The International Herald Tribune, France
April 5, 2012 Thursday
Exiles hope to revive Christian area in Turkey
by SUSANNE GÜSTEN
Robert Tutus, a Syrian Christian who left Turkey for asylum in
Germany, is among others who hope to “keep the Syriac language and
culture alive in Idil, and to remind people that this is the home of
Clambering over the rubble of what was once his hometown, Robert Tutus
pointed to a spot just up the road from where his family’s house had
”This is where my father was assassinated,” he said. ”Two men
walked up to him as he was returning home one evening, and killed him
with a bullet to his head.”
His father, Sukru Tutus, was the last Christian mayor of Azeh, known
as Idil in Turkish, a town in southeastern Anatolia that traces its
Christianity back to the time of the Apostles.
Within a month of his killing, which happened on June 17, 1994, Mr.
Tutus recalled last month, the remaining Christian population of the
town, several hundred people at the time, had gathered their
belongings and fled to asylum in Western Europe.
The departure marked the end of the Christian era of Azeh, which had
been a bishop’s seat as early as the second century and home to a
Christian population of several thousand until the late 1970s.
Only ruins scattered about the hillside remain of their town today,
while above it shabby concrete buildings rise to form the new town of
Idil, inhabited by local Kurds and Arabs as well as a few Turkish
administrators on temporary postings to the east.
And then there is Mr. Tutus, 42, camped out in an apartment in one of
those buildings while he tries to reclaim his father’s properties and
rebuild his parental home among the ruins on the hillside.
”This is our home, the home of the Syriac people,” Mr. Tutus said.
”We will not give it up.”
The plateau of Tur Abdin, upon which Idil lies nestled between the
Syrian plain and the mountain ranges of southeastern Turkey, is the
historical heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose patriarchate
resided here until tensions with the Turkish republic pushed it to
move to Syria in 1933.
The region is still dotted with Syriac churches like Mor Gabriel,
which was founded in the year 397 and is one of the oldest active
monasteries in the world today. But apart from the monks, very few
A century ago, they numbered 200,000 here, according to the European
Syriac Union, a diaspora organization. Some 50,000 survived the
massacres of Anatolian Christians during World War I, in which the
Syriac people shared the fate of the Armenians. Today, no more than
4,500 Syriac Christians, who speak a local dialect of the Aramaic
language as well as Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish, remain in Tur Abdin.
In Azeh, which held out against a siege by surrounding Kurdish
villages for months in 1915, the final push in the age-old power
struggle over the town began in 1977, when Mayor Sukru Tutus was
deposed by the Turkish authorities in what his successor, Abdurrahman
Abay, today freely acknowledges was a rigged election.
”The military commander, the judge, the district governor – they
encouraged me to run and they helped me” to win, Mr. Abay, chief of
the powerful Kurdish Kecan tribe, said last month over a glass of tea
in Idil. ”After the election, I received a telegram from Egypt, from
Anwar el-Sadat. It read: ‘I congratulate you on the Muslim conquest of
The takeover brought the dramatic shift in the town’s demographics
that was completed in 1994, with Kurds from the surrounding villages
moving in as Syriac families sold up and joined the rising flow of
Christian migration from the Tur Abdin to Europe.
Today, 80,000 Syriacs from the Tur Abdin live in Germany, 60,000 in
Sweden, and 10,000 each in Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands,
according to estimates from the European Syriac Union.
Mr. Tutus found political asylum in Germany, together with his mother,
six sisters and three brothers, all but one of whom have since
acquired German citizenship and settled there.
A decade later, he was one of the first exiles to accept the Turkish
government’s public invitation to Syriacs to return home. It was
issued in 2001 under pressure from the European Union and repeated on
Although he carries a German passport, Mr. Tutus spends much of his
time in Idil, where he has overseen the restoration of the Church of
St. Mary and last year founded an Association for Syriac Culture.
”Our aim is to keep the Syriac language and culture alive in Idil,
and to remind people that this is the home of the Syriacs,” Mr. Tutus
Although the association’s office was fire-bombed this year, Mr. Tutus
”We want the world to see that Syriacs still live here,” he said.
