Bleak Christmas for Christian Syrians in historic Turkish town

Many Syriac refugees in Mardin chose to live outside Christian camps due to jihadist fears

A small congregation and priest pray at the Syriac Orthodox monastery in Mardin, Turkey. Photograph: Tarik Tinazay/AFP/Getty

A small congregation and priest pray at the Syriac Orthodox monastery in Mardin, Turkey. Photograph: Tarik Tinazay/AFP/Getty

 

The sound of spoken Arabic rings out in the December morning air along the narrow alley behind Mardin’s Saint Shmuni Church. In a quaint home, metres from the church, two families of Assyrian Christians from Syria lay out matter-of-factly how their lives have fallen apart over the past four years.

“Myriam”, from Hassakeh in northeast Syria, moved to the ancient town of Mardin in south Turkey six years before the outbreak of revolt in 2011. A Syriac Orthodox Christian, she says all her family members remain in Hassakeh, where the kidnapping of well-to-do Christians has become commonplace.

“My cousin, in his 50s, was beaten badly and given only dry bread to eat for two months,” she said. He was released after the kidnappers were given 12 million Syrian lira (€30,000). The constant, menacing threat from Islamic State jihadists, who prize Christian girls, lingers above the entire community, she says.

Her cousin “Kinda” fled Hassakeh last March and spent the summer in Lebanon. Today, Myriam and Kinda – who have asked me not to use their real names for fear of reprisals against their families – share this spartan if cosy home in Mardin’s historic old town with their two children. Kinda’s husband is in Sweden, unable to work or to send remittances to his wife and child.

They say the local Syriac church gives them 25 Turkish lira (€8) per person every month but in the past they received 100 lira (€31). “Other than the church, no one is helping,” said Myriam.

The Syriac families of Hassakeh and northeast Syria make up one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Today, their faith and way of life face destruction by Islamic State, also known as Isis, and a host of other extremist groups, and also by the promise of a new life and safety in Europe.

“Very few want to stay in Turkey and their biggest problem is getting to Europe, Canada or the US legally,” said Evgil Turker, the president of the Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey.

Unesco heritage site

Built into the side of a rocky limestone hill facing south towards the plains of northern Syria, Mardin’s old city, a Unesco world heritage site, is a stunning example of Artuqid architecture. With new, stylish boutique hotels and gorgeous facades, the district has been transformed by investment from returning expats and the ruling Justice and Development Party or AK Party.

Under the AK Party government, churches and monasteries attached to Turkey’s 25,000 Syriac Christians and other denominational and non-denominational churches have been restored, though sites not claimed by Christian groups, including in Mardin, have sometimes been put up for sale.

St Shmuni’s Church, named after the Old Testament martyr killed along with her children for refusing to renounce her faith, was restored in 2005. Here, an elderly Arabic-speaking gatekeeper unlocks the church complex door with a huge key. Inside, however, there are no signs the feast of Christmas is being celebrated. There is no tree, no decorations; not a soul stirring.

“At home in Hassakeh, we had a Santa go around to the kids’ houses to give out sweets at Christmas, we had all the houses decorated; there was an atmosphere,” said Myriam. “They don’t do that here.”

Outside the system

Christian refugees from Syria have been placed close to their coreligionists in Mardin province by the authorities at the request of the refugees and local Christians but because many fear government-built camps contain jihadists, living independently means Christians are more prone to the pitfalls of living outside the official support system. That, in turn, has exerted more pressure on Turkey’s churches and monasteries, particularly those close to the Syrian border.

“Most of the Syriacs who came from Syria don’t want to stay in the Midyat camp [built for Christians] where they get food and money vouchers,” said Evgil Türker of the Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey. “It’s the organisations and families in Europe and North America that are helping out most.”

The terrifying news from Hassakeh, 90km to the south, has been relayed across the border with increasing frequency this year. Last February Islamic State jihadists kidnapped more than 200 Assyrians in scores of villages north of Hassakeh. Thirty seven were released last month and negotiations for others are reported to be ongoing, but the ransom money paid out strengthens the extremists in other ways.

By May, Islamic State were driven from many areas by Kurdish forces, but not before churches had been damaged. Though some Christians have fought Isis by establishing militias, the threat to the 200,000 Syriac Christians who remain in northwest Syria is constant.

“Syria used to be a very good country – for everyone. We could stay out until four or five in the morning, there were no problems with Bashar [al-Assad]. Here I have to hide my cross necklace when I go out,” said Myriam in Mardin. “In my village alone, hundreds of families have left. I don’t think they’ll ever return.”

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