Turkey’s ancient Christians seek to resettle villages

The Daily Star, Lebanon
June 2 2004

Turkey’s ancient Christians seek to resettle villages
Syriac archbishop: ‘It is our pleasure to have our people back from
different parts of the world’

By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Turkey: The ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery outside this southeastern
city 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 their villages.

“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

“We were caught in the middle of the clashes,” Ozmen said.

The community now numbers 20,000-25,000 with most now living in

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 attacks.

“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 issued.

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 the EU.

Ozmen explained that of 12 Syriac villages abandoned in the region,
only one, Marbobo, had been rebuilt and resettled after eight families

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 added.

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.

By Hande Culpan, Agence France Presse