Turkey's Ancient Christians Seek to Resettle Villages
- Courtesy of Agence France Presse
2 June 2004
by Hande Culpan
Tur Abdin. The ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery outside Mardin is praying
for a brighter future as Christians, forced out of their ancestral lands by
economic hardship and an armed Kurdish insurgency, start trickling back to
"It is our pleasure to have our people back from different parts of the
world," said Archbishop Filuksinos Saliba Ozmen at the Deyrulzafaran
Monastery, which dates back to the 5th century and sits on a bluff
overlooking an extensive plain.
"By the grace of God they are coming back. Otherwise we would lose
everything, the entire community," he added in his office adorned with
pictures of late archbishops and patriarchs.
The Syriac Orthodox community, one of the world's oldest Christian
denominations, whose original congregations also settled into what is today
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, numbered some 50,000 to 60,000 members in
southeastern Turkey in the 1960s.
Many left for Europe in the 1970s for economic reasons. Emigration to
countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden ballooned
over the following decade amid heavy fighting between the army and Kurdish
rebels seeking self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
"We were caught in the middle of the clashes," Ozmen said.
The community now numbers 20,000-25,000 with most now living in Istanbul.
Recently some Syriac Orthodox families in Europe decided they would try
their luck and return to villages they had abandoned, as the insurgency has
almost died out after rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire and took
refuge in neighboring Iraq in 1999.
The rebels however issued a statement over the weekend threatening new
"The situation now is at least safer than before. We have been struggling,
working for it to get better," Ozmen said just before that statement was
Also bolstering the community's hopes was an official government call in
2001 for the Syrian Orthodox community to return and a guarantee they would
not be hindered from doing so.
Turkey's drive to join the European Union is another influence on the return
of this Christian community, as the mainly Muslim country strives to ensure
religious freedoms and democratic rights for its minorities in order to join
Ozmen explained that of 12 Syriac villages abandoned in the region, only
one, Marbobo, had been rebuilt and resettled after eight families returned.
Reconstruction was under way in two other villages, Kafro and Arbo, while
plans were being drawn up for the rebuilding in some six other villages in
the surrounding rugged hills, said the archbishop.
"The authorities are helping us with getting water and electricity to the
villages. We are planning to receive some young families", said Ozmen. "If
we get five percent of the Syriac community back, it would not be bad," he
But all is not rosy. The archbishop pointed to the difficulty of keeping
alive the culture of the community which uses Aramaic, the language spoken
at the time of Jesus, in its liturgy.
The Syriac Orthodox were not recognized as an official minority in 1923 when
the Turkish Republic was founded - unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian
communities - leaving them without the right to open official schools.
The community resorted to sending their children to Turkish state schools
during the day and afterward to informal schooling in both Deyrulzafaran as
well as in the Mor Gabriel Monastery - the oldest monastery in the world -
in the nearby town of Midyat.
"That is why we would like to see Turkey in the EU to live better and
practice our culture better. We, as Christian minorities, have a great task
in establishing ties between Turkey and the European Union," said Ozmen.
(Reproduced from the Zinda Magazine http://www.zindamagazine.com/)
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