Arameans search for roots and rights in Mardin
Father Malki Gümüşsoy raises his hand toward the heavens and starts his
supplication in front of the locked iron door of one of the eight closed
churches of Dargeçit, Mardin, a city in southeastern Anatolia famous for
its multi-religious and multi-ethnic character.
Malki Gümüşsoy raises his hand toward the heavens and starts to pray in
front of the locked iron door of one of the eight closed churches of
Dargeçit, Mardin, a city in southeastern Anatolia famous for its
multi-religious and multi-ethnic character. Gümüşsoy represents one of
these groups of Mardin; he is an Aramean priest.
Gümüşsoy represents one of these colors of Mardin; he is an Aramean
priest. Also known as Syriacs, Arameans speak a Semitic language that
dates back 3,000 years and was used by Jesus Christ. However,
80-year-old Gümüşsoy worries about the young generation of Arameans in
Turkey. They face a lack of teachers and schools in which to teach even
He also worries about Turkey's Aramean population, which has diminished
sharply due to mass migration -- primarily to Europe. In fact, two of
his four children have opted to move to Europe.
The 1970s saw the last Aramean family leave Dargeçit, whose former name
was Kerboran, meaning grapes in Aramaic. Now the district is
predominantly Kurdish and boasts a population of 14,000. It is no longer
famous for its grapes, but for heavy clashes between state security
forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is listed as a
terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United
Security concerns in the region are one of the reasons for the massive
migration, but neither Father Gümüşsoy nor other members of the Aramean
community are willing to even mention the other reasons. They prefer to
remain silent. The Aramean diaspora, however, has a different attitude.
Daniel Gabriel, whose parents are from Dargeçit, hails from Australia.
He is a lawyer working for the human rights department of the Syriac
Universal Alliance (SUA), a worldwide umbrella organization for all
Syriac people and organizations. SUA is an NGO in special consultative
status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
My father is not used to speaking about those days, but he was harassed
several times by Kurds. He was almost killed once, so he took my mother,
and they left for Syria in 1967. From there, they went to Lebanon and
finally to Australia, he says.
Gabriel was born there, in the diaspora, like many other Aramean people
whose roots go back to the Mardin region, known as Tur Abdin by Arameans.
Another is Johny Messo, the president of SUA. He is Dutch, but his
parents come from Midyat, another city in the province of Mardin. The
two are on a tour that started in Lebanon and moved to Syria, where they
were received by state officials and the grand mufti. They invited
Sunday's Zaman to join them for their fact-finding mission, focusing on
the situation of the Aramean people.
Arameans want to be treated in accordance with Lausanne
According to Messo, there are no scientific statistics about their
population, but estimates state that there are 25,000 Arameans in
İstanbul. In Europe they number around half a million, but in their
hometowns in the province of Mardin, there are only 3,500 left. Their
Turkish ID cards list Christianity as their religion.
Messo says that unlike the Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities, the
Aramean community was not recognized as a minority group by the 1923
Treaty of Lausanne, the founding document of the Turkish Republic.
Arameans were not able to enjoy the rights and freedoms that were given
by Lausanne, he says, adding that they need to be designated a minority
in order to survive in Turkey.
Since they were not given this status, they were not able to teach in
their own schools. The lack of an official status and its subsequent
consequences were another reason for them to migrate to Europe.
But they have other reasons, too. Meryem Demirel is an Aramean from
Dargeçit who has been living in Sweden for more than 40 years. When I
return to Kerboran for a visit, I burst into tears. I am unable to
recognize the town of my childhood. There is no single person left whom
I know. My hometown is a total stranger to me, she says, adding that
hers was one of the first families to leave Dargeçit.
She says that when she was a child she really wanted to go to school,
but was not allowed to do so. My parents did not send me to school,
fearing I would be kidnapped. The Kurds harassed us. My two brothers
were able to attend school, but I was not, she says.
She works for an Aramean women's association in Sweden and worries about
the situation of Aramean women in Turkey. Their situation is very poor.
They are still not well educated. They don't hold any jobs. We are
thinking about what we can do for them and one of our ideas is to start
computer courses and establish Internet cafes for them, she says.
