Syrian Christians take shelter in Istanbul church

Ali Da?lar – Istanbul
The Meryem Ana (Mother Mary) Church of the local Syriac community in Istanbul’s Samatya neighborhood is hosting Syrian Christian refugees, including Syrian Armenians and Berbers.
A group of Syrian Christian refugees has taken shelter in an Istanbul church, returning to Turkey almost 100 years after their ancestors were forced from Anatolia by the Ottoman Empire.

The Meryem Ana (Mother Mary) Church of the local Syriac community in Istanbul’s Samatya neighborhood is also hosting Syrian Armenians and Berbers. Turgay Al?n???k, the manager of the foundation for the Syriac community, told Hürriyet that the number of refugees taking shelter in the church was constantly changing. The church provides refuge for all, regardless of their religion or sect, Al?n???k added.

Said, an Armenian Catholic refugee at the church, told Hürriyet that his grandfather was among those who were deported to Syria by the Ottomans in 1915 from the southeastern Turkish town of K?z?ltepe.

“Wherever we go, we’re foreigners. But Syria is our home,” Said said, adding that his wife had already received a visa and had gone to Sweden.


Said served Hürriyet’s correspondent a cup of ‘Syrian tea’ at the Meryem Ana Church

The church lies on a street in Samatya, a down-at-heel neighborhood in Istanbul’s Fatih district. Christian refugees there eat twice a day, while staying in the church’s outhouse and passing the time in the nearby park.

It was meal time when Hürriyet visited the church. The menu included bulgur rice with lentils, hummus, and Shepherd’s Salad, which is a “made-in-Turkey” combination of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers and flat-leaf parsley.

Said, who once owned a restaurant in the eastern Syrian city of al-Hasakah, is responsible for cooking duties at the Istanbul church, and everyone loves his food. “Said shoulders all the burden, God bless him,” Al?n???k said.

Said’s restaurant in al-Hasakah, which was once serving 1,500 guests every day, has been plundered and destroyed amid the carnage of Syria’s civil war.


Lunch time at the church

While having his lunch, Syrian lawyer Lahdo spoke of how he had fled his country and taken refuge in Turkey, along with more than 1 million of his compatriots. As a Qamishlo resident who graduated from Aleppo University, his five-year legal career in Syria was ended abruptly by the war, and he fled to Istanbul via Damascus and Beirut.

“They were stopping vehicles while we were going to the city of al-Hasakah, demanding money and killing those who didn’t pay with machine guns. There was no security left. No electricity, no water, no life; everything was gone,” Lahdo said.

“Bashar al-Assad has some share of the guilt, but it was the outsiders who really stirred the country. When other countries got involved, things got out of hand,” he added, stressing that as a minority, Christians became the first target of the rebels.

Three musician brothers play Syriac songs in the church. They are able to earn some money in Istanbul playing Turkey’s popular arabesque songs at weddings, but they too dream of getting a visa and leaving for Sweden. Still, they vowed that one day they would return to their country.


The three musician brothers with Hürriyet correspondent Ali Da?lar

74-year-old Hasina Georgis said she fled al-Hasakah, where she was living alone, to soothe the concerns of her children, who all live abroad. “Syria is our country, I will return one day. God willing, all young people will find safety,” she says.

Georget, 58, is together with her two 38-year-old twin children in Istanbul. “We had no means to live in Syria. Opposition fighters were bombing homes too, and we heard that they were beheading people in their sleep. The al-Assad government was good to us, it was the outsiders ruined everything,” Georget said.

Hasina Georgis