Category Archives: Turkey

The Language of Jesus Under Attack

Attacks on an ancient Syriac church in Turkey constitute another blow to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

According to a press release from the World Council of Arameans, fighting in late-January between the Turkish army and Kurdish militia groups in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir has caused many deaths and extensive damage.

Diyarbakir, with a population of more than 900,000, formerly boasted a flourishing Aramaic-speaking Christian community, but this number has declined sharply over the past 100 years. The city is home to the Syriac Orthodox St Mary Church, which dates back to the third century and was once a center of learning for the Aramaic language, as well as attracting some of the Eastern church’s most famous patriarchs and theologians.

Its priest, Father Yusuf Akbulut, stayed in the church until the last possible opportunity, before fleeing.

The press release quoted him as saying: “When we escaped, we saw so many streets completely destroyed. Our hometown was unrecognizable and it looked like a war zone. We don’t know what has happened to our church, because we didn’t dare to look while we were running for our lives. Now we have little hope left that there can be a future for us, Aramean Christians, to stay in the land of our forefathers.”

Subsequent reports stated that parts of the church walls have fallen.

Aramaic was, at the time of Jesus, the most common language of the Middle East, and it remained widely spoken, particularly among Christian communities, for many hundreds of years.

But recent decades have not been kind to the language. Younger generations in the Middle East, even if they grew up with Aramaic, often ended up mainly using Arabic, the dominant tongue. In addition, there has been a steady exodus from the Middle East of Aramaic speakers – intensified over the past few years with the attacks of Islamic State – with many moving to the West.

Ironically though, the language is seeing something of a mini-revival in an unexpected part of the region – in Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, and they still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And in 2014 the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

It is a sign of hope. But will it be enough? Some experts maintain that Aramaic will disappear as a living language by the end of the century. That would be a bitter blow though it pales into insignificance when compared to a more distressing looming tragedy. Can Christianity itself continue to flourish in the Middle East until the end of this century?

Reflections on a Holiday in Istanbul

Covering the Christian persecution “beat” as a writer can be depressing. On a near-daily basis I receive newsletters from Christian groups such as Voice of the Martyrs and Barnabas Fund, and I scan the internet regularly to check the latest developments. The news invariably seems to be bad, and getting worse.

So it is refreshing to gain a different perspective. I have just returned from a short holiday in Istanbul, and it was encouraging to see that circumstances are not quite as grim as I might have imagined.

Turkey is ranked at No. 41 in the Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The organization comments:

There is a high level of nationalism in Turkey. The general opinion is that a Turk is born a Muslim. As a result, the attitude towards those who convert to Christianity is very hostile and will almost always result in accusations of ‘insulting the Turkish identity.’ This is regarded as a serious offence. There are very few Christian converts from a Muslim background and the pressure on them to return to Islam can be immense. Although the level of violence against Christians is relatively low, four churches were attacked and damaged in Turkey over the past year.

Violence may be low, but we must remember that eight years ago three Christian employees of the Turkish Bible publishing house Zirve were tortured and murdered, with no one convicted of the crimes.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be leading the country down an ever-hardening Islamist path that includes a refusal to take responsibility for the killing of more than a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians 100 years ago.

Yet little of this was visible during my short visit. For example, I was able to buy English-language newspapers that offered translations from two of Turkey’s leading dailies, Hurriyet and Zaman, and encountered a lively debate about the killings in Armenia, with several columnists affirming that it was indeed genocide.

I also read criticism of the authorities for their inability to secure convictions against those involved in the Zirve murders.

Walking through the streets I found a few souvenir shops offering a limited selection of Christian-themed memorabilia. At Hagia Sophia, once a monumental church, now a museum, the souvenir store was selling ornately bound Bibles. I passed a modern church that was bustling with people, and right in the city’s most cosmopolitan district, Istiklal Street, I spotted a Bible Society store.

This is not to say that the World Watch List findings are wrong, and I am also guessing that conditions in rural Turkey are different from those in sophisticated Istanbul. But it is simply to stress this: God is at work, even in the darkness. Perhaps especially in the darkness.

And I suspect that even if I were, somehow, able to take a brief holiday in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or the ISIS-held parts of the Middle East I might come away with the same conclusion: God is at work.

Football Fans Recall Assyrian Genocide in Beautiful Tribute

Football fans have many ways to express tributes during a game, but I have never heard of one that lasts this long.

At a derby game in Sweden between two Stockholm teams, Syrianska and Assyriska, supporters maintained silence for a full 19 minutes and 15 seconds at the start of the match, to remember the 1915 Ottoman Empire genocide, Seyfo, against the Assyrians.

Syrianska Football Club has a fan base among Syriac Aramean people, while Assyriska was founded by Assyrian migrants.

I read about the tribute on the Facebook page of Nuri Kino, who has made a documentary film about Assyriska.

In response to my query, he messaged me: “It was at the beginning of the game; of course there were many moments when we wanted to scream … But everyone was silent. Amazing. Beautiful and powerful.”

I agree. Very touching.

A Perilous Future for Turkey’s Christians

The anniversary of the torture and slaying of three men at a Turkish Christian publishing house – for which no one has ever been convicted – has raised questions about the future for Christianity within Turkey.

At the same time, a report from a prestigious US think tank has stated that “one of the common features of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey seems to be their intolerance of churches.”

In April 2007 three Christian men – two of them Turks and the third a German national – were tied to chairs then stabbed repeatedly at the Zirve publishing house in Malatya, a city in the south-east of the country. The assailants then slit the men’s throats.

Despite a flurry of investigative activity and even some arrests, no one has ever been convicted of the murders. Those arrested were later released.

It has now led several Turkish newspapers to question the country’s justice system. The Radikal newspaper interviewed a friend of the murdered men who said: “I can’t say what is not true. We have seen once again that there is no justice for Christians in Turkey.”

The Zaman newspaper interviewed Suzanne Geske, wife of the slain German national, who said she and her children had forgiven the murderers. But the newspaper also wrote: “Geske added that even though the motto ‘Justice is the foundation of the state’ is written on the walls of all courts in Turkey, the Zirve case has proved otherwise.”

Writing for Turkey’s Cihan News Agency, Charlotte McPherson said simply: “A huge disappointment on behalf of justice has occurred again.”

Meanwhile, in a brief report from America’s Gatestone Institute titled “Churches in Turkey on the Verge of Extinction,” a Turkish journalist noted that only about 120,000 Christians remained in the country, and that they do not enjoy the same rights as the Muslim majority.

He concluded: “Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and reportedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.

“All this is reminiscent of what ISIS and other jihadist armies have been doing in the Middle East. In Turkey, the remaining Christian population, the grandchildren of genocide survivors, are still exposed to discrimination. The old habits of Ottoman Turks do not seem to die.”