The battle to preserve an ancient Syriac monastery (featuring the sacred digits of a 7th century abbot)


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Christians have lived in these parts since the dawn of their faith. But they have had a rough couple of millennia, preyed on by Persian, Arab, Mongol, Kurdish and Turkish armies. Each group tramped through the rocky highlands that now comprise Turkey’s southeastern border with Iraq and Syria.

The current menace is less bellicose but is deemed a threat nonetheless. A group of state land surveyors and Muslim villagers are intent on shrinking the boundaries of an ancient monastery by more than half. The monastery, called Mor Gabriel, is revered by the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Battling to hang on to the monastic lands, Bishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas is fortifying his defenses. He’s hired two Turkish lawyers — one Muslim, one Christian — and mobilized support from foreign diplomats, clergy and politicians.

Also giving a helping hand, says the bishop, is Saint Gabriel, a predecessor as abbot who died in the seventh century: “We still have four of his fingers.” Locked away for safekeeping, the sacred digits are treasured as relics from the past — and a hex on enemies in the present.

A friend who visited Mor Gabriel in December recently forwarded the following on this recent story in the Wall Street Journal:

It is important that people know what’s happening and understand the history, and hopefully, we can contribute to the protection of an ancient site whose heritage, like so much in the Middle East, belongs
to the entire world.
South of the Euphrates, in upper Mesopotamia, on the border with Syria and Iraq, lies a region which Syriac Christians or the Suriani people call Tur Abdin, the Mountain of God’s Servants. This is the ancestral homeland of the Suriani, living descendants of the ancient Assyrians and Aramaeans, who embraced Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era. Their liturgical language is Suryoyo or Syriac, a version of Eastern Aramaic, and their vernacular is Turoyo, or “the language of the mountains.” Traditionally farmers and traders, they have a rich history of artistic and literary production in the Syriac language, which holds a special place in Christian tradition since, of all the Semitic languages, it is the closest to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and the first disciples. Those of you who know some Hebrew or Arabic will hear a familiar sound: hello is “shlomo aleicho,” and thank you is “taudi,” and in their liturgy you’ll frequently hear the blessing “amin baruch mor,” “amen blessed is the lord.”

They’ve suffered a great deal throughout their history. First, their church was declared heretical after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which led to persecutions by the Byzantines; in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Persians swept through Mesopotamia and eastern Anatolia and massacred many Assyrians. With the advent of Islam, their situation improved, since the Muslims were more tolerant of minority Christian churches than the Byzantines. Then, the Crusaders came, and they suffered persecutions because they were considered heretics. The Mongols were perhaps the worst, and Timur also distinguished himself
by massacring many Assyrian Christians in order to avoid being associated with the “infidel” ways of his Mongol ancestors. The Ottomans improved their lot, but in the 20th century they suffered the greatest blow in their history: during the Armenian genocide, local Kurds branded them together with the Armenians and, with the help of the Ottoman army, killed up to 200,000 Suriani Christians as well as
Assyrians belonging to other churches. Few know about the Assyrian genocide, but the fate which they suffered was as bad as that of the Armenians, and 1915 was the beginning of the dispersions and exile
that have marked their history in the 20th and now the 21st century.
They refer to 1915 as Shato d’Sayfo, the year of the sword. Up to then, they had made up a substantial part of the local population, and both the towns of Mardin and Midyat had strong Christian communities.
Many Suriani fled to Syria, and Ataturk expelled their Patriarch from Mardin; the patriarchate is currently located in Damascus, and throughout Syria, the surname Mardini and Midyati is a testament to
the historical origins of the Suriani living here.

During the civil war with the PKK in eastern Turkey that raged in the eighties and nineties, many Suriani were killed or fled. They were caught in the crossfire and viewed with suspicion both by the Turkish
government and the local Kurds. It goes without saying that they suffered severely during this period. But the state too was hostile towards them. Not recognized as an official minority, unlike the Jews,
Armenians and Greeks, in the darkest days of Kemalism, monks were even jailed for teaching Syriac.

In a land that once had several hundred thousand Suriani, there are now only five thousand left, and yet, the indignities continue. I visited the monastery of Mor Gabriel last December when the abbot, Bishop Shmuel Aktas, told me of a land dispute with neighboring Kurdish villages, They want to take a large swath of land from this ancient monastery, which was founded in 397 C.E. by two Syriac monks,
Shmuel and Shemun, making it one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. But this doesn’t mean much to their neighbors, who would like to take a good portion of their land and allocate it to their
villages for development purposes. This is an indignity directed against minorities in Turkey and a crime against an ancient people and their culture. Things seemed to be getting better after the cessation
of hostilities with the PKK in 2000, and many Suriani returned from abroad. But now, one of their holiest sanctuaries is being threatened, and the signal from their neighbors is clear: that they aren’t welcome in Turkey, or, if they want to live in their land, they should be satisfied with the status of second class citizens whose culture isn’t respected. The case is currently before a local court in Midyat, and the judge’s final decision has been postponed until next month.

Please inform your friends and relatives; if you can, write to your congressmen and senators. Let the Turkish government know how important this case is and that the world cares about the rights of
minorities in Turkey. It would be a great loss for the world to see this ancient community suffer another blow in its long history of defeat and persecution, and the consequences could endanger their very
presence in their ancestral homeland.

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