One of the world's earliest Christian cultures totters on the edge of
Turkish-speaking drivers were taking us through the Fertile Crescent, that
crossroads of great civilizations, but it did not appear very fertile. On
this visit to eastern Turkey, religious freedom advocate Paul Marshall and
I saw little cultivated land and a striking level of depopulation. We met
the only two monks remaining in the monastery of the village of Sare (or
Sarikoy). They were resigned, calm, and ready for the apocalypse.
Syriac-speaking Christians in this
area have persisted through more than a dozen centuries of Muslim,
Ottoman, and now Turkish rule. They languish between the secularizing
government of the Republic of Turkey and an Islamic culture that views
them as heathen outsiders. The government has long given them minimal
"freedom of worship" while decisively restricting property rights for
local congregations. Nor do authorities allow them any avenues of new
growth—communication, speech, normal press freedom, or economic
Syriac-Aramaic comes as close as any
living language to what Jesus spoke. It is the liturgical and poetic
language of these Christians. Yet authorities forbid Christians on
Turkey's southeastern border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran to teach that
language—nor can their schoolchildren learn any subject in it. Christians
in Syria, by contrast, legally teach and worship in that language.
Besides the secular and Islamic
opposition, modern forces also threaten. Dams for electric power and
irrigation are filling up the great valley of the Tigris, threatening to
submerge lands—including churches and monasteries—on which Christian
families have lived for more than a millennium. In any case, as in the
rest of Turkey, Christians cannot buy property.
In short, the government would be
pleased to see the Christian communities quietly disappear altogether.
Christians have been caught in the middle of a war between the government
and the Kurds. Now it matters little to the government that the Hezbollah
as well as the Kurds are harassing them.
Christians abroad, meanwhile, know
little of their life-and-death struggle.
First Christian Generations
The Turkish government has told the Christian villages, in effect: You
cannot have seminaries in your language. You cannot repair your churches.
Or if you do, you must do it without any help and under local Turkish
Heirs of the ancient Chaldeans and
Assyrians, today these Christians affiliate mainly with the Syrian
Orthodox Church, with separate church patriarchates in Damascus: one
Jacobite, the other Antiochene. The Christian population has dwindled to
nearly nothing in villages that have called Christ Lord for well over 15
No one doubts that there are viable
arguments for continuity between these ethnic Syriac-speaking Christians
and the earliest Christian beginnings. Before Christ, there were Jewish
communities in this area in which the first generations of Christians
One of the major Christian centers
of learning, hymnody, and monasticism during the fourth and fifth
centuries a.d. flourished at Urfa, previously called Edessa (the ancient
Haran). The fathers of the Edessa churches, along with their scholars,
hymn-writers and poets, were lauded and quoted throughout the Christian
world. By the seventh century, dozens of monasteries—some of them with up
to 700 monks—covered the nearby hills. Few Christian families remain
In Nisibis (now Nusaybin), an
ancient city in the upper Euphrates valley (on the river Djada), the
Christian community dates back to the second century. A fourth-century
church there was locked up and abandoned shortly after World War I, when
the community fled south into Syria. For 60 years there had been no
Christians in this church. Now the Syriac diocese has sent a Christian
family from one of the surrounding villages into Nisibis. They live in a
little apartment in the church and keep it from falling apart.
In the church crypt lies the tomb of
Jacob of Nisibis, from whom comes the term Jacobite. Representing Syriac
Christianity, he attended the Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325. Jacob was the
teacher of the great poet, Ephrem the Syrian, whom John Wesley called
"that man of the broken heart."
This ancient church, once so
important in Christian history, now sits alone in an entirely Muslim
culture. I turned my gaze from the sarcophagus in the crypt to the richly
decorated arches, then to the geometric design on the lectern. Marshall, a
Senior Fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, stood with
me by the silent crypt of this deserted church dating back to a.d. 359.
Suddenly, our driver broke into
song, an ancient hymn of the church. His voice was strong and sure,
filling the empty stones with a flood of music, without being prompted.
We asked him what the words meant.
He said the lyrics came from the great Ephrem:
Listen, my chicks have flown,
left their nest, alarmed
By the eagle. Look,
where they hide in dread!
Bring them back in peace!
This church had nurtured Ephrem, the
greatest of the Syriac theologians. After being expelled from Nisibis, he
spent the last 10 years of his life (363–73) in exile in Edessa (Urfa).
The Nisibis church and others in the
area deserve to be introduced to the rest of the world. Yet they remain
virtually inaccessible. Christians especially should have the opportunity
to understand the area's history, poetry, liturgy, and the early growth of
An armed group, the Hezbollah, still
operates in the area. This is not exactly the same Hezbollah that operates
in the Middle East but is related to them. It has frequently attacked
Christian villages in these areas and sought to drive them out. There may
be only a few thousand Christians left in southeastern Turkey.
Caught in a Vise
This community is coming to a decisive moment: either great courage or
complete collapse. Some sense of solidarity with the outside Christian
world would help. Their plight cries out for understanding by art
historians, museum curators, theologians, political scientists, and
sociologists, as well as concerned laypeople.
If Christians abroad began to take
an active interest in them, either through business enterprise or by
visiting, empathizing, and getting to know them personally, the balance
could shift. The displaced Christians of Upper Mesopotamia who are now in
Europe might begin to come back. That could encourage economic
The aggressive campaigns of the
ministry of tourism notwithstanding, the Turkish government has grossly
neglected these ancient Christian sites. The tourist literature nowhere
mentions them. Instead, the government has supervised the demise of
numerous Christian villages or passively watched them deteriorate.
Yet encouraging the government to
develop area tourism would likely be more persuasive than moral arguments
for freedom of religion. Some churches here have remained in use largely
without interruption since the fourth century. As Freedom House's Marshall
remarked, this whole area is a museum—an ancient Christian museum.
The possibility of a new wave of
tourism appears very remote without encouragement from Western political,
academic, and church interests. Through a kind of passive-aggressive
neglect, the government denies access to all except those with insider
connections. If I were a Muslim, I would be encouraged to go on Hajj to
Mecca. But if Christians want to go to Nisibis, someone with a badge is
standing in the path, saying, "Show me your invitation."
Eastern monasticism, music, liturgy
and theology thrived here and spread to much of the remaining Christian
world. These sites contain a precious heritage that belongs not just to
the Turkish government. It belongs to Christians everywhere.
Thomas C. Oden
is a CT executive editor. For more
information on the area and on relief efforts, contact the Syriac Orthodox
Archdiocese of the Western United States, 417 E. Fairmount Rd., Burbank,