For Turkey’s remaining Assyrian Christians, a dream of better days

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Philippe Alfroy for AFP, Mardin
Mardin Mort Schmuni Church is seen with the Mesopotamia plain in the background in Mardin, Turkey, last week (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)
Former exiles have high expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to the country, which begins Friday

Mardin Mort Schmuni Church is seen with the Mesopotamia plain in the background in Mardin, Turkey, last week (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

In a small village in the southeast of Turkey stand two Assyrian churches, one a thousand years old, the other modern, signs of both the region’s Christian past and the determination of those who remain to bring it to life again.

Seyde Bozdemir was born in the village of Elbegendi in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin. Like many of its inhabitants she decided to leave, in her case to Germany. But now she is determined to return.

“Here is our home. It is here that we want to finish our lives and be buried,” said Seyde on a visit back to her home village.

“In the 1980s, we left without a way back. It had become very difficult, almost impossible. But when we dream, we still dream of here. It is for this that we want to live here.”

The Christian Assyrian community in Turkey, which now numbers no more than a few thousand, has been hit by wave after wave of emigration since the foundation of the modern Turkish state in 1923 out of the ruins of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

But hope has not been lost that there will be a presence in the future, with some expecting a small boost from the first visit of Pope Francis to Turkey, which begins on Friday.

The mayor of Elbegendi returned to the land of his childhood after 23 years in Switzerland.

Aziz Demir still remembers the worst years of the conflict between the army and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the late 1980s, which turned the settlement into a phantom village.

“In the daytime, the army was in the streets, in the night it was the PKK,” he said.

“During this period, 50 to 60 Christians were assassinated in the region. We wanted to stay neutral but it was not possible. We left.”

“But now we want to return. To protect our religion and our culture.”

He is expecting great things of the visit of Pope Francis. “The Vatican has to act. The Christians of the east were always sacrificed. They should be able to live on their own lands at last.”

‘Keeping our culture alive’

These last years, 17 new houses have been built in Elbegendi to host the handful of families who, like him, have returned to their origins.

And others are ready to join them, if the current peace talks between Ankara and the PKK end a 30-year insurgency.

The exodus of Christians from Turkey began with the notorious population exchanges with Greece in 1923 under which they — like most of Greece’s Muslims — were sent across the border to make the two new states viable.

The trend accelerated again with the civil unrest of the 1950s and the Turkish invasion of Greek Orthodox-majority Cyprus in 1974.

In recent years, the Kurdish conflict and the economic crises of the 1990s prompted many of those who had defied hardship to remain, to pack their bags.

Now no more than 80,000 members of various Christian communities — including Armenians, Assyrians, Catholics, Chaldeans and Greek Orthodox — are estimated to live in Turkey, a country of some 75 million Muslims.

Of these less than 20,000 are Assyrians, a Semitic people speaking one of the world’s oldest languages who in Turkey largely adhere either to the Syriac Orthodox Church or the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The Syriac Orthodox Church proudly traces its origins back to the early period of the Byzantine Empire in 450 AD.

The Chaldeans — by far the smaller of the two Assyrian communities in Turkey — acknowledge the pope as head of the church after a schism in the 16th century.

Chaldean Christian Adnan Saglamoglu, a jeweler, has decided to stay in the provincial capital of Mardin, where, he admits, he sometimes feels a little alone.

“There are no more than four families in our community,” he said.

“Without the help of those living abroad, we would already have disappeared. But we are trying to keep our culture alive,” he said, proudly opening the door of a church in the city center.

He said he can feel tensions climb “each time something happens to a Muslim” but insists he does not feel threatened and can practice his faith freely.

‘Give us back our history’

The ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes much of being a defender of all religions.

But Christian communities still have no legal status as official minorities. Like the Armenians, they also want official recognition of the scale of the slaughter their community was subjected to at the hands of the Ottoman security forces from 1915.

“Today we still cannot build a church in Turkey, its shameful,” said Ayhan Gurkan, who gives — unofficial — religious courses in a small church.

“We want to be able to teach in our mother tongue and that all our assets, lands, churches and monasteries are returned to us. We want to be full citizens and for our history to be returned to us.”

The Syriac church in Mardin, which dates back to the third century, has been entirely restored at a cost of around one million Turkish lira ($450,000).

“We survive thanks to the money our community has gathered,” says its priest Gabriel Aktas. “We receive no aid from the Turkish state or European funding,” he said.

“But as we neither have enough worshippers or priests we organize mass every Sunday in a different church. Then we provide religious teaching. It is not official but the Turkish authorities let us do this,” he said. AFP