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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.


Father 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 basic literacy.

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 States.

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 Monastery, the

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 says.

30 August 2009, Sunday


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