Coming Home

Syriac Christians return to their homeland in Turkey

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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For the few dozen Christians living in villages near the ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mar Evgin, the cliffhanging sanctuary represents hope. As they gaze on it at night, bathed in light, they know their church is with them. On those nights when the electricity fails and the monastery remains in darkness, they panic.

“They call up the monastery asking, ‘Why is there no light?’ ” says the Rev. Joaqim Unfal, the sole monk in residence, who runs the monastery with a handful of lay people.

Mar Evgin dates to the fourth century and is one of the first monasteries built in Tur Abdin, the “mountain of the servants of God’ in Syriac. Despite the vicissitudes of fortune over 16 centuries — Roman persecutions, Arab Muslim incursions, prosperity, Timur the Lame’s assault, and centuries of obscurity — Tur Abdin remained the historic heart of Syriac Christianity. By 1915 the region, which spans two southeastern provinces of modern Turkey and lies along the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, included hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic.

Yet the events of the Saifo (or “sword” in Syriac), the term used by Syriac Christians to describe the genocide of Christians that began in 1915, altered Tur Abdin. Together with Armenians and ethnic Greeks, Turkey’s Christian population was devastated by a campaign of massacre and forced emigration that nearly wiped out the Christian inhabitants of an unraveling Ottoman Empire.

In the 1980’s, surviving Christians and their descendants found themselves caught in the crossfire between armed members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and the Turkish state, a vicious 15-year conflict that raged until a cease-fire in 1999.

By the turn of the 20th century, Christianity in Tur Abdin had all but vanished — its longstanding Christian majority reduced to a tiny minority of some 3,500 people, and its ancient monasteries relegated to lonely outposts on the periphery of Christendom.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Evgin’s lofty mountain perch, Father Joaqim can see the plains of Syria and Iraq stretch out below, continuing on to the horizon. There, war, civil strife and the rise of ISIS have caused untold misery and the dramatic flight of peoples, including the depletion of indigenous Christian populations. Many see these events as the veritable extinction of Christianity in its birthplace.

However, events in Turkey in recent years offer a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union led to significant international pressure on the nation to protect better its minorities. Meanwhile, abroad, members of the Syriac Christian diaspora collaborated to bring people and resources back to their ancestral homeland.

Today, undeterred by the horrors of war on the horizon, hope abounds in Tur Abdin, its people looking to a brighter future. Indeed, after a century of loss, many now view Tur Abdin as cradle of rebirth.

“I always have hope,” says Father Joaqim, who as a child left Turkey with his family and settled in the Netherlands. “We should not disconnect the hope. Hope should always stay alive.”

Among symbols of hope for local Christians, Mar Evgin distinguishes itself.

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