Situation in Tur Abdin
A Report on a Visit to S.E. Turkey in June 2003
The Reverend Stephen Griffith is the Archbishop of Canterbury's Apokrisarios in the Caucasus.
Since 1997 I have been writing reports for the Middle East Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) on the situation of the Syriac Orthodox Christians in Mardin and Tur Abdin in south east Turkey;1 as with all the visits, the cost has been borne by the Church Mission Society on behalf of CTBI and I am pleased to acknowledge CMS' concern and involvement.
This latest report is based on a visit made from 17th to 24th June 2003. I stayed in the monasteries of Mor Gabriel near Midyat and Deir Zafaran near Mardin, visiting different towns, villages and monasteries and meeting a wide range of people. I am deeply grateful to all those who helped me in many ways, and both the Archbishops of Mardin and Tur Abdin for their kindness and hospitality. I was very pleased to be able to spend part of the time with the Revd. Professor Dr. Hans Hollerweger, (Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Science at the Theological Faculty in Linz, Austria) who has been visiting Tur Abdin for several decades, recording its life and leading the administration of financial support raised by the Friends of Tur Abdin.2
My first report in November 1997 told a story of the abandonment and destruction of Christian villages, of murder and fear in the midst of the Kurdish rebellion against the Turkish government, and of the suppression of the rights of the Syriac speaking community who were prevented from teaching their language and religion, repairing and building their ancient property, and even welcoming guests to stay in their monasteries. Over the previous twenty years 90% of the Syriac population had left the region, with the village of Der Kube evacuated as recently as 1995 when they moved to nearby Bekusyoné. Much of the land had been forsaken and thousands of trees cut to prevent Kurdish fighters hiding from government forces. There were checkpoints on all the main roads and large numbers of soldiers everywhere. It was a grim scene which suggested that within a few years the Christian population would have left an area inhabited by them for 1700 years and more. Neither the Kurdish separatists (the PKK) nor the Turkish government of the day seemed interested in preventing such an event, and the use by one of terror and by the other of bureaucracy pushed to the brink of extinction this tiny community which posed a threat to neither.
Formerly the buildings in Christian villages were taken over by Kurds as they were abandoned (and sometimes sold) and in some cases ancient churches were converted into mosques or even destroyed. There were even occasional Turkish suggestions that Christians were making bombs although it is unclear why they would be wanting to do so.
The Present Situation
Since the end of the troubles, the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan and changes in government in the late 1990s I have been able to report a change in the situation. The most significant point is the return of families to villages and land abandoned in the previous decades. Those who had left to Europe and Istanbul have often done well economically and are able to invest in both land and buildings. Five families of villagers of Der Kube have returned from Bekusyoné (a village within sight high on the plateau) and the building of two substantial modern houses is well under way; work is also going on to restore the church which had been defiled by Kurds. They have their own generator, but insufficient water, which is supplemented by water brought from the larger nearby town of Kerburan by tractor. Below on the edge of the high land Mar Bobo had been abandoned for many years, and six families are returning: three from Germany and three from nearby Gündükshükrü. They are also building new houses.
Several villages were evacuated on Mount Izlo, where there are no other inhabitants. This means that the return to these villages gives an opportunity for Syriac Christians to re-establish themselves in an area where there is little possibility of inter-communal tensions. A government commission has met with locals to discuss ownership of land and buildings. At Kafro a new well has been sunk and electricity provided ready for the return of between fourteen and seventeen families. Badibbe is expecting four or five families, but these may have no children among them, which is problematic for the longer term development of the village. At Sedere six houses and the church are under repair. Two houses are being restored at Mishke. One family has arrived in Midyat ready to return to Ehwo once other families join them. In the Izlo area fields are planted with melons and fruit trees and there are plans to restore what was once a major grape producing (and wine producing) area. Arbo has had much of its land planted.
In the towns of Mardin and Midyat and in nearly all the villages rough counts suggest that up to 30% of the population is under 25 years of age, and there are large numbers of small children. In Der Salib much work had been done encouraged by emigrants who came back temporarily and contributed to renovation work and building a house. The aging population has only one man of marriageable age. A well has been sunk there but the very bad track to the main highway needs urgent attention.
Much of the land is now being planted, and there is a government grant of 13,000,000 Turkish pounds/hectare of land in production. Much of the newly planted land is owned by farmers who have not yet returned to live, but who will have the land already in production by the time they resettle. Some villages have new electricity supplies, others still have the old poles in place ready to carry new wires.
