Time to End the Fear

Turkey’s mountain village Christians see hope for their children

by Chuck Todaro

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“We lived in terror” is how a Syriac Christian villager in the Tur Abdin region of southeast Turkey described life there for the last 16 years – years spent caught in the middle of a dogged guerrilla civil war between Turkish military forces and the secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

This conflict threatens to empty the Syriac Christian heartland and is one more case of the pressure on Christians to leave Turkey. Memories of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century and the violence unleashed against Greeks in Istanbul in September 1955 are fresh enough to inspire Tur Abdin’s Christians to flee.

Tur Abdin’s once vital Syriac Christian population of about 80,000 has fallen to about 2,500. Yet, to those Syriac Christians who remain in Tur Abdin (Syriac for “Mountain of the Servants of God”), the arid mountainous land between the Tigris River and the Syrian border is their holy land. Christianity there dates to the early first century and to this day Syriac Christians celebrate liturgies in Turoyo – a dialect of Aramaic, the language used by Jesus Christ and the apostles.

A cease-fire between the Turkish govern-ment and the Kurds means conditions in the region are slowly improving. Fighting dropped off sharply since the 1999 capture of PKK commander Abdullah Ocalan, who ordered his followers to withdraw from Turkey into northern Iraq.

The PKK has changed its strategy and says it wants to campaign peacefully for the rights of Kurds and has dropped the demand to establish an independent Kurdistan. In 2002, it changed its name to the Congress for Freedom and Democracy in Kurdistan (KADEK). However, the move has been dismissed as a sham by the Turkish authorities; the European Union has placed it on its list of terrorist groups.

With the help of an economic recovery program, dirt roads have been paved and the number of bus routes into area villages has increased.

Virtually all military checkpoints have been removed and freedom to travel has returned. The spin-off to these improvements is that the tourist industry has been revived and new hotels, restaurants and even Internet cafes have opened.

Turkey has applied for European Union membership, but the EU says Turkey still needs to improve its political and human rights record and to reform its oppressive minority laws before the country can be admitted.

In the decades following World War I, many of the region’s churches fell into disrepair, becoming unusable. Muslim extremists and local Turkish government officials hindered restoration efforts often by denying construction permits.

Further restrictions were imposed on the Syriac Christians after the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, when the community was not listed as a distinct minority whereas official status was given to Turkey’s Armenian, Greek and Jewish citizens. For this reason, the government prohibited Syriac Christians from operating its own schools and interfered with church administration.

Now suddenly, after decades of being denied basic rights, the Syriac Church, Catholic and Orthodox, is permitted to teach freely its own language – a century-old ban that has threatened the survival of the ancient language.

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Tags: Unity Turkey Civil War Syriac Christians