Christians caught in the crossfire: Members of Syriac sect driven from homes

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The Independent Online
TUR ABDIN is an ancient Christian land of stony hills, martyrdom and an almost biblical sense of time. But its living link to the first centuries of Christendom is about to die as the last of the Syriacs abandon their ancestral villages in Mardin, south-east Turkey.

The stream of departing Christians has turned into a flood as they are caught in the crossfire between Kurdish rebels in the mountains and relentless counter-attacks by Turkish security forces. Fewer than 1,000 remain, compared with 4,000 three years ago and 70,000 in 1930.

'Whenever somebody wants something to kick, they aim at us,' said a Christian man in Guntkedi'ito, a village of flat-roofed stone-built houses that clings to the sides of one of the many tumuli rising out of the plain, east of Mardin.

The Christians are mostly Syriac Orthodox, a sect that left the Byzantine church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The dispute was theoretically about the divine nature of Christ. In practice, it divided the church between Greek-speaking Byzantines and Syrians, whose Aramaic tongue is the closest living language to that spoken by Jesus.

More than 300 monasteries once dotted Tur Abdin, whose windswept hills of volcanic rock lie between the Turkish towns of Mardin, Midyat and Idil. Now they have been reduced to two main monasteries, lonely complexes whose carved stone walls rise starkly from the wilderness, watched over by a handful of wary and resentful monks. 'I'm just a caretaker now,' said Ibrahim Turker, abbot of Deir uz-Zafaran.

More than 110 families used to live in Guntkedi'ito; now just 10 families remain to save or sell 11,000 acres of land, which they say is worth pounds 400,000, on the northern edge of the fertile crescent. But as our host said (he was too frightened to give his name): 'Nobody will buy it. Muslim villagers around us reckon it'll be theirs free, so why spend the money?'

He pointed to a village abandoned by Christians in the hills to the north. Fields, vineyards and houses had been taken over by a tribal faction of the government-armed 'Village Guards', state-sanctioned Kurdish gunmen.

Security forces have become involved. In December, the 25 remaining families in the village of Hasane, near the Iraqi border, were told to move out of the foothills of the Cudi Mountains. The bleak peaks are famous among theorists of where Noah's Ark landed, but are better known in Turkey as a stronghold of guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

'We told them they had to leave for security reasons,' said the Turkish district governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu. He insisted the villagers had left of their own accord, but they told a different tale. 'Our village was paradise. The PKK didn't bother us, we didn't bother the state. Then the army gave us 10 days to clear out,' said Hanna Oz, a one-eyed 40-year-old farmer.

State indifference, rising Islamic fundamentalism and local Kurdish villagers' pressure have also proved effective in frightening the Syriacs away.

'Some Muslims want us to stay, some want us to go. We live from minute to minute,' said Ferhan, 40. 'They come and steal our crops from under our noses. You can't say anything or you will be shot,' said Mr Oz. 'Three months ago they kidnapped my 12-year-old daughter Fahima. I'm still trying to find out what happened to her,' said Can, 28.

Many villagers are hoping to join relatives who have emigrated steadily to Europe for years - mainly to Sweden and Germany. 'We are just waiting for visas. The embassies won't give them any more, so I'll go with a smuggler,' said one.

Ancestral homeland it may be, but Tur Abdin is hardly paradise. Poverty has always pushed the Syriacs to seek a better life in the big cities and abroad. In summer, furrows scratched among the pitted volcanic stones nurture limited crops of wheat, almonds, grapes, plums, pears and cherries. In winter, snow covers the bleak hills.

Ice cakes the track leading to the 1,000-year-old village church, kept open by the priest of Bulbul, Yaqoub Guney, a sprightly septuagenarian. He pulls aside a painted altar curtain, its wide-eyed saints showing it to be a gift from the sect's biggest community, the 2 million Syriacs of Malabar, India.

Over the ridge of hills encrusted with Nato eavesdropping devices pointed at Syria - one reason the West does not make a great fuss about human rights in Turkey - lies Deir Zafaran monastery, an even older building on the site of a pre-Christian fire-worshippers' temple. The former teaching monastery is left to Abbot Turker and his assistant.

The history of the Syriacs is not a happy one. Tamurlane's Mongol army is said to have put 300,000 people to the sword. Massacres in the late Ottoman Empire and during the First World War, when the Syriacs' Armenian neighbours were forcibly deported, left even fewer people. Now the community is practically extinct.