Fourth Visit to Tur Abdin and SE Turkey
A Short Report of a Visit between 24th and 28th October 1999
Rev. Griffith is the Anglican Chaplain in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch.
I previously visited the region of Tur Abdin at the request of the Church Mission Society1, and wrote my reports in late 1997, May-June 1998 and November 1998. The aim of the visits was to report on the condition of the Syrian Orthodox2 people in S.E. Turkey.
I last reported that there were three areas of concern for the Christians in the region, with regard to the Turkish authorities, which were:
There is no doubt that this little ancient Christian community is being harassed and troubled by the Turkish authorities.
The Present Situation
There has been some change since my last report. On the restrictions on education and the receiving of guests the situtation on the surface remains that the monasteries are in contravention of governmental instructions. However, building work has begun at Deir Mor Gabriel.
Political and economic
With the lack of any terrorist action by the PKK and Hizbollah and the growth of peace, the situation in the region has changed considerably. On the roads between Nuseibin and Mardin and between Mardin and Midyat there were no manned check-points. There were two, at either end, on the mountain road between Midyat and Nuseibin. There were no signs of the tanks dominating the road, and only a few soldiers walking in the towns. Since 1989 there have been 33 murders linked to the security situation, but only one (an engineer from Mardin killed in Mersin) in the last year. Despite the ending of PKK action, the Village Guards3 system, by which traditional Kurdish aghas control the area with Government funding, continues, although there are some villages where it is probable that the money paid to the Village Guards then goes to the PKK.
Village Guards cut down all the trees in Bekusyoné in late September and early October 1999, part of a process which is not only economically unacceptable, but also environmentally highly destructive. Much of the area was heavily wooded twenty years ago, and not there is almost no sign of trees on the mountains.
There was an incident in April in which local Kurds broke into and robbed the empty Monastery of Mor Hobel and Mor Abrohom near Midyat; the robbers opened graves to steal the golden teeth of corpses, but were apprehended and are now in prison. The previous year the perimeter walls had been restored and raised. All valuables were recovered.4
Mardin is about to have a new airport, showing a clear improvement in the economy of the region. Four new factories are being built: for macaroni, textiles, cables and suger to add to several already established. Further west the villages are economically better. Hah in the Midyat area has a new primary school, with children walking from several kilometers away to attend.
There has been a continuing programme of road-building in the area: the Midyat-Çizre road is almost complete; the Bekusyoné and Mor Malke road has been graded and widened; the Bsorino road has been asphalted, and the road to Deir Mor Gabriel has been paved and asphalted.
The town of Midyat, however, continues to be a sad and decaying place: the streets are decaying with water running down them and rubbish piling up as people have settled there from very backward villages for security.
The Syrian Orthodox Community
There has been a slight overall rise in population, with only 1 death in the last year and more than 10 births, and 10 marriages. There has been no emigration, save one or two due to marriage. There is talk of some of the diaspora returning, but this may be wishful thinking. The monasteries continue to flourish;5 at both Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel there has been significant improvement in the agricultural land. Deir Zafaran has a long tradition of a wide variety of crops, and I saw pomegranates, pumpkins, peppers, cabbages, olives, figs and a variety of fruit trees. Mor Gabriel has had soil brought in to cover the rocky ground and planted wheat this year, as well and a variety of fruit and nut bearing trees.
At Deir Zafaran permission has not been granted to replace concrete steps with stone. I understand that this may be because the stone already purchased is inferior. However, at Mor Gabriel, permission was granted by the Diyarbakr Waqf authorities to proceed with replacing some rooms at the entrance with a new set of guest rooms. This included digging some earth away in a courtyard as well as constructing new rooms with fine Midyat stone facing. Permission is yet to be granted for replacing a modern composite floor in the main church with a fine local stone.6 Work has been proceeding for six months, and the Waqf authorities have visited several times to see the work in progress and are content with the level of work.
At Mor Gabriel there has also been considerable work on the extensive property belonging to the Monasteries: at Deir Zafaran the orchard’s fencing has been completed; at Mor Gabriel a new 4 m. wall is being built all around the monastery, but well within the limits of the land owned by the monastery. This is to prevent incursions by herds belonging to local peasants: an ancient dam is being rebuilt. Mor Gabriel is at present employing over 30 local men and therefore bringing significant income into a very poor area, while making use of the low wages asked at a time of high unemployment.
Work has also been going on clearing earth at the monasteries of Mor Yacoub in Saleh and the (presently unoccupied) Virgin at Hah. In all of these I am a little concerned that no archaeological survey was done. It is clear that the rise in soil level this century was causing damp and therefore damage to the ancient structure of the buildings, but some archaeological advice would be helpful.
