The Return of the Suriani
A Visit to a Christian Minority in Turkey That Refuses to Die
by Joel Carillet
On a plateau of barren hills in southeastern Turkey, bordering the Tigris River and Syria, sits the historic heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Tur Abdin. In his 1994 book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, the English writer William Dalrymple predicted that Tur Abdin’s Christian community, known as the Suriani, would vanish within a generation. At the time, his prediction made sense.
Dalrymple was writing at the end of a century in which the Suriani had suffered staggering losses. During the Armenian genocide around the time of the First World War, their numbers shriveled as they faced deportation, starvation, and massacre. According to Dalrymple, the Suriani population had been 200,000 in the nineteenth century, but fell to 70,000 by 1920. A few years later the Syriac patriarch himself, whose seat had been in Tur Abdin for more than 600 years, was forced to relocate to Damascus.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the brutal conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement, raged throughout southeastern Turkey, claiming an estimated 30,000 lives. Another group, the Kurdish Hezbollah (not to be confused with the Lebanese party of the same name), actively harassed Christians; there were reports of girls being kidnapped to marry Muslims and of a monk being kidnapped for ransom.
In the three years following Dalrymple’s visit, 65 Suriani were killed, mainly by the PKK and Kurdish Hezbollah. The violence, military curfews, and a dismal economy squeezed the Christian community to the breaking point. By 1990 the population had shrunk to 4,000, by 1994 to 900. Most monasteries were abandoned; the few that remained were barely staffed. Villages were given up as entire communities moved to countries such as Germany and Sweden.
In December 2004 I went to Tur Abdin to see this dying church before it was too late. I needn’t have rushed.
It was bitterly cold as the minibus ascended onto the Tur Abdin plateau, leaving behind the early morning fog that lifted off the Tigris. Snow lay on the roofs of Kurdish villages and in the fields, but precipitation wasn’t the only thing on the ground. Soldiers on foot patrol, one group backed by an armored personnel carrier, trudged along the highway. I had read that a few weeks earlier, thousands of police, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, carried out a weeklong siege of Kurdish rebels hiding in cotton fields outside the city of Diyarbakir.
In the afternoon I reached Mar Gabriel, a monastery founded in A.D. 397 and the first of three that I would visit. I entered the compound’s fortress-like walls and asked permission to spend the night. Referring to my backpack, a layman employed at the monastery said, “We can’t turn you away with such a heavy burden.”
Evening vespers were held in a room built in A.D. 512, making it one of world’s oldest functioning churches. Inside the stone walls darkness was broken, just barely, by two candles. The congregation of monks, nuns, and students—about 25 people—chanted together in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The archbishop stood before the congregation wearing a robe that has changed little in over a thousand years. The entire setting was like having stepped out of a time machine, a lesson in the history of the Church well before Christians ever made it to America and thought up things like seeker-friendly services.
But what struck me most was how they prayed: on their knees, faces to the floor. It was a form of prayer that demanded something of the body and not just the mind. And it was also a reminder that when Islam was starting out, it borrowed much from Christianity. Except for the sign of the cross, which the congregants made between prostrations, and the presence of women in the same rows as men, this prayer could have been in a mosque.
Boiled chicken, rice, bread, salad, and a bowl of beans were served for dinner. Eleven of us sat at the table, including the archbishop of Tur Abdin, who resides in the monastery, and the Syriac bishop of Mosul, who had made the drive from Iraq that afternoon and was en route to Damascus, stopping here to spend the night. The two bishops spoke like old friends. The border between Iraq and Turkey, a twentieth-century creation, suddenly seemed like the young thing that it was, cutting through a much older Christian community that for most of its history knew no such boundary.
Adjourning to the parlor, where a wood stove graciously broke the winter chill that clung to all the other stone rooms, everyone drank tea and dipped into a plate of assorted nuts picked from the monastery’s fields. The men spoke Turoyo, a modern dialect of Aramaic that is still the first language of the Suriani (the bishop from Mosul spoke a different dialect of Aramaic and occasionally required a translator). The only other sounds in the room were the crackling of fire and the clicking of prayer beads, which many of the men thumbed through their hands.
I asked the archbishop how many Suriani remain in Tur Abdin. “We don’t know, we don’t count them,” he said bluntly. Others, however, later offered me numbers ranging from 2,000 to 5,000. Consistent figures would prove elusive, but one thing was clear: The numbers in Tur Abdin were increasing; the disappearance Dalrymple predicted no longer looked inevitable.
