One mother told of the
abduction of a neighbor’s child, held for ransom by
rebel fighters in her hometown of Al-Hasakah, which
prompted her family to seek safety for their three young
sons across the border in Turkey. A young man
demonstrated how he was hung by his arms, robbed and
beaten by rebels, “just for being a Christian.”
Violence against Christians is
escalating in the governorate of Al-Hasakah in
northeastern Syria, which is home to tens of thousands
of Syriac Christians, the refugees said.
The region, known locally as
the Jazeera, encompasses the districts of Ras al-Ain,
Qamishli and Malikiyah. With government forces, Arab
rebels of the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters
locked in a three-way struggle for control, the area’s
Christian population has found itself caught in the
While fighting is sporadic,
the region has succumbed to lawlessness, and Christians
have become the target of armed rebel gangs, Father
Gabriel Akyuz, the metropolitan vicar of Mardin, said in
an interview in Mardin last week.
“The gangs are kidnapping
people and holding them to ransom. They are perpetrating
great injustices. That is why Syriacs are fleeing,” he
Several hundred Christian
refugees have arrived in Turkey in recent weeks, with
tens of thousands poised to follow if the region,
currently held by the Kurdish, should fall to Arab
militias, according to refugees, church officials and
representatives of Syriac organizations interviewed in
southeastern Turkey last week.
Bypassing Turkish refugee
camps on the border, fleeing Christians have headed for
the monasteries and towns of Mardin and Midyat in Tur
Abdin, an ancient region in southeastern Turkey, less
than 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from the Syrian border
that is the historical heartland of the Syriac Orthodox
“They are afraid to stay in
the camps. They feel safer with their own people,” said
Father Joseph, a Syriac monk looking after four families
and several single refugees in Mor Hanonyo.
“We are fleeing from the
rebels, and the camps are full of rebels,” said the
mother of the three little boys, a schoolteacher who did
not want to be named for fear of rebel reprisals against
relatives at home.
Many of the Christian refugees
are young men who have fled conscription in the army and
now fear being drafted into rebel ranks if they enter
the Turkish camps, Evgil Turker, the president of the
Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey, said in an
Al Nusra Front “and other
rebel groups are entrenched in the refugee camps,” Mr.
Turker said. “They round up young men in the camps,
sometimes 20 or 30 a day, and send them through the
border fence back into Syria.”
Mr. Turker’s organization has
retrieved dozens of Syriacs from the camps, where some
of them are sent by Turkish security forces when caught
crossing into Turkey illegally. “We vouch for them and
they are released to us on our recognizance,” Mr. Turker
The Syriac community of
Turkey, itself greatly diminished by persecution and
emigration over the last century, has rallied to come to
the aid of fleeing kin and coreligionists from Syria.
Besides rescuing refugees from the camps, the Syriac
community shelters them in monasteries and in dozens of
church properties and privately owned vacant houses in
Tur Abdin. Donations from local Syriacs and from the
large Syriac diaspora in Europe keep the refugees fed
“We can handle it so far,”
said Ayhan Gurkan, deacon of the Mor Barsomo church in
Midyat and vice president of the Syriac Culture
Association, who runs aid distribution in Midyat. “But
God help us if the insurgents take the Jazeera from the
Kurds. Then we will be overwhelmed.”
That is an imminent danger,
according to refugees sheltering in the Mor Hobil-Mor
Abrohom monastery outside of Midyat. While the Kurds
remained in control of the Jazeera, most Syriacs would
stay put, said one young man, who gave his name only as
Gabriel. But if the region should fall to Islamist Arab
rebels, “then not any Christian people will stay there,”
Yusuf Turker, the
administrator of the monastery, said Syriacs on both
sides of the border were anxiously following the
struggle between Kurds and Arab militias over the
“If Ras al-Ain falls and the
militias overrun the region, God forbid, then 40,000 or
50,000 Christians will come over the border in one
rush,” he said.
To prepare for such a
contingency, Turkish Syriacs have solicited and obtained
the support of the Turkish authorities, said Evgil
Turker of the Federation of Syriac Associations. In
addition to allowing Syriac refugees to be privately
sheltered outside the camps and providing aid for their
support, the prime minister’s office in Ankara had
pledged to establish a separate refugee camp for Syriacs
if necessary, he added.
Some Turkish officials
confirmed this. Syriac Christians fleeing Syria had
asked for help from the Turkish authorities “and we will
be happy to help them,” a high-ranking Turkish official,
who commented on condition that he not be identified,
wrote in an e-mail.
“Upon their request, they will
be placed with or near the Turkish Syriac Christian
communities in Mardin,” he said.
Another Turkish official, who
also would not be named, said Turkey was prepared to
build a separate camp for Christian refugees. Such a
camp would include facilities to meet their “religious
requirements,” he added.
Many Syriac refugees,
including those interviewed in Mardin and Midyat, would
prefer a European visa to a place in a Turkish refugee
camp or a cell in a Tur Abdin monastery. “Most want to
move on and leave the region,” Mr. Turker admitted. “But
we won’t help them to do that.”
In fact, the Syriac federation
has asked European embassies in Ankara and the U.S.
Consulate in Adana not to provide the refugees with
visas, but rather to help them stay in the region,
Syriac activists said.
“We are strictly opposed to an
exodus of Syriacs from our homeland,” said Aziz Demir,
the mayor of Kafro, a Syriac village in Tur Abdin that
was recently rebuilt and resettled by Syriacs returning
from the European diaspora; he is also president of a
Syriac association affiliated with the federation.
“We tell every refugee who
comes that he must not emigrate to Europe or America,
but hold out in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, because
emigration means that we will lose our homeland and our
roots,” Mr. Demir said.
Syriacs see the Jazeera region
of Syria as their last toehold in the Middle East, Mr.
Turker said. In the Tur Abdin region of Turkey, their
number has dwindled from 200,000 a century ago to fewer
than 5,000 today. Hundreds of thousands of Christians,
meanwhile, have fled Iraq in the past decade.
“If we Syriacs keep on
running, where will we end up?” Mr. Turker said. “It is
time for us to make a stand.”
The Syriac federation hopes
that it can persuade Turkey to grant citizenship to
Christian refugees from Syria, enabling them to settle
in Tur Abdin.
It says the road to
naturalization in Turkey should be easy for Syriac
Syrians, most of whom are descended from earlier
generations of refugees from Tur Abdin who fled Turkish
persecution and a local famine in the first half of the
20th century. They settled in what was then the French
mandate of Syria, leading to the establishment of the
Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Jazeera and Euphrates in
Al-Hasakah, where it remains to this day.
“Most of the refugees’
ancestors are still on record here in Turkey, so they
could be naturalized on those grounds: That is what they
told us,” Mr. Turker said, referring to comments by
officials at the Turkish prime minister’s office and at
the governorate of Mardin Province.
In the monastery outside
Midyat, a refugee named Hannibal sighed at that thought.
His family, he said, had fled Midyat for Al-Hasakah in
the 1940s to avoid the labor camps that non-Muslims in
Turkey were sent to in lieu of military service during
World War II. “Now the same thing is happening to me and
my friends. I guess in 40 or 50 years we will go back to
Hannibal, a 36-year-old
pathologist who fled Syria when his life was threatened
by rebels, was not smiling as he talked: “As Christians
in the Middle East, we live in misery and suffer many
difficulties. We want nothing more than to emigrate to
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