This is an interesting story: in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire and the time of the birth of the secular Turkish republic, Christians in Anatolia were seen either as kuffar harbi, Infidels at war with Islam, and/or enemies of the Turkish state, for seeking political union with Greece and independence for Armenia. They were massacred and exiled wholesale. Before that, Anatolia had had a significant Christian population, and often a dominant Christian majority, since the dawn of Christianity. My own family was exiled from the crumbling Empire in 1918.
But now, because of the jihad in Syria that Erdogan has backed, many of the exiles’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are returning. Do exiles from Turkey retain refugee status down three or four generations, and have a “right of return”? All I want is a beachfront villa in Tsesmes. How about it, Recep Tayyip?
Seriously, these exiles would be well-advised not to stay in rapidly re-Islamizing Turkey. If Erdogan weathers his current crisis or if he goes but the Islamic supremacist regime stays in power, Sharia will ultimately be re-implemented in Turkey, and the Christians there will find themselves denied basic rights in accord with the Qur’anic command that they “pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).
When Louis Bandak fled the violence in Syria, he sought refuge in the country his grandfather was forced to abandon exactly 90 years ago this week.
Bandak, his wife and two daughters are part of a small but growing trickle of Christians arriving in Turkey after three years of civil war in Syria killed more than 140,000 people.
“Although I had never been here before, it does not feel strange. This too is my homeland,” says Bandak, sitting in warm winter sun outside the 5th Century Mor Abrohom Monastery in Midyat, 30 miles (50 km) north of the border.
While most Christian refugees are in Lebanon or Jordan, countries with which they share linguistic or cultural ties, several thousand have come to Turkey. For many it is a reversal of their ancestors’ flight around a century ago, when World War One and the subsequent building of the post-Ottoman Turkish state made Turkey a hostile land for millions of Christians.
The sectarian strife that has rent apart Syria’s delicate multi-ethnic fabric has spawned a severe humanitarian crisis and driven 2.5 million refugees into neighboring countries.
Turkey has taken in 700,000 mostly Sunni Muslim refugees.
The United Nations does not register Syrian refugees by religion so cannot give an exact figure for Christians who have left, but estimates vary between 300,000 and 500,000, says Mark Ohanian, director of programs of the International Orthodox Christian Charities, which works inside Syria.
Their flight has been driven in part because Christians, seen as largely supportive of President Bashar al-Assad, have been targeted by rebels in some parts of Syria and feel threatened by increasingly hardline Islamist fighters.
Some have sought safety in mountain villages in Iraq’s stable Kurdish-run north, and about 20,000 ethnic Armenians have resettled in Armenia, Ohanian said….
Hardline Islamists are said to be behind attacks on Christians, spurred by politics or money.
In December, fighters abducted 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from the Christian stronghold of Maaloula.
Earlier in 2013, a Syriac Orthodox bishop and a Greek Orthodox bishop disappeared outside of Aleppo.
“Christians are targeted because they are perceived as being allied with Assad, but also because they are natural targets for religious fundamentalists,” says historian William Dalrymple, who has written extensively about imperiled Christian communities in the Middle East, home still to 14 million Christians who trace their roots back two millennia.
Until the war, Syria was a relatively free place for Christian expression, a vestige of a wider Middle East that was more tolerant 50 years ago, Dalrymple says.
“Middle Eastern Christians are going through the period of their biggest decline, and it is irreversible,” he said, pointing to the nearly 70 percent drop in Iraq’s Christian population since the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Erol Dora, a Syriac and Turkey’s first Christian lawmaker in a half-century, says those who leave the region are doing so as a last resort, after they have parted with property.
“By the time they leave, they have usually lost everything, even hope. Their trust that they can be safe again is gone.”
Amid the region’s upheaval, Turkey has become a safe haven.
Tur Abdin, or Mountain of the Servants of God, is a high plateau situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Syriacs’ second-holiest site after Jerusalem.
The center of one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions, some 80 monasteries, most in ruins, dot the landscape of dry scrubland and outcrops.
The arrival of Bandak and other Syriacs has helped swell church pews at Midyat’s 1,600-year-old churches.
Poverty and violence between Turks and Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s reduced an already dwindling Syriac population in Tur Abdin to 2,500 from about 50,000 in 1950, said Heidi Armbruster, an anthropologist at the University of Southampton. Istanbul is home to 15,000 Syriacs.
In recent years, Turkey has sought to improve the plight of Syriacs, pledging to return confiscated monastic land and allowing the community to open its first school in 86 years.
Community leaders say Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has even extended an invitation to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Damascus, now in exile in Beirut, to return to Turkey, its seat since 37 A.D. before Turkey expelled it to Syria in 1925.
Bandak speaks a smattering of Turkish taught by his grandfather, Barsom, who abandoned his farm in the Turkish town of Siverek after his father was murdered by Muslim neighbors. Bandak still recalls the exact date Barsom fled: Feb. 24, 1924.
On the wall of the home where Bandak stays is a simple oil painting, a triptych of a charred landscape with ghost-like figures. It depicts “Seyfo,” the Year of the Sword in 1915, when historians say 250,000 Syriacs were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks during World War One.
Far greater numbers of Armenian Christians were also killed during that war in what both groups call genocide.