ISTANBUL, Turkey, November 24 (Compass)--Turkish authorities issued a surprise order in October demanding that the ancient Syrian Christian monasteries in Southeast Turkey stop teaching the Syriac language and housing guests in church facilities.
In an official memo dated October 6, Mardin Governor Fikret Guven declared that both monastery classes in Syriac as well as housing for schoolboys and visitors on church-owned property violated Turkish law and should be stopped. Some dozen monks and a handful of nuns remain at the 4th century Syrian Orthodox monasteries of Deyrulzafaran and Mor Gabriel in the Tur Abdin region of Mardin.
Addressed to the chairman of the church's Deyrulzafaran Foundation in Mardin province, the memo was copied to the civil administrators of each provincial district and the gendarme command headquarters of Mardin as well.
The governor cited Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, the 1936 charter of the Syrian Church Foundation and various educational provisions in the country's laws to justify his order.
According to Guven, the quoted statutes forbid the church to teach its language apart from the direct control of Turkey's Education Ministry. The governor specified that the religious instruction currently being conducted by the church "certainly violates [these] provisions."
"The governor is ignoring the fact that this is how for 1,700 years these monasteries have kept the Syriac language alive," one Syrian Christian told Compass. "This is not anything new, that we are conducting religious education in our language." Syrian Christians pride themselves in keeping alive their particular dialect of Syriac, said to be the closest language to the first-century Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ.
"We are not Muslims," commented a church member in Istanbul, who had as a boy attended the religious education classes taught at Tur Abdin's historic Mor Gabriel Monastery. "How can we learn our own religion, our liturgy and culture, in some other language?"
Turkey's Syrian Christians were not listed as a distinct minority under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, when official minority status was given to Turkey's Greek, Armenian and Jewish citizens. For this reason, the Turkish government has never permitted the Syrian Orthodox to operate their own schools, as do the other three religious minorities.
In 1978, under the government of prime minister Bulent Ecevit, Turkey banned the teaching of Syriac and training of Syrian Orthodox priests at Deyrulzafaran Monastery, claiming that the students being trained there were "participating in illegal terrorist organizations for separatism."
However, in a subsequent court case opened by the state against the Turkish Bible Society, Syrian Christians won the legal right in 1985 to publish the Bible, prayer books and even Christmas cards in the Syriac language.
According to church representatives, the two dozen Christian village boys presently taking religious instruction at the Mor Gabriel Monastery are all enrolled in the public schools of Midyat. "In fact there are no schools open in their home villages," noted one Syrian Christian, referring to the ongoing Kurdish separatist conflict which has paralyzed the region for the past 13 years. "Isn't it better for these Christian village boys to get a religious education than to grow up illiterate?"
The governor's memo was also emphatic in prohibiting the monasteries from housing visitors. "There can be no residences within places of worship," Guven wrote, "because places of worship are devoted only to religious rites and worship."
One Syrian Christian commented that the governor's prohibition of guests on church property contradicted "the rich cultural traditions" of both Muslims and Christians. Historically, he said, Middle Easterners have always honored guests as "a gift from God."
"If they are saying that we cannot have anyone staying in our monasteries," he asked, "then what are the monks and nuns living at Mor Gabriel supposed to do? What they are saying is that they want to close down the monasteries, if no one can stay there." In essence, he claimed, this made a bad joke out of Turkey's public claim that Syrian Christians were "an important part of the cultural mosaic of Anatolia."
Although representatives of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Turkey declined to comment on the governor's directive, an anonymous source confirmed that the church had sent an official written inquiry to the Turkish government. "We are ready to open a court case if necessary, so that we can establish our legal status," the source said. "This is not a political issue," he insisted. "It is precisely a religious issue."
Some 70,000-strong in the 1930s, the Syrian Christian minority has now dwindled to less than 2,000 in the Turkish Southeast.
Although the Syrian Christians initially left the Southeast for economic reasons, security became an overriding factor. During the past decade, the violent conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has turned the region into a war zone.
Many Syrian Christians who have resettled in Europe, North America and Australia fault Muslim extremism as well. Unknown assailants have murdered at least 35 Syrian Christians in the Southeast since 1990. Entire Christian villages have since been abandoned, with family homes, livestock and lands sold hurriedly at a considerable loss.
The most recent victims were an elderly couple in their
70s, Iskender and Rihane Araq. They were killed September 24 in their home
in Mzizah village near Midyat by suspected Hizbollah radicals.