Middle Eastern Christians Flee Violence for Ancient Homeland

  • Written by:

Tara Isabella Burton
National Geographic
Photographs by Monique Jaques, National Geographic
Refugees flee Syria and Iraq to Midyat, Turkey, which clings to its diminished role as the heartland of the ancient Orthodox faith.
The fifth-century Mor Barsaumo church in Midyat, Turkey, draws Syriac Christians in what was once the faith’s heartland, as well as refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq.
MIDYAT, Turkey—On most afternoons, Mor Barsaumo, a honey-colored, fifth-century stone church nestled in a warren of slanted streets, draws a crowd. In the narrow courtyard, old men smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, while children kick a soccer ball across the stone floor. In a darkened classroom, empty except for a few desks, a teacher gives private lessons in Syriac, derived from Aramaic, the language of Christ.

And now, the refugees also come.

Advised by relatives or other refugees, newcomers to Midyat often make the steps of the church their first stop. Midyat and its environs—known in Syriac as Tur Abdin, “mountain of the servants of God”—are the historical heartland of the Middle East’s widely dispersed Syriac Orthodox Christian community. Now the region has become a haven as the fighting in Syria and Iraq has forced Christians to flee their homes.

“All Syriac Christians come here. Most of the aid is delivered from here,” says Ayhan Gürkan, a deacon at Mor Barsaumo and a member of the Tur Abdin Syriac Christians Committee, set up to look after Midyat’s Christian refugees.

Picture of Mor Abraham, a Christian monastery on the outskirts of Midyat

Mor Abraham, a monastery on the outskirts of Midyat, is one of many in the area. The monastery donated land to create a camp for Christian refugees, though few make use of it.

Only four of Midyat’s eight churches are still used. Mor Barsaumo is the most central, and hence the easiest for newcomers to find. Its courtyard and schoolroom serve as a de facto community center for local Christians and refugees alike. Gürkan, smoking a cigarette by the church gate, is flanked by two Syrian refugees, Yusep Souleman and Nahir Mirza. Souleman’s grandchildren play alongside local children in the courtyard.

Gürkan estimates that of the 500 Syriac Christians in Midyat, about a hundred are refugees—most from Syria, with a handful from Iraq. Although an official refugee camp for Christians exists in Midyat, built on land donated by nearby Mor Abraham Monastery, few have chosen to live there. This is due partly to the poor provisions, says Gürkan—tents are no defense against the region’s cold winters—but also to the success of the Syriac Christian community at looking after its own.

“They are our brothers,” cuts in Mirza. “They take care of us.”

This care is material and spiritual, says Father Ishak Ergun, Mor Barsaumo’s priest, who is also on the refugee committee. Refugees find housing in the neighboring Syriac Christian Cultural Center, in monasteries such as Mor Gabriel or Mor Jacob, or in apartments the committee helps them rent in the city center.

Picture of Ayhan Gürkan, a deacon in the Syriac Christian faith, reading from a religious book before teaching a Syriac lesson

Ayhan Gürkan, a deacon in the Syriac Christian faith, reads from a religious book before teaching a Syriac lesson, as children toss a ball in the courtyard of Mor Barsaumo Church.

The day before, he tells me, another Syrian family came to Mor Barsaumo. He helped them rent a flat from a Christian landlord at a greatly reduced rate; community members furnished the apartment. The committee raises funds—soliciting donations from abroad as well as from wealthier members of the community—to subsidize rent when families are unable to pay. He and Gürkan also help refugees assimilate: accompanying them to hospitals and registration centers and filling out paperwork with them, including applications for asylum in Europe.

For many refugees, pastoral care is no less important. “We pray for them,” Ergun says. Not long ago, the community held a three-day fast to “call upon God to stop the pressure and to show a peaceful way forward.”

Ergun had just counseled a family that had trouble sleeping because of “the death, murder that they faced in their eyes,” he says. He provided a Bible in Arabic and encouraged them to read the Lord’s Prayer before bed. “After they read the Bible,” he says, they started to find some comfort.

Fear for the Future

Once, Christians dominated Tur Abdin. Monasteries dating to the fourth century dot the landscape: from Mor Gabriel, just outside Midyat, to Deyrulzafaran, near Mardin. But Christianity has virtually vanished from the region. From the 1890s through the 1920s, the Ottoman Empire killed tens of thousands of Syriac Christians, a massacre known in Syriac as Sayfo, which mirrored the slaughter of Armenians and Greeks.

Picture of children in a classroom at Mor Barsaumo Church studying the Syriac language

Children in a classroom at Mor Barsaumo Church study the Syriac language, derived from Aramaic, the language Christ spoke. Because Syriac Christians aren’t a recognized minority in Turkey, their language can’t be taught in the public schools.

Today, Midyat’s Christians are uneasy about their culture’s chances for survival. Because Syriacs, unlike Armenians or Kurds, are not officially recognized minorities in Turkey, they cannot teach their language in public schools. And their status as Christians also marks them as separate from their Muslim neighbors.

“Midyat used to be a Syriac city,” says Gürkan. “Before the 17th century, there was not one single Muslim, not one single Kurd in this area. You see how it has changed. In 1960, there were 1,600 Christian families in the Midyat city center, plus many thousands more in villages. Now there are not even 120 families in Midyat.”

Tensions between Midyat’s Christians and their neighbors rarely boil over into outright violence, but Gürkan remains afraid. “Whenever there is anti-Islamic action in the West, we are blamed,” he says. “We pay the price. According to Muslims, a Christian is a Christian. We are all infidels to them.”

Christians in Midyat have been targeted when tensions flare elsewhere, such as the conflicts in 1968 on Cyprus between Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims and the crisis in 2005 when many Muslims worldwide protested the satirical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons in a Danish newspaper.

