Assyrian revival stirs in Turkey

_44316995_aziz-and-semso2031.jpgBy Sarah Rainsford / BBC News, Istanbul In a corner of 21st Century Turkey, a congregation still worships in the language of Christ. At an early morning Sunday church service, chanting in Aramaic fills the air together with the sweet scent of incense.

Men pray standing, their palms open to heaven. Most of the women are behind a wooden lattice at the back, their heads covered in scarves.

These people are Assyrians and the region they know as Tur Abdin was once the heartland of their ancient Christian church.

At the turn of the last century an estimated 200,000 Assyrians still lived here. Today there are fewer than 3,000 left.

But recently, there have been signs of a possible revival.


In the nearby village of Elbeyendi, Aziz Demir contemplates what remains of his home – just the walls and a jumble of loose rocks.

Two decades ago, the Assyrians were caught up in the Kurdish conflict here.

Unwilling to side with the insurgents or Turkish troops, Aziz, his neighbours and thousands like them fled to Europe.

Their abandoned homes crumbled to ruin.

It was just the latest Assyrian exodus from the region. Many had fled nationalist oppression before or left to seek economic opportunity.

But now Aziz and 10 other families have come back.

“It was our dream to return to the land of our ancestors. We had so many comforts in Europe but something was always missing,” Aziz says.

“We also want to prove to other Assyrians that it is possible to return and be settled here.”


What the families found in Elbeyendi though was utter destruction.

Just behind Aziz’s old house is the village church, thought to date to the 4th Century.

It is still standing, just, but unsafe.

Inside, the walls are covered in graffiti left by soldiers who fought here: pictures of snakes and daggers, and a skull and crossed-bones. _44316996_ruinedhouse2031.jpg

Outside, family graves have been opened over the years and robbed.

“It is hard to express our feelings when we arrived from Europe and saw what had happened. We just asked, ‘Why?’,” says Aziz’s wife, Semso, standing in front of the ruins of the house where she got married.

“But the situation is better now. We are trying to look forward without forgetting what happened in the past,” she adds.

On the edge of the old village, the beginnings of a new one has sprung up.

The community has built 17 enormous stone villas so far and a new church will open next year.

The Kurdish conflict has not ended but this area is safe now.

Looking ahead _44317002_saffronmonastery2031.jpg

The Assyrians say Turkey’s accession talks with the EU also convinced them to return.

“We lived through many difficulties here but Turkey is more concerned with human rights now – it is more democratic,” believes Yakup Demir.

“That is why we came back, because we believe the future here will be better.”

But if this return is to prove enduring, the next generation has to be equally convinced – and they have spent their entire lives until now in Europe.

“There is nothing here, just a pile of rocks,” complains 17-year-old Ishok, who was brought up in Switzerland and speaks no Turkish.

He has no plans to stay here.

“There is no internet here, I have no real friends. It is boring,” he shrugs.

A short drive from Elbeyendi though, there are further tentative signs of renewal.

Dayrul Zafaran monastery, the Saffron Monastery, was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox church in the days when tens of thousands of Assyrians lived here.

Today, EU cash is helping fund restoration work on the 5th Century, honey-coloured brickwork and a new archbishop has re-invigorated the spiritual side of life.

Twenty local boys are being schooled in the monastery in the hope some may become the next generation of much-needed Syriac priests.

There is a constant flow of visitors through the gates, many of them curious Turks.


Christians have recently become the targets of a surge of nationalist feeling in Turkey.

Three missionaries were murdered this year, two priests were attacked and one Syriac monk was even kidnapped.

But the mood at the monastery is determinedly optimistic.

“We believe the project of the EU means democracy, human rights and tolerance,” says Archbishop Saliba Ozmen.

“We believe that through this project our community too will be more tolerated. We will be happier people as Turkish citizens,” he says.

With such a turbulent history, the relative stability in this region now has encouraged the Assyrians’ positive outlook.

It has also prompted some community members living abroad to send money to help protect what’s left of their heritage here.

For now though, only a handful have chosen to return to Turkey themselves.

The hope of those pioneers is that – eventually – others may follow.