Syriac Christians, sometimes referred to as Assyrians, are one of Mesopotamia’s oldest faith groups. For centuries, they lived in relative harmony with Muslims, but with World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, new difficulties emerged for those living within the boundaries of the emergent Turkish nation state.
Along with Armenians, Syriacs also faced ethnic cleansing in the period following April 24, 1915, commemorated as the start of the Armenian genocide. On June 15, 1915, the policies of deportation and killing spread to Tur Abdin in present-day southeast Turkey where Syriacs lived in large numbers. Called Sayfo, or the Sword, by Syriacs, the violence resulted in the massacre or exile of two-thirds of the population of 700,000 Nestorians, Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics and Syriac Protestants. Subsequent efforts to create a more homogenous population of Muslims prompted many surviving Syriacs to leave their native lands.
After the war, the Turkish state promised to protect the collective rights of its Christian populations, signing strict agreements to that effect, but it did not keep its word to grant Syriacs minority* rights, and they were subject to many human rights violations in the following years. Although Syriacs supported many of the reforms of the Kemalist regime, they faced their share of repression from this administration. In 1928, two Syriac schools were closed down. The pressure increased throughout the 1930s. The town of Mardin had been the seat of the Syriac patriarch for hundreds of years, but in 1932 the patriarchate was officially moved to Syria. The Turkish state refused to recognize Syriacs as a distinct people and regularly expropriated their property. This prompted many to leave eastern Turkey for cities in the country’s west, as well as Europe and the United States. During the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants that began in 1984, the exodus from Turkey accelerated. With the end of emergency rule in the predominately Kurdish southeast at the beginning of the 2000s, some Syriacs started to return home and attempted to restore their religion and culture. Having lived through repression and obstruction for decades, the restoration of their homes and churches carries more meaning than just the reconstruction of buildings. The renovation of Syriac churches, which started in Midyat, in Mardin province, continues in Nusaybin, another town in the province.
The idea to create a “faith park” originated in Nusaybin in 1999, and concrete steps to build it began about a year later with the collaboration of the Nusbaybin municipality and the Foundation for the Protection and Promotion of the Environment and Cultural Heritage (ÇEKÜL). Initially, the legal owner of the Mor Jacob Church, the Mardin Syriac Ancient Deyrüzzeferan Church Foundation, was a partner in the project. A years-long archeological excavation began in 2000, and newer structures between the church and the nearby Zeynel Abidin Mosque, where the Faith and Culture Park was to be built, were demolished in 2007. The institutions leading the project had hoped that the two structures, having stood side by side for centuries, showed the possibility of different faiths living together in mutual respect in the future. The Zeynel Abidin Mosque is important for Muslims because it is believed that a grandchild of the Prophet Mohammed was buried there. The 3rd century Mor Jacob Church is one of the oldest churches in the world and served as a center for training Christian clergy for centuries. The project also included a plan to teach the theories and practices of both religions in an effort to counter the polarization among different religions and cultures. In fact, the UN’s culture agency UNESCO placed the Faith and Culture Park on its tentative list of World Heritage Sites. However, things changed started after the elected mayor of Nusaybin was replaced with a trustee appointed by the central government.
The primary result of the project will be to bring to light and restore structures of great historical value. It may also help to encourage pluralism in Nusaybin. However, some radical Islamic groups have made moves to frighten those praying in the church. In July 2010, religious fanatics sent threatening letters to those responsible for the church and vandalized church walls with anti-Christian messages. Such incidents show more needs to be done to bring together individuals of different persuasions during the planning and preparation phase of the project. Another aim of the project is to increase tourism in the area, which suffered clashes between Kurdish militants and the Turkish government that continue sporadically. The ongoing project currently draws much attention and brings to light the history of Mardin.
Over the years, a number of incidents have negatively impacted the lives of Syriacs. The priest of the church, Edip Daniel Savcı, was kidnapped in November 2007 by a group that included a state-employed village guard and demanded 300,000 euros ransom for his release. The priest was rescued without injury, but such events show the kinds of threats Syriacs face. The circumstances concerning the disappearance of Hürmüz and Şimuni Diril, an elderly Chaldean couple, on January 8, 2020, remain a mystery. Seventy days later, Şimuni Diril's dead body was found, while her husband is still missing. One day after the Dirils went missing, a Syriac priest, Aho Sefer Bilecen, was detained and later sentenced to more than two years in prison on charges he had assisted Kurdish militants. Syriacs also face property disputes with the government. The land upon which Mor Jacob church is located was seized by the state unlawfully. Like other non-Muslims, non-Syriac foundations have faced serious problems maintaining their property since the start of the Republican era. Furthermore, systematic discrimination against Syriacs contributes to hate speech. An examination of high school history textbooks showed Syriacs are depicted as “traitors” who purportedly cooperated with foreign forces. Civil society organizations have requested the removal of such sentences and paragraphs from the textbooks and are awaiting a response.
* During the Lausanne Conference of 1922-1923 between Turkey and European powers, Syriacs were not given minority status upon the request of the Turkish representatives.