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Assyrians Caught in the Middle Between Turkey and Syria
By Davide Lerner

Dayr al-Zafran, the Assyrian Saffron Monastery in Mardin, Turkey. ( Esther Judah)
Mardin, Turkey -- "I am almost tempted to say that we were better off under the Ottoman Empire, when the millet system gave us more autonomy," says Father Gabriel, a Syriac-Orthodox priest whose white beard lies between the black of the tunic and his headgear. He points to the land belonging to the Saffron Monastery, a wonderful stone complex in the Southeastern Turkish province of Mardin -- founded over one thousand and five hundred years ago, it had been the house of the Syriac-Orthodox Patriarchate, whose headquarters is now in Damascus. The Christian community here is one of the oldest in the world, and Father Gabriele explains how, once again, they are going through a difficult time. The Turkish authorities recently reconsidered their position, after having confiscated Syriac properties, including monasteries, churches, lands and cemeteries. However, they have not decided to give them back yet.

"We claimed them back, and initially it seemed that things were going well. The Diyanet, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, had to return the property to the Treasury Department. Now they are stuck there, as in a limbo. The inability to regain them would cause a severe blow to our community."

Father Gabriel looks at the landscape from the top of the monastery walls, his worried gaze on the Syrian horizon. With a one hour drive, one could cross the border and get on the other side, where the war is raging.

"The problem of the Syriac community is that it was not recognized as a religious minority in the Lausanne Treaty in 1923," says Michelangelo Guida, an Italian-Turkish professor at the 29 May University in Istanbul. The treaty put an end to the Greek-Turkish conflict, the latest act of the Ankara liberation war. Then, "only Jews, Armenians, and Greeks-Orthodox were recognized as minorities. For the Syriac, this means that not only they are forbidden from running their own schools and have other limitations, but also that they could have issues with the judiciary power regarding the recognition of their property."

The Syriac-Orthodox community in Turkey has decreased over the years, in the face of serious clashes with institutions. The massacres of young Turks, which killed 250,000 among Syriac Christians in the years concurrent with the Armenian genocide , devastated the community about a century ago. More recently, emigration reduced the number of faithful to only 25,000 people, a number which continues to drop.

The historical homeland of Syriac Christians in Southeastern Turkey is certainly not an easy place to live in. The war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a movement for Kurdish democratic independence which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, stains the region with blood and ends up complicating life for Christians, even though they are not directly involved in the conflict.

"The clash between two kinds of nationalism can only bring misfortune to a minority," says Father Gabriel, in the Saffron Monastery, so beautiful but equally emptied of foreign tourists. Visitors are also missing in the other monasteries scattered in the original region of Tur 'Abdin - "mountain of the servants (of God)" in Syriac -, including that of Mor Gabriel, one of the oldest in the world. Today, these are the lands in between Syria and Turkey -- among refugees fleeing the war and foreign jihadists who want to go fight it, Kurdish guerrilla fighters and Turkish army soldiers, the Syriacs are left to themselves. And they continue their legal battle with the institutions. "Our survival is at stake," says Father Gabriel.

"Today, the main Syriac-Orthodox communities are in India, the United States, Germany, Sweden," he says while walking on the saffron-colored monastery stone. "Some are still in Syria and Iraq, even though the massacres of the recent years have reminded us of the nightmare of 'Seyfo' (literally 'sword', or 'year of the sword'; it is the term with which Syriacs remember the massacres of 1915)."

Father Gabriel arrived at the Saffron Monastery after the monastic stages in Jerusalem and Damascus, home of the Syriac-Orthodox Patriarchate since 1959 (after having been in Homs). He lives there with thirty other monks, trying to navigate the many pitfalls of local politics and praying in Aramaic -- "the language spoken by Jesus" as he likes to point out.

"We were much more in agreement with local AKP authorities, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan's party, rather than with the current pro-Kurdish HDP party, but for sure the confiscation of our property is not good for our relationship with the government," he says.

Within a few minutes' drive from the monastery one can reach the historic center of Mardin. Its ancient stone houses stand under the castle that in the 14th century resisted the advance of Tamerlan, and marks the highest point of the village. Some of them belong to members of the Syriac-Orthodox minority in diaspora. They come back to their ancestral homeland only in the summer, and follow the fate of the community from afar and with concern.


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