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Turkey's Bid for EU Sparks Christian Rebirth in Turkey

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  • Thomas Joseph
    Courtesy of the Associated Press 11 January 2005 By James C. Helicke Mardin. Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside a 7th century church as
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 13, 2005
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      Courtesy of the Associated Press
      11 January 2005
      By James C. Helicke

      Mardin. Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside a 7th
      century church as village men drank tea, chatted in a language similar to
      Jesus' and waited for a Christmas visit by the local Turkish governor.

      The politician's stop and the calm in the ancient village would have been
      inconceivable just a few years ago when the tiny Christian community in
      southeastern Turkey was caught in the middle of fighting between Turkish
      troops and Kurdish rebels.

      But a sharp decrease in fighting, and Turkey's focus on democracy and human
      rights as it seeks to join the European Union, are boosting hopes that one
      of the world's oldest Christian communities can rebuild itself in its
      spiritual heartland.

      Turkey, which faces European pressure to return displaced villagers to the
      region and to grant more rights to minorities, is encouraging thousands of
      Assyrians to come back, and dozens have returned, Assyrians say.

      Gov. Osman Gunes' visit to Assyrian towns and monasteries underlined the new

      "If there hadn't been peace, we wouldn't have returned," said Ninua's
      father, Erden, who left with his family for Switzerland more than 20 years
      ago and was back for his first Christmas in Haberli.

      "We're here to live in solidarity with the other villagers," he said, as his
      wife Sara offered cookies to visitors sitting by a Christmas tree in their

      Saliba said he easily secured Turkish permission to return and build a
      three-story house of stone that towers over the village. But he said Haberli
      suffers frequent power cuts and lacks a public sewage system.

      Unlike officially recognized religious minorities such as Jews and Greek
      Orthodox Christians, schools aren't allowed to teach Syriac, a modern
      version of the Aramaic spoken in Jesus' time. So there's no suitable school
      for Saliba's three Swiss-raised children who speak Syriac, but not Turkish.

      An EU report in October said "very few" Assyrians have returned due to
      harassment by pro-government Kurdish militiamen and paramilitary police.

      The Assyrians encapsulate the complexities of a country that is mostly
      Muslim, professes strict secularism and shrinks from any recognition of
      ethnic pluralism. A sign at the entrance to Haberli proclaims that "THE
      MOTHERLAND IS A WHOLE AND CANNOT BE DIVIDED" - a tacit warning to Kurdish
      rebels and anyone else seeking separate status.

      The Assyrians have mostly sought to stay neutral between the government and
      the Kurdish rebels, but neutrality has sometimes made their loyalties
      suspect on both sides. That, and a lack of jobs, have pushed many of them to
      emigrate, reducing the number of Christians in the region to an estimated
      4,000 at most.

      Saliba said that 30 years ago, around 75 families lived in Haberli. About 20
      families remain.

      Human rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of villages
      throughout the region to deprive the Kurdish rebels of local support. Fikri
      Turan returned from Germany to the village of Sarikoy to find his house
      occupied by pro-government Kurdish militiamen who refused to leave until the
      governor personally intervened.

      Turan spent Dec. 25 at the fourth century Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the
      world's oldest, where visitors from Europe attended early morning services
      and ate traditional Christmas meals of boiled meat with onion.
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