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Christian Rebirth in Southeastern Turkey Amid Calm, EU Ambitions

James C. Helicke

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HABERLI, Turkey - Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside a seventh-century stone village church as men drank tea and chatted in an ancient tongue similar to the one spoken by Jesus Christ.

These Assyrian Christians, a tiny minority in Muslim Turkey, were waiting for the local Turkish governor who was making Christmas visits. Such visits would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, when the Christian community in southeastern Turkey was caught in the middle of fighting between Turkish security forces and autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels.

But now a sharp decrease in the fighting, and Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, are giving one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities more hope that they can preserve their traditions in a region long considered its spiritual center.

Turkey, which faces EU pressure to grant greater rights to minorities, is encouraging thousands of Assyrians who left the impoverished region to return and rebuild a community that has shrunk to just a few thousand. Dozens have returned so far, Assyrians say.

Gov. Osman Gunes, the top government official in the region, paid a Christmas visit to Assyrian towns and monasteries this year and welcomed those who had come back.

“If there hadn’t been peace, we wouldn’t have returned,” said Ninua’s father, Erden, who spent his first Christmas in Haberli since he and his wife left the village to work in Switzerland more than two decades ago. “We’re here to live in solidarity with the other villagers.”

Erden Saliba said the family of five easily secured Turkish permission to return, but described other difficulties facing Assyrians in the village. Besides such nuisances as frequent power cuts and lack of public sewerage facilities, Saliba said there was no suitable school for Ninua and her two older brothers, who cannot speak Turkish. Unlike such officially recognized religious minorities as Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians, Assyrians are not permitted to run schools in their language, Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Government-paid Kurdish militiamen stand guard at the road leading to the village. In another reminder of the conflict with Kurdish separatists, a sign outside a Turkish paramilitary police outpost at the village’s entrance proclaims, “The motherland is a whole and cannot be divided.”

Saliba said that 30 years ago, around 75 families lived in the village, a rural farming community filled with stone houses, ancient ruins and carved churches. Now only 20 or so families remain. Most have left for work abroad or to avoid the strife.

For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were only the most recent in a series of challenges to a community that traces its origins to the ancient Assyrian Empire, which peaked between the ninth and seventh centuries BC.

According to tradition, Assyrians began adopting Christianity in the first century AD, 600 years before the region was conquered by Arab Muslim armies. The area remains important for Assyrian Christians, and the nearby Deyr-ul Zaferan monastery served as home to the Assyrian Patriarchate until 1933.

Assyrians say the community here once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but that many of them, like Armenians, were victims of mass killings during World War I that the two communities have labeled genocide.

Read this article on the Ekathimerini website (new window will open).


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