It is a desire he shares with hundreds of pioneering Syriacs across
the Tur Abdin, who have returned from exile in Europe in recent years
in an attempt to reclaim their heritage and pave the way for a
Christian resettlement of the region.
In the village of Kafro, 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, west of Idil,
villagers out for a stroll in the spring sunshine on their neatly
stone-flagged street last month gathered around a baby carriage to coo
over its occupant. They were admiring Nahir Demir, 1 year old, the
first offspring of his family to be born in Kafro since the Syriac
village was abandoned by order of the Turkish Army in 1994.
”My father was the last to go,” said Aziz Demir, 45, mayor of the
newly rebuilt village. The order to evacuate, he recalled, came at the
height of fighting between the army and Kurdish rebels in this region.
But when permission to return was issued in a brief bureaucratic
directive by the Turkish government in 2001, the Syriacs of Kafro
rushed back from Europe to rebuild their village and to resettle their
children in an ancient land they had never seen.
A dozen modern limestone villas now rise up over the ruins of the old
village of Kafro, complete with walled gardens and pink-tiled
bathrooms, built with the lifetime savings of Syriacs returning from
decades in the factories of Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
Six years after the first moving trucks arrived, Kafro’s population is
around 50 and rising, despite the hazards. Both schooling and
employment prospects are poor in this impoverished region, where
neighboring Kurds herd sheep and ride donkeys to market.
”We knew it would not be easy, and we knew the risks,” said Israel
Demir, 46, builder of the villas and father of little Nahir as well as
of three teenage daughters transplanted from Goppingen, Germany, in
2006. ”But we also know our duty.”
That duty, Mr. Demir said, lies in ensuring the future of the Syriac people.
”I feel a great responsibility, toward my children and toward my
people, for safeguarding our homeland for future generations,” Mr.
Demir said in an interview in Kafro last month. ”Because I know that
when a people leaves its land, its home, it has no choice but to
assimilate. We can see it happening to our families in Europe and in
America. There is a danger that in a few decades the Syriacs will
cease to exist.”
Mr. Demir paid a personal price for his mission last year when he
barely survived after being shot by Kurdish shepherds while trying to
prevent them from grazing their flocks on village land.
But neither the hostility of the locals nor a perceived lack of
support from the Turkish authorities will deter him, he said.
”I am trying to open the door to the return of our people,” he said.
”I have pushed the door open. Now others must decide whether they
will follow me and step through it.”
In the neighboring village of Enhil, Fehmi Isler, 50, took a more
sober view of the future as he gazed out from the slim bell tower of
the village church over dozens of newly restored houses, one of them
”Only the older people come back, the ones who were born and raised
here,” he said.
Dormant in the winter, Enhil comes alive at Easter with the arrival of
300 to 400 Syriacs exiles from Western Europe who have restored their
family homes in the past few years for use as summer houses.
”But the young people won’t come, and who can blame them,” Mr. Isler
said. ”There’s nothing for them to do here but gaze at the cattle and
collect cow patties.”
Mr. Isler, who was in Enhil to bury an aunt, who died in a retirement
home in Augsburg, Germany, in keeping with her last wish, said his own
five children had made the trip from Germany only once.
”No Internet, no mobile phones, no swimming pool – forget it,” he
said. ”And the Kurdish women yelled at the girls to show some modesty
and cover up.”
In Idil, Mr. Tutus is similarly skeptical of his chances of success in
attempting to persuade the Syriac diaspora to resettle in Idil. With
the war raging on between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish Army, it is
an uphill struggle, he said.
”Everyone talks about returning, but it’s just talk,” he said. ”I’m
here fighting for our return, but they’re sitting tight over there.”
Even Mr. Tutus’s wife, a Syriac herself, and his children, aged 11 and
7, will not come, preferring to stay in Frankfurt after being badly
frightened during a visit to Idil.
”There was a power cut and gunfire in the street at night,” Mr.
Tutus said. ”After that, they refused to come back.”