Situation in Tur Abdin
A Report on a Visit to S.E. Turkey in June 2002
Rev. Griffith was formerly the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.
This report is made at the request of the Middle East Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), and has been partly funded by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Mission Society. It is the latest in a series beginning in November 1997, some of which are available on the Syriac Orthodox Resources website.1 It would be helpful for readers to have these in mind when reading the following report.
The visit was made from 7th to 11th June 2002. I am grateful, as always, to the Archbishop of Tur Abdin and his staff for their welcome and kindness during my time with them.
The people of the area of Tur Abdin in South East Turkey are of mixed origins and culture. The majority are Kurds, speaking Kurmanji and are generally Muslims. The rest of the Muslim population consist of Arabic-speaking Maholmoye: people descended from Syriac speaking Christians who were converted several centuries ago but have kept many Christian traditions, including the high quality stone carving which features in the excellent new work in Mor Gabriel Monastery. The remaining native population is the Syriac2 speaking Christian community. There are very few ethnic Turks in the area.
The Present Situation
The region of Tur Abdin has undergone considerable change over the last five years. With the ending of the Kurdish uprising the level of the Turkish military presence has been considerable reduced and there are proposals that the current state of emergency rule should end. In many senses this has already happened. There are very few checkpoints: I was not once stopped or asked to show identity papers, and the presence of the army is very limited. There are no restrictions on travel at night or to any particular villages or monastery.
Most significantly is the change of attitude. Five years ago PKK propaganda encouraged Christians to look towards a future Kurdish state as the only constitutional arrangement which could be perceived as treating the Christians well. Today this is in no one's mind, and rather than accepting that the future for the Suriani is a mere passive acceptance of Turkish hegemony people happily talked about feeling valued by the Turkish state. My visit coincided with the FIFA World Cup, and watching one match with boys in the monastery of Mor Gabriel offered a perspective on the naive attitudes of the young. Out of twenty, one or two supported other teams, such as Brazil, but the majority were passionately pro-Turkish.
One member of the Bishop's staff at Mor Gabriel Monastery spoke to me of a visit from an Ankara based government inspector that day. He was pleased to be able to tell the inspector that the Suriani are receiving great encouragement from the government.
The most obvious example of the change of attitude is concerning the return of families who fled the region over the last twenty years. I met a priest from Germany who is pastor to many émigré families there. He was engaged in discussions with government officials concerning the return of families to the area. Six villages which have been totally abandoned are under discussion. These villages were evacuated at the height of the war at the instruction of the military. Kafro Elayto (Arica) is expecting about 17 families to return. Arbo (Taçkoy), Ehwo (Güzelsu), Badibbe (Dibbeköy), Seder (Uçyol) and Kharabe Miska (Daghlçi) are expecting between five and ten families each. Derkube, abandoned in 1995, is also being resettled, while permission has been given for the very rich village of Mor Bobo also to be re-established. There are problems of squatting by Kurdish families, and their presence may be supported through bribery of local gendarmerie, but there is now a feeling that the courts will support the return of the legal owners.
The year 2002 experienced a good winter, showing that farming is sustainable within a better economy: pistachios, vines, wheat, root vegetables and onions as well as poultry and cattle are doing well. Some families which moved to Istanbul, and then experienced problems of earthquake and a disappointingly poor economy now see the return to their land as a realistic option.
Turkey continues to be worried about its past, particularly in response
to Armenian pressure. It is worrying that the Gertrude Bell website which
has important historical material in terms of photographs, diaries and
letters, is blocked in Turkey.
The Possibility of Return
However, if the area is to attract people so that it may continue to be a viable Christian community in the heart of Kurdish Turkey, there are considerable obstacles. I visited several of the villages to which a return is proposed.
Kafro Elayto is on a good road leading to the thriving village of Kharabale and the Monastery of Mor Malke. Most of the houses are unusable and there are plans to build modern accommodation. The trees have mainly been cut but the mainly level land is well watered and of good quality. The church needs some repair work, but a small chapel is in a very poor condition.
Badibbe (Dibbeköy) was deep in the danger area and sits high up towards the edge of the plateau on a small ridge. Today it is a wilderness, the only signs of occupation being graffiti by Turkish soldiers in the various buildings. Crops have self-seeded for almost two decades, so as well as plentiful almonds, the wheat and other crops are mingled with weeds. Butterflies and wildlife abound. Some of the many houses are re-usable. The church needs some work.
