Turkey is encouraging thousands of Assyrian Christians to return to their
spiritual heartland, as the predominantly Muslim nation faces European
pressure to return displaced villagers to its southeastern region and to
grant more rights to minorities.
According to the Associated Press, 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.
"We're here to live in solidarity with the other villagers," one returning
villager told AP. He is one of the dozens of Assyrians who have reportedly
returned so far.
For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were the most recent in a
series of challenges to a community that traces itself to the pre-Christian
Assyrian Empire. 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, the calm that is currently present in the ancient
village would have been inconceivable.
Even in October, an EU report stated that "very few" Assyrians had returned
due to harassment by pro-government Kurdish militiamen and paramilitary
Although the Assyrians have mostly sought to stay neutral between the
government and the Kurdish rebels, neutrality has sometimes made their
loyalties suspect on both sides, AP reported. 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. One man who returned after leaving 20
years ago with his family told AP that around 75 families lived in the
village of Haberli in southeastern Turkey 30 years ago. Now, about 20
Human rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of villages
throughout the region to deprive the Kurdish rebels of local support.
According to tradition, Assyrians began adopting Christianity in the first
century AD, 600 years before Arab Muslims conquered the region.