Demirel is among a number of members of the diaspora who increased the
frequency of visits to their hometowns since the security situation in
the region improved.
But when those like her returned, they recognized not only their
hometowns, but also their land and farms. Some of them had already
fallen into use by surrounding villages, resulting in legal disputes.
Holidays celebrated together
Despite all these problems, the Arameans are not totally unhappy. In
some cases, life for them is getting better. Take, for example, the
residents of the village of Karagöl.
The village was evacuated by security forces in 1995 but is now being
reconstructed. Two families, including some members were part of the
diaspora, have returned to the village after being given permission by
the state to do so in 2001. They are renovating its ancient church,
which dates back to the fifth century and are excited about the
pregnancy of Ruhat Ergün, who was born in Germany, is a German citizen,
was educated there, but has decided to live in the village.
We will not give up our home here, says Hazni Ergün, Ruhat Ergün's
husband. He has to send his children to a boarding school in the nearby
Aramean village of Anıtlı, where
the Virgin Mary Monastery is located.
Relations with neighbors are not always problematic and do not always
involve lawsuits and courts. In and around Mardin, Arameans and their
Muslim neighbors invite each other to traditional iftars (fast-breaking
dinners) during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
We celebrate religious holidays together. Our village has since its
establishment been a mixed village, and we always have good relations
with our neighbors, says Numan İşleyen. His wife, Fehime, adds that
women always cooperate in village work. The village goes by the name of
Altıntaş, and it is here that Gümüşsoy serves as a priest.
When he finished praying in front of the locked door of the church in
Dargeçit, an old Kurdish man approached him. He said his name was
Abdullah Seyid and that he was 73 years old. He also said he was very
happy to see Arameans in Kerboran again -- intentionally using
Dargeçit's Aramean name. He then turned to Father Gümüşsoy and said:
The Arameans were sent away; they were persecuted; it was very brutal.
We later came to understand that the important thing is being a human
being. It is not important who you are, but it is important to be a
member of humanity.
Monastery and villages face court cases
Several Aramean villages and the Mor Gabriel Monastery are facing court
cases over land disputes either with neighboring villages or with the
state, and sometimes with both.
Nail Demirel, who lives in Australia with his five children but spends
his vacations at the Dayro Daslibo Monastery, says there is an ongoing
dispute with neighbors and the case has made it to court.
Demirel says the monastery was once the home of more than 300 priests
and more than 5,000 books but was a scene of a massacre carried out by
neighboring villagers, which left 77 Arameans dead in 1914. He pointed
to a wall and claimed that the bodies were buried behind the wall inside
the monastery, which looks like a castle.
They came here 80 years ago from the upper village and settled here on
our land. With time, they captured our land and now claim to own it even
though we have the title deeds and have been paying taxes on the land.
We tried to negotiate with them; we are six families and they are more,
so we offered them half of our land, but they wanted more. Now we are
all in court, he says.
Their case is not the only land dispute between Arameans and surrounding
villages, but sometimes the state is involved. The village of Alagöz is
facing just such a case. Only a few families are left in this village,
so few that there are only 13 students who attend the small school it is
home to. Most families from here have long moved to Europe, though some
have recently built new homes here. Alagöz's court cases deal with land
registry and forest regulations.
As part of the EU accession process, Turkey set up cadastre offices for
almost half of the country in less than five years. Remote areas and
places where records were not kept well expectedly became the site of
many land disputes. Additionally, new laws called for the transfer of
uncultivated land to the Treasury and in some cases labeled such land a
forested zone. Once this became the case, it became difficult for former
owners to use from the land.
The situation has become complex, with both villages and the Mor Gabriel
oldest active Christian monastery in the world, facing similar court
cases. The monastery won a case against surrounding villages, but lost
another to the regional forestry directorate. Both verdicts have been
appealed, and the other two cases await rulings from the local court.
The lawsuits against the Mor Gabriel Monastery have turned into a
Muslim-Christian dispute since the surrounding villages claim the
monastery is involved in missionary work and acting against the security
of the state. The Arameans think villagers in those villages were
manipulated by circles trying to completely destroy their community.
The court cases against the monastery were a wake-up call for the
community. We decided to cooperate to resolve our problems, SUA's Messo
30 August 2009, Sunday