Situation Among Christians in Tur Abdin
A Summary of Visits to S.E. Turkey from 1997-99
Rev. Griffith is the Mission Partner of the Church Mission Society in Syria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Apocrisiarius in Syria and Lebanon.
The suggestion to visit Tur Abdin1 was made to me in March 1997 by the Reverend Robert Wilkes, then Regional Secretary for the Middle East and Pakistan of the Church Mission Society (of which I am a Mission Partner) in London, and a member of the Middle East Churches Forum, a British ecumenical committee concerned for the well-being of the Eastern Churches.
There has long been concern among the British Churches about the situation in Tur Abdin; further interest has arisen since the publication of William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain2 which depicts his journey in the region in 1994 and has an alarming description of the situation in Tur Abdin.
My own role in Damascus as the Archbishop of Canterbury's Apocrisiarios, or repre-sentative, to the Heads of the Antiochian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Churches means that I spend time with them, listening to their concerns. The Syrian Orthodox Church has a special place within the Anglican communion's relations with the Christian Orient.
The area around Tur Abdin is the ancient heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Christians, and over the last century has seen a dramatic depletion in the number of Christians. Over the centuries there have been several significant monasteries in the region of northern Mesopotamia3 but these also have diminished dramatically in number.
I had spoken in 1997 with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus about the possibility of my visiting Tur Abdin. Dalrymple had blamed both the Turkish Government and the PKK (the Kurdistan Labour Party, the main Kurdish anti-government separatist organisation) for the crisis in the area which was leading to the abandonment of villages and so its depopulation. His Holiness had said that he had no problem with the Turkish Government, which he felt to be generally supportive of the Syrian Orthodox people, and that the problem was mainly with the Kurds. It was with this in mind that I set out on the first of my visits.
In the two years since then I have seen some changes. The first was the clarifying of the Turkish authorities' restrictions on the Syrian Orthodox community, in particular on the monasteries. The second, and possibly most significant is the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, and the cease-fire called by it in the area.
Turkish governmental restrictions up to 1998
I wrote my first report in late 1997, after which there had been several developments. Partly in response to my first report, but also due to pressure in a variety of countries, there had been visits to the region, frequently including the Governor of Mardin by British, Australian, American and Dutch diplomats. Most significant had been the visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck (as chairman of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom abroad) in early 1998 whose pressure on the Governor of Mardin led him to believe (as stated at a press conference in Ankara on 20th. February 1998) that the issues of buildings and education could be and were being resolved. No mention was made of the right to receive visitors.
I spoke to a wide variety of people, from drivers and schoolchildren to emigrants and the children of emigrants who had come back to Tur Abdin for one reason or another. Naturally I spoke to the monks, priests and the Bishop, who were concerned not to be quoted directly. Their description of the situation then was this:
In the years 1995 to 1997, 65 Syrian Orthodox were killed, mainly by the PKK and also by the Kurdish Hizbollah. A few days before I was there in November 1997, Hizbollah had killed and man and his very heavily pregnant wife. There was a general feeling of fear, fear which includes a fear of government action as well as vio-lence and sudden death.
The schools which the monasteries ran were closed in 1973, and one of the monks had been sentenced to imprisonment for 3 months for teaching Syriac.
In 1998 the Governor of Mardin Province, in which the Syrian Orthodox villages lie, wrote forbidding:
To do any of these things would require official permission, and the experience of the community is that permission would not be given. Recently building work at Deir Za`faran was stopped for no given reason.
This series of letters (for which see below) struck at the very heart of the life of the Syrian Orthodox community.
Education is an integral reason for the monasteries to exist. To prevent the learning of Syriac and the faith (not only in the monasteries, but generally) strikes at the very existence of the Syrian Orthodox as a people. It would kill the monasteries very quickly.
Visitors are part of the monastic tradition. Whether local people seeking succour, members of the Diaspora concerned with their community's wider well-being, or outsiders seeking the rich heritage of Syrian Orthodox prayer and worship, visitors have always come. To prevent them is a major blow to an already struggling people.
Building says that the monasteries are living places with a future. Through the centuries the churches of Tur Abdin have stood as a witness in an increasingly hostile world. They are signs that modern Turkey is a pluralist state. To prevent their repair or new work is a sign that the Turkish authorities wish to destroy an integral part of modern Turkey's heritage.
Correspondence between the Turkish authorities and the Syr-ian Orthodox Community before 1999
It came to my notice that the correspondence between various arms of the Turkish Government and the Syrian Orthodox Community presents a complex state of affairs. The most positive letter was one sent through the Governor from the Ministry of Education in late January 1998 which reported that the Ministry's inspector had vis-ited and that he was satisfied that the monasteries' teaching programme could continue.
However, in mid-April the Department of Waqfs (i.e. charitable foundations of a religious nature) had sent a letter to Mor Gabriel which stated:
The Board of Trustees would be removed and punished accordingly if these requirements were not met.