Other villages are doing well. Basibrin (Bsorino) has new water storage for 100 tonnes supplied by the Friends of Tur Abdin, although work needs to be done on piping the water: the local authority has not been very helpful in this matter.
Midun, likewise a flourishing village, has experienced a good harvest, and renovation work on the church continues.
The Monasteries are very lively places. The arrival of Bishop Saliba Özmen at Deir Zafaran as Bishop of Mardin has made a clear impact on the town and the monastery. Before his arrival the former Abbot, Fr Ibrahim Turker, had continued with some excellent work in providing new stone steps at the entry of the monastery and to the interior door, replacing ugly concrete work dating back to the 1950s. Fr Ibrahim had borne the brunt of caring for the monastery during extreme times in the Kurdish uprising and must be praised for his steadfast presence against all manner of problems. Bishop Saliba has arrived in Mardin as an Oxford educated Turkish national, and this seems to have a considerable impression on the local population, for whom Germany would be the more obvious place for further education. He is the first Bishop in Mardin since 1969, and his presence gives support to the local Christian population. He visits and has been visited by the local Governor, with whom the Monastery continues to have a warm relationship. He has a monastery with eight boys resident who study at the local high school in Mardin, and is restoring rooms to give them better accommodation. It is permitted to teach the boys Syriac, as the new constitution allows the teaching of the languages of compact minorities in private, however, as an alumnus of Oxford University's Oriental Institute, Bishop Saliba is keen to develop Turkey's teaching of Syriac and hopes that Deir Zafaran might become a recognised institute for the teaching of Syriac.
While I was there children from nearby Mardin were on a Summer Camp, learning their faith and traditions, and sharing in the worship and life of the Monastery. Deir Zafaran is a very popular tourist and pilgrim centre. There were about 150 visitors every hour on the Sunday when I was there, as well as several parties bringing children for baptism. Significantly there was also a visit by the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Baghdad. Deir Zafaran is important as it is the face of Syriac Christianity to Turkey. Most of the visitors are Turkish Muslims who come with a variety of questions and are often surprised to see such a busy and flourishing centre of Christian life in an area renowned for its backwardness.
Mor Gabriel monastery is a larger community in the heart of Tur Abdin. It has more than twenty boys resident who are able to study in the local secondary school. Village children often have to leave education after four or five years as travel to the towns for secondary education is very difficult. Mor Gabriel therefore gives an opportunity to boys from the village to advance in education as well as learning their faith and practices. As the residence of the Bishop of Tur Abdin, it has been a centre for Syriac Orthodox culture and faith throughout the troubles. It receives many visitors, including while I was there a number of academics who attended a symposium on the town of Midyat. None of these were Christians, but showed both a knowledge and understanding of the Syriac Orthodox and were welcomed by the Bishop and his staff.
Building and renovation
Throughout the area there continues to be a passion for the renovation and restoration of ancient buildings. This is a sign of commitment: the Syriac Orthodox are making a statement of their continued presence. In several villages which are now totally Kurdish churches have been renovated, with the intention that they can be centres for groups from the diaspora to use on their visits. Some of the restoration has done serious damage to archaeological material, and there is a tendency to be unable to stop. The Monastery of the Mother of God at Hah (An1tl1) has seen great improvements in removing modern additions, but is now facing more and more additions which will detract from what is a very important and unique building of great beauty.
The wider context
I had paid a very brief visit to the area in March, immediately before the invasion of Iraq. There was great concern then that instability in northern Iraq could easily spill over into this region. It is now generally felt that Turkey acted responsibly, and there is confidence that Kurdish nationalism will not return to its old pattern of violence.
There is always the possibility that the stable situation may collapse, and there has been a tendency in past times for some of the Turkish authorities to be more concerned for security alone rather than building a prosperous and hopeful region. I was pleased to find, for instance, that the Gertrude Bell Project website3 is no longer blocked from internet access in Turkey. Military presence in the whole area is very limited. It is curious why checkpoints as Hah, for example, are still functioning, although it should be recognised that Christian villages with military bases have generally done better in the difficult times.
The Governor of Mardin and wider authorities have been encouraging the Syriac speaking community to restore their villages and monasteries. The diaspora is also supportive, whether by financial support or by returning themselves. Villages, farms and Christian businesses in the towns seem to be doing well and contributing to the attempt to improve the economy of a very backward area. Even the pessimists seem to think that in this area of the Middle East the trend of Christian depopulation is being reversed.
2 Freunde des Tur Abdin, Bethlehemstraße 20, A-4020 Linz, Austria.
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