Tigris, threatening to submerge landsincluding
churches and monasterieson which Christian families have lived for
more than a millennium. In any case, as in the rest of Turkey,
Christians cannot buy property.
In short, the government would be pleased to see the Christian
communities quietly disappear altogether. Christians have been caught
in the middle of a war between the government and the Kurds. Now it
matters little to the government that the Hezbollah as well as the
Kurds are harassing them.
Christians abroad, meanwhile, know little of their life-and-death
First Christian Generations
The Turkish government has told the Christian villages, in effect:
You cannot have seminaries in your language. You cannot repair your
churches. Or if you do, you must do it without any help and under
local Turkish government surveillance.
Heirs of the ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians, today these Christians
affiliate mainly with the Syrian Orthodox Church, with separate
church patriarchates in Damascus: one Jacobite, the other Antiochene.
The Christian population has dwindled to nearly nothing in villages
that have called Christ Lord for well over 15 centuries.
No one doubts that there are viable arguments for continuity between
these ethnic Syriac-speaking Christians and the earliest Christian
beginnings. Before Christ, there were Jewish communities in this area
in which the first generations of Christians eventually grew.
One of the major Christian centers of learning, hymnody, and
monasticism during the fourth and fifth centuries a.d. flourished at
Urfa, previously called Edessa (the ancient Haran). The fathers of
the Edessa churches, along with their scholars, hymn-writers and
poets, were lauded and quoted throughout the Christian world. By the
seventh century, dozens of monasteriessome of them with up to 700
monkscovered the nearby hills. Few Christian families remain there.
In Nisibis (now Nusaybin), an ancient city in the upper Euphrates
valley (on the river Djada), the Christian community dates back to
the second century. A fourth-century church there was locked up and
abandoned shortly after World War I, when the community fled south
into Syria. For 60 years there had been no Christians in this church.
Now the Syriac diocese has sent a Christian family from one of the
surrounding villages into Nisibis. They live in a little apartment in
the church and keep it from falling apart.
In the church crypt lies the tomb of Jacob of Nisibis, from whom
comes the term Jacobite. Representing Syriac Christianity, he
attended the Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325. Jacob was the teacher of
the great poet, Ephrem the Syrian, whom John Wesley called "that man
of the broken heart."
This ancient church, once so important in Christian history, now sits
alone in an entirely Muslim culture. I turned my gaze from the
sarcophagus in the crypt to the richly decorated arches, then to the
geometric design on the lectern. Marshall, a Senior Fellow at Freedom
House's Center for Religious Freedom, stood with me by the silent
crypt of this deserted church dating back to a.d. 359.
Suddenly, our driver broke into song, an ancient hymn of the church.
His voice was strong and sure, filling the empty stones with a flood
of music, without being prompted.
We asked him what the words meant. He said the lyrics came from the
Listen, my chicks have flown,
left their nest, alarmed
By the eagle. Look,
where they hide in dread!
Bring them back in peace!
This church had nurtured Ephrem, the greatest of the Syriac
theologians. After being expelled from Nisibis, he spent the last 10
years of his life (36373) in exile in Edessa (Urfa).
The Nisibis church and others in the area deserve to be introduced to
the rest of the world. Yet they remain virtually inaccessible.
Christians especially should have the opportunity to understand the
area's history, poetry, liturgy, and the early growth of monasticism
An armed group, the Hezbollah, still operates in the area. This is
not exactly the same Hezbollah that operates in the Middle East but
is related to them. It has frequently attacked Christian villages in
these areas and sought to drive them out. There may be only a few
thousand Christians left in southeastern Turkey.
Caught in a Vise
This community is coming to a decisive moment: either great courage
or complete collapse. Some sense of solidarity with the outside
Christian world would help. Their plight cries out for understanding
by art historians, museum curators, theologians, political
scientists, and sociologists, as well as concerned laypeople.
If Christians abroad began to take an active interest in them, either
through business enterprise or by visiting, empathizing, and getting
to know them personally, the balance could shift. The displaced
Christians of Upper Mesopotamia who are now in Europe might begin to
come back. That could encourage economic development.
The aggressive campaigns of the ministry of tourism notwithstanding,
the Turkish government has grossly neglected these ancient Christian
sites. The tourist literature nowhere mentions them. Instead, the
government has supervised the demise of numerous Christian villages
or passively watched them deteriorate.
Yet encouraging the government to develop area tourism would likely
be more persuasive than moral arguments for freedom of religion. Some
churches here have remained in use largely without interruption since
the fourth century. As Freedom House's Marshall remarked, this whole
area is a museuman ancient Christian museum.
The possibility of a new wave of tourism appears very remote without
encouragement from Western political, academic, and church interests.
Through a kind of passive-aggressive neglect, the government denies
access to all except those with insider connections. If I were a
Muslim, I would be encouraged to go on Hajj to Mecca. But if
Christians want to go to Nisibis, someone with a badge is standing in
the path, saying, "Show me your invitation."
Eastern monasticism, music, liturgy and theology thrived here and
spread to much of the remaining Christian world. These sites contain
a precious heritage that belongs not just to the Turkish government.
It belongs to Christians everywhere.
From the desk of the moderators
The same article was posted in this forum as message No. 1775 by Mr. Mike
with web link.
We are reposting it as per the request of the originator of this post.
In Our Lords Love
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