The Bishop of Tur Abdin, resident at Mor Gabriel had applied for permission for the building work to continue, and plans have been presented to the Ministry, but to the end of 1998 the meeting to approve (postponed many times) had not been held.
There had been a previous letter to the Monastery of Deir Zafaran on 6th. October 1997 from the Regional Security and signed by the Governor of Mardin which stated that the receiving of guests meant that the Monastery was functioning as a hotel and that this was not included in the declaration in the Bayaname (or Statement of Intent) submitted in 1936 to the Department of Waqfs. The letter required that if the Monas-tery wished to receive temporary or permanent residents (other than the monks) it must report such a desire, claim the status of a private club, obtain the permission of the local Security forces and register the identification of each resident.
I was made aware of another letter from Ankara which the Bishop had received in August 1996 from the Head of Religious Affairs, Mr. Yilmaz in reply to a request for assistance from the Department of Waqfs. I understand that 5% of income is given to the Department as an Inspection Charge, and that the income of the Department goes towards the support of mosques, imams etc. The Bishop had been led to believe that similar assistance could be given to his community. However this letter clearly says that "Turkish citizens belonging to the non-Muslim minorities... may be involved in any religious institution, charity, meeting, may have any kind of school or teaching establishment; can build and direct and teach their language freely and conduct their religious practices."
I understand this to be quoting the Lausanne Treaty. If this is the case, there is a clear clash between what the Ministry of Waqfs is saying now to what was said then.
Attitudes differed between Deir Zafaran and Deir Mor Gabriel the two centres. Deir Zafaran is situated overlooking the plain of northern Mesopotamia, next to the town of Mardin which now has a Customs Free Zone. It is an outward looking place which historically was the centre of the Syrian Orthodox world. Deir Mor Gabriel is situated in the more remote agricultural highlands to the east near the town of Midyat and is traditionally considered as much more conservative.
At Deir Zafaran there was a feeling that although Ankara and the government was opposed to it, the army (which holds considerable sway) was more open minded and there were cordial relations with the senior officers and their families. Recent crop burnings near Gündük Sükro were blamed by local villagers on Kurds.
At Mor Gabriel connections were closer with the large Kurdish population. Both communities feel at odds with the government and locals tend to watch Kurdish Satellite TV which they see as showing the Kurds as more tolerant of Christians. Crop burnings were blamed on the Turkish army. There were suspicions of the army, and I understand that a visit by some senior officers' wives was viewed with some cynicism.
In 1998 both Deir Zafaran and Deir Mor Gabriel had plans for building work. These were shown to the necessary authorities from Diarbakir who visited in June1998. They required further plans to be made by the Syrian Orthodox architect based in Istanbul. At the monasteries they were told verbally that they could do some work, but that if the Waqf authorities asked any questions, they would not be supported. There was to be a meeting to discuss the plans in Mardin in November 1998. Visitors from the Ministry of Tourism are interested in some building work being done particularly at Deir Zafaran, but the Monastery is unwilling to take the risk. No work had been done for a year. Some of the work at Deir Zafaran is to replace ugly twentieth century concrete with local stone. Much of the building is in need of work, and it would be advisable to have some archaeological advice as some parts are late Roman.
The ban on having boys staying at the monastery continued, although there is no formal teaching syllabus. One reason the boys stay is to be close to the schools at Mardin (Deir Zafaran) and Midyat (Deir Mor Gabriel), rather than far from education in their remote villages.
There has been no action from the Waqf authorities, although the letter still stands. The monastery authorities are in constant fear of the implementation of the threats of the letter.
There continued to be large numbers of visitors to the Monasteries, particularly to Deir Zafaran. Members of diplomatic missions representing Australia, Belgium, Canada, Holland, Macedonia, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the USA inter alia visited. Deir Zafaran is becoming a significant tourist stop for both internal and external tourists. The monastery is careful to hand out Bibles only to those Muslims who ask for copies.
Emigration from the area had slowed down considerably. In 1997-8 only two Christian families had left the area. One or two young men have left to avoid military service, compared to 12-15 who had recently begun theirs.
In November 1998 there were signs of ploughing in the fields, ready for winter sow-ing. Many local people have received money from relatives abroad, and have been buying tractors, which means that a small farm which needed the work of a family of twelve may now manage with one or two people. One of the monasteries has been offered a tractor, but is fearful of local (Kurdish) villagers' jealousy and that the army will use it. The army frequently asks to use machines and buses, and then uses them more than the monasteries.
The security situation in the region continues to require the presence of the Turkish Army. Villages which were evacuated over the last few years continue to be out of bounds to the villagers, who still entertain the hope of a return. On the road between Mardin and Midyat we were stopped twice by the army. On the road from Midyat to Nuseibin there was a check point at Midyat , and we were stopped in the wild and desolate valley of the White River by two armed men who turned out to be Kurdish members of the Police (or Gendarmerie) asking for a lift and there was another check point near Nuseibin.
