Iraqi Christians find sanctuary in Istanbul

By Thomas Grove

ISTANBUL, July 17 (Reuters) – Every Sunday the basement chapel of one of Istanbul’s largest churches echoes to the sound of slow chanting in Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Jesus.

The 300 worshippers, all Iraqi Christians, have come here to forget the Muslim sectarian violence that drove them from their war-ravaged homeland. Refugees, they pray for a swift onward passage.

“God, watch over the families here. Let them go to the United States, maybe Australia or Europe, even if it may take months. Let them be patient,” prays Father Francois Yakan during the mass in the sparsely decorated, low-ceilinged chapel.

Aid workers and charities in mainly Muslim Turkey, which is also home to ancient Christian communities, are bracing for a fresh inflow of refugees, both Christian and Muslim, from Iraq’s unremitting violence. An estimated 2,000 people flee the mayhem there each day.

Last week, the United Nations’ refugee agency doubled its 2007 funding appeal for Iraq to $123 million, much of which will go to Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Syria. Far fewer refugees come to non-Arab Turkey, but rising numbers have prompted aid groups to boost staff.

“We need more people because the number of people coming is increasing and they will continue to increase. We need more staff to handle it,” said Bora Ozbek of the International Catholic Migration Commission, which has a base in Istanbul.


A decision by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in February to begin resettling Iraqis from central and southern Iraq as well as Christians opened up the floodgates, making Iraqis in Turkey eligible for refugee status.

It also encouraged more people to leave Iraq, with many choosing Istanbul over traditional destinations in the Arab world such as Damascus and Amman.

Aid organisations in Turkey have already processed approximately 3,000 immigrants from Iraq, the majority of them Christian, and thousands more are waiting to be processed. Others will not apply for asylum but hope to remain in Turkey or move on to third countries.

“The Christian Iraqis come here because they think their applications will get processed faster, that because there are fewer of them it will be easier,” said Belinda Mumcu of the Vatican-backed charity Caritas.

That is what Mazen Massoud Yelda, 34, thought before he applied for visas for himself, his wife and two children and bought bus tickets to Silopi on the Turkish side of the border.

Now in Istanbul for nearly a year, Yelda makes Muslim prayer beads in a factory near the city centre.

In the Baghdad neighbourhood of Dori, he ran a copier and computer supply and repair store until it was bombed by militants. He says he was targeted because he was Christian and had made photocopies for a nearby Christian seminary.

“It has become so awful, but we have forgotten there is a place called Iraq because it has nothing for us anymore. If we were to go back, we would get killed,” he said.

It is people like Yelda that Christian groups in Turkey mainly focus on. “These people fall into the category of religious discrimination and they have a valid claim, given the violence of Iraq,” said Ozbek of the ICMC.

“Now we are working seven days a week trying to keep up with the applications.”


Father Yakan, who like his Iraqi congregation belongs to the ancient Catholic Chaldean Church, said he began services in the basement chapel of the Roman Catholic Saint Anthony’s Church in Istanbul nine years ago.

Then, many of his flock were Iraqis who had fled during the West’s first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein in 1991. But the numbers of people attending Sunday mass has steadily increased and now reaches as many as 800, he said.

“We are from the same church — from the first Catholic Church, the Chaldean Church … We must help them, they are our brothers,” said Yakan.

Though 99 percent Muslim, Turkey is home to tiny ancient Christian communities, including Armenians and Greeks. There are about 40,000 mainly Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians, who comprise both Catholics and those following Orthodox rites.

Yelda thinks he has two or three months left in Istanbul before he goes to Kutahya, a town in western Turkey, where he will have to live until the UNHCR processes his asylum claim.

Iraqis are regularly transferred to provincial Turkish cities where they are registered and monitored by local authorities before being sent on to start new lives abroad.

Despite the uncertainty Yelda says he has kept his faith and is able to joke about his situation.

“We Christians are weak people. We always pray to Jesus for his aid. Of course as soon as we end up in a different country we immediately start asking for help,” he said.