#7 Current issues: Christians in Syria and Turkey

Festive occasions at Mor Gabriel, 2008  ©MvdB
Festive occasions at Mor Gabriel, 2008 ©MvdB

Three books that were published in 2012 and 2013 deserve attention, even if the ‘current’ in these books is that of three years ago. The first is that of Najib Awad, now a professor at Hartford Seminary, and born and raised in Syria. His book, And Freedom Became a Public-Square: Political, Sociological and Religious Overviews on the Arab Christians and the Arabic Spring, which was published in 2012, was the first, and, as far as I am aware, so far the only book that was published on the role of Christians in so-called Arab Spring that started towards the end of 2010. It is worth reading, most of all because it reflects the under-publicized perspective of those Christians of Syria and elsewhere who full-heartedly supported the cause of the uprisings, and who were willing to accept the resulting Islamist governments (at the time of writing Egypt’s elections predicted the imminent victory of the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties) as a necessary transitional phase towards a democratic Middle East. Though with hindsight we know this phase to be considerably longer and much more violent that could be foreseen in 2012, the gist of Awad’s conclusions still holds: the need for change which in one way or another includes the acceptance of a greater role of Islam in public life, under-girded, however, by a truly inclusive dialogue that seeks to create societies that allow for participation of the great variety of people that always have lived in this part of the world– Christians and Muslims of all shades and colors, Jews, Yezidees, Druze and adherents of whatever other religion or worldview one is at home. According to the author, rather than turning to the west and isolating themselves from the rest of society out of fear for their compatriots, Christians should wholeheartedly (though not naively) initiate and engage in this dialogue – for their own sake and for that of society as a whole. (A full review will be published in one of the upcoming volumes of JECS.)

The other two books, published in 2012 and 2013, concern the situation of the Syriac Orthodox Christians of the Tur Abdin region in southeast Turkey. The first is an overview of the discussions surrounding one of the oldest monasteries in the world, Mor Gabriel (aka Qartmin), edited by Pieter Omtzigt, Markus Tozman and Andrea Tyndall: The Slow Disappearance of the Syriacs from Turkey, and the Grounds of the Mor Gabriel Monastery. The volume provides a great deal of information about the lawsuits that took place in the last years trying to expropriate considerable parts of the grounds of the monastery, in addition to a variety of longer and shorter articles introducing the reader more generally to the history of Christianity in this region and of Mor Gabriel in particular. While this is a valuable addition to the documentation of an issue that has not been concluded (part of the disputed lands have been returned to the monastery in 2013/2014, but not all), one of the shortcomings of the volume is that the explanatory narrative is almost exclusively that of the persecution of Christians in Turkey, a persecution that is supposed to have started long before the genocide of the 1915, and to have continued all through the twentieth century.

Such an interpretation overlooks, first of all, many periods of relative calm, during which life in Tur Abdin certainly was difficult, but no more difficult for Christians than for other poor farmers in the eastern provinces. It also overlooks the fact that some characteristics of the position of the Syriac Orthodox in Turkey are not necessarily the result of marginalization impressed upon them by others, but may also be the consequence of the political choices of its leaders, choices that at the time (e.g. during and after Lausanne 1923) might have seemed wise, but at a later stage proved less so. It most importantly overlooks the fact that in many ways it is the amazing recovery of the region, as a result of the stabilizing of the region after the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and the ensuing Turkish politics to develop Eastern Anatolia and allow more freedom to religious and linguistic minorities, that allowed Mor Gabriel to recover and expand after decades of stagnation. It is that expansion and increased visibility of the Syriac Christians in the region that in all likelihood constituted one of the factors that stimulated those in the region to start these lawsuits in the first place.

Such very local tensions and resentments probably were exacerbated by the involvement of the diaspora communities in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden that had learned how to mobilize politicians (some of whom contributed to this volume) and scholars for their cause. Notably, only one important article explicitly addresses the importance of the diaspora (Naures Atto, ‘United for the Sake of the Mor Gabriel Monastery’), although the book as a whole results from the cooperation between diaspora, European politicians, transnational NGO’s and local actors. While there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the fight of the monastery and those who have supported it, a more nuanced approach to the contributing causes, with full awareness of the highly politicized context of the lawsuits, might help not only to solve the case at hand, but also to contribute towards enduring and stable relationships between the monastery and its neighbors in the future.

The topic of the fragile and complicated situation of the Syriac Christians of Tur Abdin within the considerable changes that took place over the last fifteen years, is also addressed by Stephen Griffith in his beautifully written Nightingales in the Mountain of Slaves. The author, an Anglican chaplain who lived in the Middle East for many years, had the opportunity to visit Tur Abdin several times, in different seasons, from just before 1999 to 2013, witnessing the changes first hand. His view on these developments is considerably more nuanced than that of most of the authors of the Mor Gabriel volume. While Griffith is aware of the subtle and not so subtle societal discrimination of Christians in Turkey, of the remnants of feudal patterns that sometimes work in the favor of Christians and sometimes against them, and of the squabbles and fights of the Christians among themselves, he also recognizes the goodwill of most of the parties involved, the interesting new developments and the opportunities for cooperation and mutual understanding between Christians and their neighbors. Clearly, we need more explanatory narratives than merely that of ‘persecution’.

The nightingales in Griffith’s title refer to all those things easily overlooked and only understood after many visits, just like the beautiful birdsong that he heard consciously long after his first visit. Previously overlooked, these birds and their song become the author’s symbol of hope for the region and its Christians, as an essential part of the rich tapestry of life, of whose manifold facets can not be taken in all at once. With tensions building up again in the area, let us hope that the nightingales will continue to let themselves hear.

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