There has been no correspondence from the Government concerning the education of boys at the monasteries. There have been visits from the Governor of Mardin and the sub-governor of Midyat and they are both aware that boys are housed at the monasteries. Boys from the four monasteries travel daily to the local secondary school and fulfill the legal requirements for education. At the monasteries, they have their homework supervised, and their progress checked by members of the staff. At present the monks at Deir Zafaran are frightened about teaching anything at the monastery, so that only one of the boys, who is 16, is able to read the lessons in the worship of the monastery. At Mor Gabriel, where there are 39 boys and young men (including two from abroad, 1 each from Germany and Sweden) the the boys are taught Syriac and their religion in direct contravention of a letter the Ministry of Waqfs sent to Mor Gabriel7 which said inter alia that teaching of students was without permission of the Ministry and so this must stop.
Likewise there has been no further official correspondence concerning the staying of visitors in the monasteries. The Syrian Orthodox have a vast diaspora, both the modern one of those who have fled Tur Abdin this century as a result of persecution or for economic reasons, and the more ancient one, spread throughout the Levant and the Gulf and as far as Kerala in India, for whom Deir Zafaran in particular, as the traditional seat of the Patriarch, is of great spiritual significance. Receiving visitors is therefore an important work, and at Deir Zafaran they have been somewhat hesitant to go against the written instructions of officials. However, the Governor of Mardin has visited Deir Zafaran, and on one visit asked where people stayed, and was told that they stayed in the guest rooms. His comment was that this was acceptable.
The area has political significance for the long term well-being of Turkey, and with continuing Turkish requests for entry into the EU, the human-rights situation is important. A considerable number of official visitors representing other countries has been to the region, including representatives of the embassies of Switzerland, Holland, and India; the ambassadors of Canada, Korea, Slovakia, Germany and the United Kingdom; the US Defence Attaché and representatives of UNESCO. There was a visit8 in August 1999 by the new Assistant Secretary of State responsible for human rights from the USA, Mr. Harold Koh, following up on the previous visits of Mr. John Shattuck, his predecessor, in 1994 and 1998. His reported comments continued the United States’ pressure for improvements in human rights and religious freedom in the area.
The vast majority of the population in the region is Kurdish, speaking Kurmanji. Many Syriani villages have been slowly taken over by Kurds, and there is a complex relationship between the two peoples. There is a significant Mhalmoye, Arabic speaking, Sunni Muslim population.
The Village Guards are generally detested by the Syriani for their involvement in a deeply venal and corrupt system. As more Kurds move into the villages from a semi-nomadic life, or from impoverished villages into Midyat, they are perceived as lowering the quality of the infrastructure and of the agriculture, and are resented. In the local secondary schools, however, the populations mix, and younger Syriani have Kurdish friends which should bode well for the future.
There is no doubt that the situation in SE Turkey is improving in many ways. Significant building work has begun at Mor Gabriel, and the delay in permission being given to Deir Zafaran seems legitimate. For these matters, the Turkish authorities should be commended.
Confusingly, the situation concerning guests and education is not helped by the official turning a blind eye. At any point the governor could arrest the monks and the Bishop and close the monasteries for breaking the clear instructions of the government. That the governor of Mardin, the sub-governor of Midyat and the local military authorities know that guests are being accommodated and children educated is irrelevant. It is important that what is being allowed in practice should be permitted within the law and stated so.
At the monasteries, people are frightened. The Security apparatus frequently question members of the community, teachers and adminisitrators, who consequently live in fear of saying what is happening. There is a fear for the future, not knowing when there witll be a change in attitude by the Governor or the Waqf, and a general feeling that although the authorities will not actively persecute the Syrian Orthodox, they are happy to make their lives difficult.
Nevertheless, for the first time since I started visiting the area in 1997, there are clear signs of normalisation and that the human rights and religious freedom of the Syrian Orthodox community in SE Turkey are in some ways being respected._______
2 There is some confusion as to the correct name of the Christians of Tur Abdin. The Syrian Orthodox are part of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East. The term "Suriani" is convenient for describing them as a people rather than a religious community. Some writiers have used the term "Assyrian" but this has normally been used for the related Nestorian Church of the East and should be avoided.
6 Most of the workers are local Mhalmoye Muslim men. The original Mhalmoye were (forced) converts to Islam from Syrian Orthodoxy in the sixteenth century who are now Arabic speakers. They have kept many customs from the period in which they were Christian. Voice of Tur Abdin No. 16.
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