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Christians Return to Native Turkey

The government has helped resettle Syrian Orthodox member in their home villages.

August 10, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

KAFRO, Turkey — When Yakho Demir, left this sunbaked village about 30 years ago for Germany, he vowed that one day he would return.

"Everyone thought I was dreaming," said the weather-beaten 50-year-old welder, pointing at a field of crumbling stone structures. "But I am back to rebuild my home, to die in it and, God willing, I shall."

Demir is among hundreds of Syrian Orthodox Christians living in Europe, who have sought to come back and resettle villages across Turkey's impoverished provinces. The Syrian Orthodox community, which numbered an estimated 50,000 in the mid-20th century, has shrunk to about 20,000.

Many like Demir left in the 1960s and '70s for economic reasons. Some fled because of the battles between Turkey and separatist Kurds that created a crossfire.

"We have survived war, poverty, pressure," said Timoteus Samuel Aktas, the combative Syrian Orthodox archbishop responsible for Mor Gabriel -- the world's oldest functioning monastery. Built 1,600 years ago, the monastery stands on a bleak hilltop outside the township of Midyat, which includes the village of Kafro.

Clad in a scarlet habit, with matching socks, Aktas has spearheaded what was until recently a fruitless campaign to discourage his flock from leaving the region. "Things are finally changing -- my people are coming back," he said during a recent interview.

The new climate of tolerance stems in part from this predominantly Muslim nation's desire to become a member of the European Union. Turkey's abysmal human rights record, compounded by repressive policies toward the country's more than 12 million Kurds and Syrian Orthodox Christians, has been cited by EU governments as an obstacle to the country's accession to their club.

The EU's decision, however, to bestow official candidacy status to Turkey in 1999 encouraged the government of leftist then-Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to enact a series of sweeping democratic reforms.

The process of change was helped along by a unilateral cease-fire declared by the Kurdistan Workers Party rebel group, or PKK, after the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the same year. Aside from sporadic clashes, the fighting has virtually stopped. "Emergency rule," a euphemism for quasi-military government throughout the war-ravaged Kurdish provinces, has now been lifted.

"The atmosphere of peace has played a significant role in encouraging our people to want to return," said Erol Dora, an Istanbul-based Syrian Orthodox Christian lawyer.

The psychological turning point came in 2001, he said, when Ecevit officially invited Syrian Orthodox Christians of Turkish origin to return home. Emboldened by the offer, about 17 Syrian Orthodox Christian families in Sweden, Switzerland and Germany, who had emigrated from Kafro, approached the government to rebuild their village and were quickly given permission.

"Our government is doing everything within its means to encourage our Christian brothers to come back," said Temel Kocak, the provincial governor with administrative authority over the Midyat area. "They are part of the cultural mosaic that is Turkey. We welcome their presence."

According to Kocak, the government has since 2001 authorized the resettlement of 129 villages, most of them destroyed or abandoned during the insurgency. His office has been providing building materials, water and electricity, as well as farm animals, free to returnees.

"If we are successful, then the others will find the confidence to follow us here," said Garabet Demir, 35, a construction worker who left Kafro for Germany in 1993 at the peak of the Kurdish insurgency. Remaining residents were forced to abandon the village two years later, when government forces said they could no longer guarantee the locals' security.

The village fell into ruin, and surrounding fields were taken over by neighboring Kurds. Gun-toting Turkish soldiers deployed in and around Midyat are a grim reminder of the violence that claimed more than 30,000 lives.

Not everyone here shares the governor's enthusiasm for the Syrian Orthodox Christians. In June, one of the holiest churches in Midyat was sprayed with graffiti.

Resul Tosun, a lawmaker from the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, in a recent article in the pro-establishment daily Milliyet accused the group of posing a "potential threat." He warned that Syrian Orthodox Christians might try to claim land and eventually autonomy from the Turkish state.

He was referring to a law passed by the current government in line with EU-oriented reforms. The measure permits non-Muslim religious foundations to purchase land in Turkey, a right that was in effect repealed in 1936.

In Kafro, welder Demir says a priority is to repair a stone church dating from the 5th century. Reconstruction of the entire village is expected to be completed by mid-2004. Eventually, Demir said, residents would resume grape cultivation and produce wines for export. Plans include building a hotel to attract pilgrims visiting numerous monasteries and churches in the region.

Archbishop Aktas, meanwhile, argues that a law approved by the parliament in July that eases bans on teaching local languages other than Turkish will mean that the Syrian Orthodox Christians no longer have to resort to learning their native Aramaic -- said to have been spoken by Jesus -- in secret.

"I have never felt this hopeful," he said.

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