The next morning I toured the monastery. There was so much history, but what struck me was the renovation in progress. Muslims from nearby villages, paid by the monastery, were chipping away old mortar from between the stones and filling the gaps with new mortar. Other renovations had already been completed, and Mar Gabriel did not feel like a dying outpost. Things that die can still leave nice buildings behind, I knew, but the construction here was a testament to hope.
A Remote Warmth
Suriani children attend Turkish public schools, but each day after classes end many reconvene at a monastery or church to study their history and language. It was to a church in Midyat, a town 15 minutes away from Mar Gabriel, that I went late in the afternoon and sat in a room where students were completing their Aramaic assignments. Outside on the streets snow stood in dirty piles, unable to melt in the freezing temperatures.
Class was over at 5:00 P.M., after dark, and I piled into a van with six students who live in the monastery of Mar Yacub, where I had been invited to spend the night. We shared the van with several Kurdish families who live in the village beside the monastery. It was a crowded affair, with much laughter and warmth.
Mar Yacub, founded in A.D. 419, was in the midst of a blackout when the children and I were dropped off outside its imposing gates. There were stars above, and for a moment I thought this could be the year A.D. 700: a Kurdish village, an old monastery, kids discussing in Aramaic how to get beyond the locked gate.
Based on the remoteness, I had expected a dilapidated, frigid stone cellar of a place, but I was instead led to a beautiful living room where Father Daniel, one of three monks in residence, and three children, all around 12 years old, sat on comfortable sofas near a wood stove watching a Turkish sitcom on a Sony television. Exhausted, I sank into the coziness of the room.
When the nuns called us to dinner, the sitcom had the children’s interest piqued, sparking a moan when Father Daniel cut the television. But it was the sound of disappointment rather than complaint. For dinner, after everyone prayed together in Aramaic, we dipped pancakes into a syrup and oil mixture, and the nine children who live in the monastery spoke to each other with muffled voices.
Back in the living room after dinner the students were allowed to watch one more show and then, without prodding, filed out to do their homework. Rarely had I seen children who seemed both so happy and obedient.
A Monk’s Home
Father Daniel had a lay assistant, Sefir, a gentle 29-year-old Suriani who grew up in Istanbul. His parents were originally from Tur Abdin, and for two and a half years he has been back, learning to read and write Aramaic as well as work with the children, who are all either Suriani from outlying villages or, in some cases, sent here from Europe by their parents in order to learn their history and language. Sefir told me that Salah, the village we were now in, had 30 Christian families in 1965, but now only one remains. Almost all the others went to Germany.
Father Daniel, now in his mid-30s, was 15 or so when his family—both parents, two sisters, and three brothers—moved to Germany. He, however, chose to stay behind. When I asked why he replied simply, “This is my home.” When he was 23 he decided to become a monk.
I asked how Kurdish-Christian relations are today. “Now is better than 15 or 20 years ago, but tomorrow we can’t say.” His was a perspective informed by history, by a one-day-at-a-time philosophy.
Father Daniel had the remote and flipped through several channels before settling on Suroyo TV—two hours of Syriac programming beamed each evening from Sweden. With this we finished the evening.
Early the next morning I rode with the students back to Midyat. The high-school students were dropped off first. Next we should have gone to the middle school, but the students urged our driver to go first to the bus stand so they could personally escort me to the vehicle that would take me on to my final destination.
I had arrived at Mar Yacub feeling depressed that just a handful of boys and three monks lived there. But they themselves were not depressed, and I left with much hope. The youth, boys of solid character, witnessed to the community’s determination to maintain a presence in the land.
Through a frosty window, in a van with well-bundled Kurds and Arabs, I looked out at the countryside as we approached Mardin. The city had been without a bishop since 1969, but much to the joy of Mardin’s 75 to 80 Suriani families, an Oxford-educated Suriani had recently been appointed to the post.
While the Suriani are the bulk of Mardin’s Christian population, there are also several Armenian and Chaldean families. Since they have no priest, they worship with the Suriani, something that would have been unimaginable in centuries past. As one monk told me, the theological differences that once divided these churches are no longer an issue.
Kurdish farmers gave me a lift on their tractor to Deir Zafaran, which lay a few kilometers to the east of Mardin. Father Stefanos, a 25-year-old monk born in Sweden, received me warmly. Dedicated to his tradition—he moved to Syria when he was 13 to study Syriac and theology, became a monk at 19, taught Syriac at a Syriac monastery in Germany, and now teaches Syriac to students at Deir Zafaran—he also warmly affirmed my Christian faith as a Protestant.