Picture of Ayhan Gürkan reading from a book in the Syriac language before a church service begins at Mor Barsaumo

Gürkan reads from a book in the Syriac language before a church service begins at Mor Barsaumo.

In 1968, Gürkan says, “they decided who would raid which house, who would seize whose daughters.” The intervention of sympathetic Muslim neighbors, who tipped the Christian community off and helped guard the churches, calmed the situation. “But we don’t forget that trauma. We still have those images.”

Father Daniel Savci, a monk at the Mor Jacob monastery, was kidnapped by hostile Muslim locals in 2007, although he was later released. Two years ago, Gürkan says, a service at Mor Barsaumo was interrupted by an Islamist who unfurled a Turkish flag. “He could have exploded a bomb.”

The Christian community now suspects the same man of having started a fire at nearby Mor Gabriel. “We know what happened in Syria, in Iraq … we know what the Christian community faced,” says Gürkan. He fears that sympathizers of the Islamic State (ISIS) or other organized groups exist in Turkey.

Just Passing Through Midyat

Many of the Syrian refugees now arriving in Midyat are the descendants of refugees forced to leave Tur Abdin during Turkey’s Sayfo. They return, Gürkan says, with a sense of fear, one that he himself shares. “There is no guarantee that it won’t happen again tomorrow,” he says.

Picture of Syriac Christians attending a service at Mor Barsaumo Church

Syriac Christians attend a service at Mor Barsaumo Church.

Gürkan and Ergun do their best to encourage refugees to stay in Midyat, hoping the influx could bring new life to their dwindling community, but their efforts are often unsuccessful. “We tell them to stay here but they don’t want to,” sighs Ergun. “There are so many Syriac Christian villages in the region; they are empty now. I am telling them that the future of Europe is not clear, either. ISIS can attack in Europe too.”

A former Syriac language teacher who has been in Midyat for 13 months, Mirza is anxious to leave; he believes that his application for asylum in Germany, where his mother and sister live, is on the verge of being approved.

Mirza invites me to join him for tea at his apartment at the cultural center, which he shares with his wife and three children. As we walk through the courtyard, he points out another refugee: a man in his early 20s, recently arrived from Aleppo. He stands on the terrace, listening to music on his iPod. He keeps to himself, Mirza says.

Picture of George Mirza helping his parents in the kitchen of the family's temporary apartment in the Mor Barsaumo cultural center

George Mirza helps his parents in the kitchen of the family’s temporary apartment in the Mor Barsaumo cultural center, where they wait to learn whether they’ll be allowed to move to Germany. The Syriac community has given them food and accommodations.

The apartment is small but well-kept, although little light makes it through the kitchen window. The family members gather in plastic chairs around a computer on the kitchen table, where Mirza shows me his Facebook page in Arabic, along with clips and images he has recently shared, nearly all promoting Syriac culture.

He shows me a chart detailing the similarities between the first ten letters of the Syriac alphabet and Arabic numerals—proof, he says, that our numerical system derives from Syriac. He plays me a YouTube video: a song in Syriac with images of Syriac monasteries.

There is not much else to do here, he says. He cannot work—one Syriac language teacher at Mor Barsaumo is more than enough—and he is prohibited from teaching in schools. His children do not play with local children, even Christians; he feels they do not understand one another. Nor does he feel able to send them to school. “It’s for Muslim people,” he says. “Not for us.”

He waits anxiously for the papers that will allow him to move to Germany. “We can’t be citizens here. We have no jobs; our children can’t go to school; we have no future for our children; and we can’t go back to Syria,” he says. “So the only option is to go to Europe.” But his heart, he says, is still back home.

Picture of worshippers leaving a service at Mor Barsaumo Church touching the cross on the door

Worshippers leaving a service at Mor Barsaumo Church touch the cross on the door.

Refugees in Their Homeland

For the four monks at Mor Gabriel Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, the flight of so many refugees to Europe is a painful reminder of how little is left of their world. A few refugees stay intermittently at the monastery, where they receive free room and board as well as money for doing odd jobs, but many head to Europe.

Here, Isa Gulten, an archdeacon at the monastery, conducts sporadic lessons in Syriac. This time, it’s for an audience of one: a German of Syriac descent studying to become a priest when he returns to Berlin. “You are listening to the original language of Christ,” Gulten says, reading a passage from St. Paul’s epistles.

“As Christians, we suffer doubly in the Middle East,” he says, pointing to the difference with Turkey’s Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. “The Kurds here are persecuted just for their ethnicity. But we are persecuted for both our ethnicity and our faith.”

Picture of candles, lit before a service at Mor Barsaumo Church, reflected in the glass of a framed picture

Candles, lit before a service at Mor Barsaumo Church, are reflected in the glass of a framed picture.

This feeling of alienation in Turkey is particularly painful, Gulten says, because Syriac Christians see Tur Abdin as their spiritual and ancestral home. “It is shameful,” he says. “We are not foreigners. We are people of this land. We have been here since the time of Adam and Eve! The government builds mosques, schools for Islam, paying a lot of money to the imams. We all pay our taxes and get nothing. Not for our churches, not for our priests.” The situation of Syriac Christians long established in Turkey, he insists, is not so different from that of the community’s newcomers. “Truly, we are all refugees.”

For now, however, refugee and local alike keep what they can of Syriac Christian culture alive, as they worship at Mor Barsaumo’s twice-daily prayer services.

As about 50 people file into Mor Barsaumo for a weekday afternoon service—Gürkan and Ergun among them—they begin to chant, in liturgical Syriac, the reading chosen by Ergun: Psalm 91, a prayer for refuge in exile.

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’”