Some villages on the main road had a significant army presence with a tank dug in, others an APC. There was a report from the new district commander of the army who told the Bishop that a bus had been stopped and destroyed on the Mardin-Midyat road the week previous to my November 1998 visit. I saw no evidence of trouble.
The Situation in 1999
I visited the area in late October 1999. 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 flourish4 ; 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. How-ever, 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. 5 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 be-longing to the Monasteries: at Deir Zafaran the orchard's fencing has been com-pleted; at Mor Gabriel a new 4 m. high wall is being built all around the monastery, but well within the limits of the land owned by the monastery. This is to prevent in-cursions 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) Monastery of the 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 struc-ture of the
buildings, but some archaeological advice would be helpful.
There has been no correspondence in 1999 from the Government concerning the edu-cation of boys at the monasteries. There have been visits from the Governor of Mar-din 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 (in-cluding 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 Gabriel which said inter alia that teaching of students was without permission of the Ministry and so this illegal activity 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.
Political and Economic Situation
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 sol-diers 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 Guards system6, by which tradi-tional 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 (Turkish: Bakisyan) in late September and early October 1999, part of a process which is not only economically un-acceptable, 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.7
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 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.
The monasteries are the heart of what is left of the Syrian Orthodox community in the region. They are a place for meeting, for encouragement and for support. The role of hospitality matters enormously. They are communities which look forward to new visitors and new students. Local boys and those from the Diaspora come to study the language and liturgy, bringing life to the old buildings.
Deir Zafaran is the most beautiful of the monasteries, almost hanging at the edge of the mountains as they fall down to the plain of Mesopotamia, overlooked by cliff-top remains of other, rock-cut, monasteries, some of which were still functioning within living memory. Situated a few kilometres east of Mardin, built in the early 6th cen-tury on the foundations of a citadel, it became well-known from the end of the 8th century. From 1293 for more than 600 years it was the residence of the Patriarch. Deir Zafaran stands quietly overlooking a region with dozens of Tells, which witness to human habitation from the earliest times.
It is a small, fortress-like building of two courtyards, set among gardens and orchards in which has been built a magnificent spring-head, a tall blind arch from which there is a constant flow of water into the orchard; the Church was built in the age of Justinian on top of earlier Roman structures with an architectural style related to that of Qala'at Samaan (St. Simeon's) in Syria.
Deir Zafaran is now a very small monastery, which is worrying because of its historical significance and its usefulness as a tourist centre near to the busy town of Mardin. It lost 2 workers in 6 months, and only has five boys who travel daily to the nearby secondary school.
Deir Mor Gabriel as the home of the Bishop is a prestigious place. Lying east of Midyat, this is the main monastery of Tur Abdin. It was founded in 397 by Mor Samuel and Mor Shemu'n, and became an episcopal residence between 615 and 1049. Mor Gabriel was the resident bishop there in the 7th century, and the monas-tery was subsequently named after him. The monks became well-known for manu-facturing parchment, copying manuscripts and reviving the formal Estrangeloyo script. The monastery still houses many students, as well as the resident monks and nuns. Deir Mor Gabriel is a lively, thriving community of about 70 people, including the 2 monks, 14 sisters, students and administrative staff. It is an a region in serious decline.
With the reputation for being the heart of the Syrian Orthodox world it has received support from overseas, a tractor from England, a school bus from Norway. As a result its people are better educated than in the surrounding villages, populated by peasant Kurds. Its significance both to the people of the Tur Abdin and the diaspora cannot be quantified, so any limiting of its undertakings strikes at the very soul of the community.
Deir Mor Yacoub (St. Jacob the Reckless) at Saleh, on the road between Midyat and Hah has two monks and two nuns. There is a novice monk of 18 years recently re-turned here after studying at Mor Gabriel. Eight boys are being educated here. There is a very fine church and interesting archaeological remains around it. The local vil-lage was 50% Christian 50% Kurdish ten years ago, but is now totally Kurdish. Work has also been going on clearing earth at the monastery of Mor Yacoub.
Deir Mor Malke is an isolated monastery which stood during the troubles on the edge of the area of no-man's land between the PKK guerrillas and the Turkish army two kilometres from the Christian village of Harabale (Arkah in Syriac). Founded in the fourth century, and situated 2 km. South of Harabale with 30 Christian families. Open to visitors, it has three monks and two nuns with three boys studying. It is of little architectural interest, having been rebuilt many times, most recently in this century.
I have found at Deir Zafaran and Mor Gabriel busy communities which live a modern Syrian Orthodox life. The buildings are in excellent condition, well repaired and kept clean; the people there live purposeful lives devoted to education, prayer and hospitality. The land is well farmed and productive of a variety of produce. The monasteries are busy, even in the winter, receiving visitors. The children go to local schools, and study Syriac in the monastery. The daily round of prayer (three times a day in church) gives a clear structure to all that goes on.
Towns and Villages
|Deir Zafaran||Deir Mor Gabriel||Deir Mor Yaqoub||Deir Mor Malki|
5 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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|Last Update: June 9, 2000|