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Assyrian revival stirs in Turkey

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Assyrian revival stirs in Turkey

Aug-30-2010 at 06:21 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Assyrian revival stirs in Turkey
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Midyat, south-eastern Turkey
In a corner of 21st Century Turkey, a congregation still worships in the language of Christ.

Aziz and Semso Demir dreamed of returning from Europe.
At an early morning Sunday church service, chanting in Aramaic fills the air together with the sweet scent of incense.

Men pray standing, their palms open to heaven. Most of the women are behind a wooden lattice at the back, their heads covered in scarves.

These people are Assyrians and the region they know as Tur Abdin - in south-eastern Turkey, close to the border with Syria - was once the heartland of their ancient Christian church.

At the turn of the last century an estimated 200,000 Assyrians still lived here. Today there are fewer than 3,000 left.

But recently, there have been signs of a possible revival.


In the nearby village of Elbeyendi, Aziz Demir contemplates what remains of his home - just the walls and a jumble of loose rocks.

Two decades ago, the Assyrians were caught up in the Kurdish conflict here.

The church in Elbeyendi is covered in graffiti left by Turkish soldiers
Unwilling to side with the insurgents or Turkish troops, Aziz, his neighbours and thousands like them fled to Europe.

Their abandoned homes crumbled to ruin.

It was just the latest Assyrian exodus from the region. Many had fled nationalist oppression before or left to seek economic opportunity.

But now Aziz and 10 other families have come back.

"It was our dream to return to the land of our ancestors. We had so many comforts in Europe but something was always missing," Aziz says.

"We also want to prove to other Assyrians that it is possible to return and be settled here."


What the families found in Elbeyendi though was utter destruction.

Just behind Aziz's old house is the village church, thought to date to the 4th Century.

It is still standing, just, but unsafe.

Inside, the walls are covered in graffiti left by soldiers who fought here: pictures of snakes and daggers, and a skull and crossed-bones.

Outside, family graves have been opened over the years and robbed.

Aziz return to find his home had been reduced to ruins
"It is hard to express our feelings when we arrived from Europe and saw what had happened. We just asked, 'Why?'," says Aziz's wife, Semso, standing in front of the ruins of the house where she got married.

"But the situation is better now. We are trying to look forward without forgetting what happened in the past," she adds.

On the edge of the old village, the beginnings of a new one has sprung up.

The community has built 17 enormous stone villas so far and a new church will open next year.

The Kurdish conflict has not ended but this area is safe now.

Looking ahead

The Assyrians say Turkey's accession talks with the EU also convinced them to return.

"We lived through many difficulties here but Turkey is more concerned with human rights now - it is more democratic," believes Yakup Demir.

The community in Elbeyendi has built 17 new villas
"That is why we came back, because we believe the future here will be better."

But if this return is to prove enduring, the next generation has to be equally convinced - and they have spent their entire lives until now in Europe.

"There is nothing here, just a pile of rocks," complains 17-year-old Ishok, who was brought up in Switzerland and speaks no Turkish.

He has no plans to stay here.

"There is no internet here, I have no real friends. It is boring," he shrugs.

A short drive from Elbeyendi though, there are further tentative signs of renewal.

Dayrul Zafaran monastery, the Saffron Monastery, was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox church in the days when tens of thousands of Assyrians lived here.

It is hoped the younger generation will stay and carry on traditions
Today, EU cash is helping fund restoration work on the 5th Century, honey-coloured brickwork and a new archbishop has re-invigorated the spiritual side of life.

Twenty local boys are being schooled in the monastery in the hope some may become the next generation of much-needed Syriac priests.

There is a constant flow of visitors through the gates, many of them curious Turks.


Christians have recently become the targets of a surge of nationalist feeling in Turkey.

Three missionaries were murdered this year, two priests were attacked and one Syriac monk was even kidnapped.

Many hope the EU project will bring tolerance
But the mood at the monastery is determinedly optimistic.

"We believe the project of the EU means democracy, human rights and tolerance," says Archbishop Saliba Ozmen.

"We believe that through this project our community too will be more tolerated. We will be happier people as Turkish citizens," he says.

With such a turbulent history, the relative stability in this region now has encouraged the Assyrians' positive outlook.

It has also prompted some community members living abroad to send money to help protect what's left of their heritage here.

For now though, only a handful have chosen to return to Turkey themselves.

The hope of those pioneers is that - eventually - others may follow.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/12/28 00:20:09 GMT



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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

Ethnicity, Religion, Language
» Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
» Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
» Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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