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'There Will Always Be War,' a Monk Declares

November 24, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MARDIN, Turkey

— MARDIN, Turkey -- Chalk from the chisels of stonecutters dusts the black robes of the old cleric. He isn't in the mood to talk. "See Father Gabriel," he says, sweeping the stairs beneath the church. A bell chimes. The stonecutters put away their tools as dusk settles over the brown rock hills and the plains that stretch to Syria.

Shoes scrape across the courtyard, like an echo from centuries past. Father Gabriel, a slight man with a beard, appears, clicking his beads. He is late for evening prayers. But, yes, he will talk to a visitor about the whisper of war -- as in the pages of the Bible -- coming again to the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates.

He lights a cigarette, brushes a fly away.

Iraq is to the east. Closer, below the monastery walls, the tanks and young soldiers of the Turkish army have finished maneuvers. If there is war, they will march to the border, cross the mountains. Father Gabriel suggests that war -- like the wheat harvest -- moves in cycles and rhythms. It consumes. He saw it throughout the 1990s as the Turkish military battled Kurdish separatists. Hundreds of villages were destroyed; 37,000 lives were lost, bodies scattered on hillsides.

A new war in nearby Iraq will bring the same.

"War is 4,000 years old," he says. "I've come to the conclusion there will always be war, from Adam and Eve until Judgment Day."

Father Gabriel sits back. He crosses his legs. His Syrian Jacobite monastery, known as Deyr-ul Zaferan, was built in the 4th century on the ruins of a pagan temple. The stone is the color of honey. Christian Orthodox Syrians once thrived on this land. They are mostly gone, chased away by war and atrocity and borders -- drawn and redrawn -- throughout the centuries. Tens of thousands vanished, persecuted or murdered through the messy arc of time stretching from the Islamic Ottoman Empire through World War I and to the founding of the Turkish republic in the early 1920s.

A handful of Father Gabriel's flock is left. They attend church at the monastery. They pick olives and sweep stones and guard the graves of 52 patriarchs. From here, along mountains carved with caves, they have viewed -- and thought about -- the region's many violent conflicts.

Father Gabriel scratches his beard. He knows the history of the region; the present is more vexing. Safe in his cloistered perch, he ruminates over the world's problems, mixing biblical parables with newspaper headlines and searching for some unwritten thing between the two. He seems nervous.

"I think things will become worse," he says. "The unity of countries is only temporary. One day all these countries will fight one another. Sodom and Gomorrah. They believed in God, but then they turned away from God and received their punishment."

He sighs.

"It's a world of atheists and fanatics."

Finished with his sweeping, the old cleric with the dusted robes sits in the courtyard. His silver cross flickers. He nods to Father Gabriel. Soon it will be dinner. Then more prayers. A rhythm like the wheat harvest.

"The U.S. is the only country ruling the whole world," Father Gabriel says.

"America has on its money, 'In God We Trust.' Let's hope so." He smiles. "But tell me, why hasn't America found the Sept. 11 terrorists? Where is Osama bin Laden? The FBI. The CIA. With all this intelligence, why can't they find them?"

He thinks for a while.



"It's in man's nature. We are weak, so when we get power, we want to use it. That's the problem."

Father Gabriel is content with this assessment. He lets the sentence linger. He is tired and doesn't want to talk anymore. He stands.

"I do have hope, you know," he says.

"I think you solve things with dialogue. If you build a strong bridge, it will stand. We must be against injustice. God is capable of changing everything in an instant."

He smiles. Dispensing solace is what clerics do.

The visitor rises and collects his things. The light from the church softens the courtyard darkness. Father Gabriel's Turkish translator says goodbye. Father Gabriel keeps his eye on him. The visitor also turns to leave. Father Gabriel, his shoes whisking over the stones, sidles close to the visitor.

"I'm sorry I couldn't speak freely," he whispers in perfect English.

"But the translator is a Kurd. A Muslim."

Language is a weapon, Father Gabriel says, a ploy to unmask the enemy. In this part of the world, there are many enemies; syllables and syntax are dangerous things. Christians. Muslims. Jews. They have fought here for centuries, almost as long as wheat has been harvested or bridges have been built. It's best to be suspicious.

"I hope you understand," Father Gabriel says. "You cannot trust the Muslims. America says that, even after Sept. 11, Muslims are just like anyone else. This is not true. I don't trust them. Iraq. Iran. America should kill Bin Laden. Yes, Hussein too."

Father Gabriel's cell phone rings. He fishes for it in his robes but misses the call. He checks the redial button.

"I have to go," he says and scurries up the monastery steps, closing the big wooden door behind him.

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