Thursday, October 12, 2006


So far in my Turkey posts I've mentioned the persecution of the Kurds and the Armenian genocide, the latter, as of two days ago, enjoying a strange legal existence: if you say it happened here in Turkey you are likely to go to jail, but in France if you were to deny it happened you could also go to jail. Anyway, I now have another ethnic group to add to the list: the Syriacs.

Now I must admit that, before meeting them, I hadn't really heard of them. The Syriacs, though once quite widely distributed, are now mostly found in the south of the country close to the Syrian border around the towns of Midyat and Mardin (and of course in Syria proper). The reason for their persecution is that they are Christians, though they have their own, independent church which broke from the other western churches in 451 over the highly contentious issue of Christ's nature (the western churches claim he has two natures: human and divine, whereas the Syriacs insist that he has only one: divine). They speak their own language which is a modern version of Aramaic (leading to them, especially those of the diaspora, also referring to themselves as Aramaeans) and their liturgy is conducted in old Aramaic, the language in which Jesus spoke and the New Testament was originally written in, meaning that their services most closely resemble those of the first churches some 2000 years ago. Needless to say they are intensely proud of their heritage.

Whilst visiting the monastery of Mor Gabriel (possibly the oldest monastery in the world) I was lucky enough, not only to witness the midday service, but also to have a long conversation with the lay director who spoke excellent English. I therefore got the lowdown on their grievances, how they were also affected by the 1915 genocide, how they're discriminated against by the authorities, how they are treated by their Muslim neighbours (rather ironic given that their neighbours are generally Kurds and are therefore also a disadvantaged minority, but then again people who are bullied often turn round and bully someone smaller in turn), and how their lands and churches are taken from them. Apparently 30 years ago there were 50,000 Syriacs living in the Midyat area and now there are only 2,000, the rest having emigrated to Germany, Sweden and other western countries.

Now it may seem that I am unfairly picking on Turkey as an evil and repressive government when I have travelled through countries with much harsher regimes and barely said a thing. Such criticism is entirely justified, but I do have my reasons. Firstly I have undoubtedly changed during the course of my trip and have probably become more socially aware; secondly I may not always come across every polemic issue in every country I visit, either just by chance or because of communication problems (such as in China with the Tibetans and Uighurs); and finally, and perhaps most importantly, because Turkey claims and aspires to the status of EU membership and joining this club of privileged nations. This is something I am all for as, economically, Turkey seems to be doing quite well, and it would be good for us Europeans to have closer contacts with other cultures and not be so homogeneous. Yet it is precisely on this point that Turkey itself fails the test by no recognising and cherishing the differences that exist within itself. Indeed it is this intolerance, this ugly, selfish nationalism that was the bane of the last century, which caused once (relatively) harmonious communities to fall upon each other in the name of race, religion, language and dubious history. It appeared that such tendencies were beginning to die out in Europe but have unfortunately been undergoing a bit of a renaissance. It's sad to see, especially when it seems so obvious (at least to me) that multiculturalism has so many advantages. Though, to end on a positive note, talking to Kurds and Syriacs here it does look as if things are getting slightly better, mainly due to pressure from the EU for reforms, so let's hope things continue like that.

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