A Short Report of a Visit to S.E. Turkey in November 2000
Rev. Griffith is the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterburys Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.
This short report follows up my previous ones: last May's report can be found on the Internet at http://sor.cua.edu/Pub/StephenGriffith/VisitSETurkeyMay2000.html. I visited the two monasteries of Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel between the 26th and 30th of November, visiting also the formerly Christian village of Kfarbe in order to report on the condition of the Syriac Orthodox community in SE Turkey.
The Present Situation
Towns and villages
After years of emigration there continue to be reports, in the Turkish newspapers, in the Voice of Tur Abdin (June 2000 issue) and in conversation, of some migrants returning. People have returned to Gündüksükrü (a young family); Midun ( a young family); Anhel (two older families); Deir Salib (one family). There is also interest from the diaspora in registering their properties, especially in Anhel; clearly more Syriac Orthodox are considering the move back to Tur Abdin. There were also four Chaldaean families seeking to move to two fine villages in Shirnak, further east, but are awaiting permission from the governor; meanwhile they are being housed by the Syriac Orthodox in Midyat.
The economic situation is stable, although country-wide worries about the stability of banks is not helping. Much more land is being farmed, and the rains arrived very heavily on my last day there with 33mm. overnight at Nuseibin. Water is a continuing worry in the whole region. The new airport at Mardin is doing well, and has increased the number of flights to Ankara each week. There is a general feeling of hope.
There has been work carried out at the church properties in a number of villages:
There are plans by the diocese of Tur Abdin in co-operation with the Governor of Mardin and the relevant sub-governors to repair churches in other villages, and hopefully to use rooms and facilities in their compounds as bases for visitors from the diaspora to stay in the summer months, since there is a shortage of accommodation in the area.
Squatters occupying the land of the very significant Church of Mor Yaqoub in Nuseibin were removed with the assistance of the local police and work is beginning in removing a large amount of earth from the sides of the church and in a general restoration.
Villagers evacuated from Mor Bobo to Gündüksükrü are still forbidden to return to their village.
Security is more relaxed, and the presence of the army continues to be at a minimum; I was, however, told of one case where a foreign visitor was going to a village and was very closely followed by two security police, whose behaviour led to the visitor leaving the village without being able to receive the traditional hospitality or to express encouragement for the villagers. Nevertheless, relations between the military and the villages seems friendly and without real strains.
The monasteries continue to be a very important part of the Syriac Community. The numbers of visitors over the summer has been very high indeed and the local community from the Governor onward has seen them as an important part of the regeneration of the region. They can be seen both as a source of stability, giving employment and security to the local people and also as a major attraction for the growing tourism industry. Mor Gabriel is the seat of the Bishop, and is a significant centre for the Christian community. Deir Zafaran, a set of buildings of exceptional historical and architectural value is close to Mardin and in many ways the easiest of the monasteries to visit, and has a regular stream of visitors. Its tourism potential is considerable. Mor Malke is less significant, but Mor Yacoub has a very fine church and ruins in its precinct.
Problems concerning the education of boys seem to have ended, and the monasteries (except Mor Malke) have seen increases in the number of boys, so that they have become a strain on the resources. The boys are taken daily to the local schools in Mardin (Deir Zafaran) or Midyat (Mor Gabriel, Mor Malke, Mor Yacoub). In Mor Gabriel they are also given a high standard of supervision of their homework and Syriac lessons.
Facilities for tourism are being improved, with refurbished rooms at Deir Zafaran, and a new block of high quality rooms in Mor Gabriel. There have been no problems from the authorities concerning this, as there had been in the past, but rather support for this work. At Mor Gabriel a very high wall has been completing which encloses a significant proportion of its land and allows further agriculture.
Very important has been the re-establishment of a monk at the monastery of the Virgin at Hah. Hah has been a significant village, with very important historical remains and the re-establishment is a potent sign of the return of the region to normality. It is expected that a monk from Mor Gabriel will soon move to the Monastery of Mor Obrohom in Midyat to re-establish it as a living monastery.
It is still impossible to visit the Monastery of Mor Awgen for security reasons.
There have been a number of important diplomatic visitors to Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel, including Prince Michael of Greece and Ambassadors or Consuls General from Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
It is gratifying to see the improvement in the situation in the area. Most important is a change of attitude. Three years ago there was a feeling of pessimism, and mistrust of the authorities by the Christian community. Now the Bishop is regularly invited to official functions by the Governor, and the local authorities are seen as partners in the restoration of normality. The Bishop was also invited to an inter-faith meeting in Tarsus in June which proved highly successful.
This does not mean that Tur Abdin has suddenly become paradise. Considerable economic development is needed to go along with the improved security situation, and there remains the fear that the old threats may return. While Ankara and the governorate of Mardin are now viewed favourably, there is always the possibility that a change of government could return to the threats of the past concerning the education of the students and the receiving of visitors which seem to be based on Turkish Law. Although later Conventions have made the Lausanne Treaty irrelevant, the willingness of some in authority in the recent past to quote it is seen as a possible threat and I would hope that a clearer statement of Turkey's position could be made.
With this caveat I am able to say that Tur Abdin and the Syriac Orthodox community there are in better heart than for many years, and I hope that this will encourage both the Turkish authorities to continue on an enlightened path and also interested nations to help with this development.
Mention should be made of the situation of a Syriac Orthodox priest, Fr. Yusuf Bulut in Diarbakr who has found himself in legal trouble having been asked by a journalist concerning the historicity of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. At the time of my visit the priest had been charged but the case had not yet come to court. There are many stories told concerning the events of 1915 and the 1920s. I myself have listened to Kurds and Muslim descendants of Syriac Orthodox victims, but in general while remembering a terrible time, the Suriani tend to remember rather than seek redress. They also remember with gratitude Muslims who defended them. However the historians describe that period, ordinary villagers of Tur Abdin know that there was a terrible time and are fearful that such a thing might happen again.
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