Knowing that many ancient churches are unhappy with Protestant churches in their historic domain, I asked what he thought of the Protestant church in Diyarbakir, which is not far from Tur Abdin. “We are all Christians,” he said. “I’m happy they are there.” Then he grew excited: “Their missionaries are effective in Turkey—there are converts among the Muslims.” He was also glad to hear that thousands of Kurds have asked the Protestant church in Diyarbakir for Bibles. “Even if Kurds don’t become Christians, it is good they are learning about our faith. I am now reading the Koran for this same reason.”
Father Stefanos was a hopeful personality. Perhaps this was because he was younger than most other Suriani I spoke with, or because hopefulness is in the nature of an immigrant, especially one who has left the West to return to the East. From the roof of the monastery, he looked glowingly over the landscape. “Before, things were very bad. Now the government provides us free water, it has paved the road to the monastery, it asks us what we need.”
In the last several years the government had also abolished the law prohibiting the teaching of minority languages, thus enabling the monasteries to teach Syriac without fear of retribution. And in the summer, hundreds of tourists, sometimes thousands, visit the monastery in a single day. Most of these are Turks, and Father Stefanos was keen to point out the value of having Turkish Muslims exposed, in a positive way, to the Syriac community.
The greatest sign of hope—and this is perhaps the key development that has undermined Dalrymple’s prediction—is that Syriac communities in Europe are sending people back to Tur Abdin. Over the decades, as villages in Tur Abdin emptied and people found new homes in Europe, especially in Sweden and Germany, the village communities kept in contact through regular reunions. Today, these reunions are often venues for the Suriani to discuss ways to support the return of some families and to collect money to rebuild churches and houses in their former village.
And the Turkish government is helping. In many abandoned villages, Kurds have moved in and are not always receptive to the return of Suriani. Stefanos shared an example from one village in which several Kurdish families were hostile to a returning Christian family. The Turkish government warned them to stop their harassment. When they refused, the government relocated the Kurds.
“Twenty to twenty-five families have returned in the last several years,” Father Stefanos said with a focused gaze as I snapped a picture of newly renovated guest quarters, beyond which stretched the vast plain of Mesopotamia. “More are coming.”
History evolves. I thought this in front of the Digiturk satellite dish built into the wall of Mar Gabriel.
I thought it, too, when I stood outside an old chapel at Deir Zafaran and watched Father Stefanos awkwardly explain that more than a thousand years ago “this chapel was for the slaves because the monks worshipped separately, but this is an old tradition and we would not do this anymore.” And I thought it inside Deir Zafaran’s monastic cells, which were under renovation: The showers being installed were equipped with built-in radios that picked up Turkish pop songs—something the seventh-century founders would never have envisioned.
In its quest for membership in the European Union, Turkey has loosened restrictions on its minorities, and the Suriani are enjoying their new freedoms. The Suriani have also received the increased attention of Western politicians. The month before my visit, Prince Charles had visited Deir Zafaran, and the US ambassador to Turkey, European parliamentarians, and others have stopped in as well.
Father Stefanos offered me a cup of tea before escorting me to the road. He was upset that there was no one to give me a ride back to Mardin, but I assured him it was a good day for a walk. And indeed it was—a newly laid road with a bright white stripe down the middle; a sunny, blue sky with a smattering of clouds; a cup of tea and fellowship still fresh in my mind. Just before we said goodbye, Father Stefanos said one last thing, “When you get to Mardin you should visit the churches.”
Two hours later, in the courtyard of Mardin’s Church of the Forty Martyrs, four young girls giggled at my approach and then yelled, “Marhaba!” I asked their names. One was Jennifer, a nine-year-old Suriani, and the other three were her Muslim friends. Around the church was last week’s snow, shoveled into massive piles that looked as if they would last forever.
But at the base of each, water trickled in tiny rivulets down the stone alleyways. In more ways than one, a thaw was in the air here in the old heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Tur Abdin, it seemed, was the one place in the greater Middle East where the ancient Church, rather than shrinking, is expanding.
Tur Abdin is part of the least-developed region of Turkey, and Christians here will continue to face tremendous economic challenges. Also, the violence between Kurds and government forces, which declined significantly in recent years, has flared up again, and, to paraphrase Father Daniel, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.
But for the first time in their history, the Suriani are feeling valued rather than grudgingly tolerated by the Turkish government. And unlike a visitor a decade ago, who would have found a vanishing church, today’s guest will witness a tenacious church, one that is scarred and facing daunting challenges, yes, but one that is facing them with new hope.
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