Ehwo (Güzelsu) also stands above a rich valley, and many of its houses as well as the church could soon be used.
These villages stand silent and abandoned, with very poor tracks leading to the main roads. For the inhabitants to return it would need water and other services to be supplied. It would also need considerable investment for the land to be returned to use. But probably more than that, either the inhabitants would need to accept a much simpler life style than has become the standard in Europe, or for the villages to become much more modern.
Tur Abdin is part of a very poor part of Turkey. War and a lack of investment have taken their toll, and those who encourage the return of the Suriani must be willing to assist in the development of the area. Much of the land has been untouched for fifteen or more years, and so farmers might be able to break into an organic market. It is an area which could benefit from developing technologies such as wind farms in the production of electricity, but to assume that families could simply return is naive. The institutions of society, schools, clinics and other services need to be brought in.
Many villagers, Kurd and Christian, moved to the town of Midyat. In previous
reports I have mentioned its squalid and dilapidated condition. Today
the town authorities are laying new water and sewage pipes and paving
roads in the old town which make it a much pleasanter place in which to
live and conduct the business of a market town.
Relations with the diaspora
The relationship between the continuing residents of Tur Abdin and those who have left over the last century is complex. People have left for many reasons and at different times, and the Kurdish rising was only one cause. Educated Suriani from Tur Abdin ask the question of why should they stay where there is almost no work for anyone other than farmers. For those who have left, the idea of bringing back children born and educated in western Europe would only be considered if there were strong social and economic reasons.
As with many emigrant communities, tribal and family divisions have sprung up in the Suriani diaspora which have become highly vicious and ultimately futile. But the conduct of such activists in condemning Turkish policies can cause problems for the still resident Suriani who simply want to be Christian, Syriac speaking Turkish citizens with legitimate rights. Some Turkish newspapers in reaction to harsh propaganda in the gossip-ridden diaspora have published articles asking, 'Who do these people think they are?' Thus the internal politics of a distant diaspora can be of danger to the remnant in Turkey. Expatriate factions also use their financial influence in Tur Abdin, extending their divisions back to their homeland.
However, the migrant communities in Turkey and abroad have also been
generous and interested in investing in Tur Abdin, and this generosity
is an important factor for the future.
An Opportunity for Turkey
One of the reasons for the improvement in the situation in Tur Abdin has been caused by internal political appointments. Turkey has responded to criticism. The visits of two Assistant Secretary of States (as chairman of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom) from the U.S.A. and pressure from the European Union have had significant impact, and Turkey should be praised for the work which recent governors and military personnel have done.
The Suriani have always been an unusual case in the troubled story of modern Turkey. Unlike Kurds, Greeks and Armenians of post independence Turkey, the Suriani have never sought a separate state or national identity. However, their status under the Lausanne Treaty has always been unclear, and it is hoped that the constitutional amendments made in 2001 will clarify their position. This is an opportunity to use the well educated members of this community within the framework of the state where their connections and experience they can be used in the civil service for the well being of the state to which they belong. Eastern Turkey needs more than dams if it is to develop, it needs many of the gifts that some of the younger, western-educated Suriani now have.
If Turkey is to develop as its government wishes, towards the European
Union, it may be judged on the way in which it treats the Suriani: not
as a tolerated minority, but as a valued part of the ethno-religious mosaic
which is the contemporary state.
June 2002 was a very good time to be in Tur Abdin. It is a region once traumatised by war and terror which now abounds in hope concerning the return of expatriate Suriani. There must be profound concerns about how difficult the re-establishment of the abandoned villages will be, and about what the better educated young people will need if they are to stay in the area. Nevertheless this is a time of opportunity, and I hope that both the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Turkish government will act decisively to make Tur Abdin a success.
2 There are problems of
nomenclature with the Christians of the region. In Ottoman times there
was no problem with the name Syrian Orthodox but the existence of a national
state may make this name awkward. Expatriate groups particularly in Sweden
argue about whether the name should be Syriac or Assyrian. Sharp political
divisions makes the use of either unacceptable, and I am happy to use
the term Suriani which has nonationalist or tribal connotations.
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|Last Update: August 12, 2002|