Monday, December 21, 2009

Meryam Ana Church

Earlier, I made note of the recent Swiss referendum which bans the construction of new minarets. Obviously, this action has not gone unnoticed in the Islamic world. A h/t to Josephus Flavius for linking this article, originally from Mere Comments.

It seems a group of Muslims confronted the priest at a Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir, in eastern Turkey. The three men threatened the priest with death unless the church's bell tower was demolished within the week, this in retaliation for the Swiss action. The priest, Fr. Yusuf, did notify the authorities, but added "It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.”

I particularly took note of the story, for back in 2006, I visited the Meryam Ana Church, briefly met the priest and remained for Vespers. I had read several travel accounts of this beleaguered church, and was determined to see it for myself.

The church dates to the late 4th-century, and is located in the oldest part of the walled Old City of Diyarbakir. A modern city of 1.5 million has all but swallowed up the original town. Even though protected somewhat by its walled compound, the church's location makes it particularly vulnerable to attack. The population swelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Kurdish villagers fled the fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerrillas. The city remains the epicenter for Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.

And, it is a dangerous place. Deservedly or not, Americans have the reputation of being squeamish travelers, generally staying with the herd and keeping to the main road. Upon coming home, I have always been baffled by those who ask me if I was frightened over there. No, if I am frightened of anything, it is when I come home to one of the most violent countries on earth. But Diyarbakir is the exception to the rule in Turkey. You take extra precautions in the Old City, and you do not venture out after dark, even in the hotel district. My point is just this: Diyarbakir is the kind of place where such threats made against the priest of Meryam Ana are not idle ones.

Were this barbarity to be carried out, most Turks would be horrified and embarrassed. Such thuggery is in no way representative of the country. But if the small Orthodox community at Meryam Ana--witness of 1700 years of the Faith in that city--were to disappear forever, there would be no tears in Ankara for the loss. For in Turkey, all things must be Turkified, and the existence of these Suriani--as also the Ecumenical Patriarch--are inconvenient reminders of what came long before, and by implication and comparision, highlight the relative newness of a purely Turkish Anatolia.

(I wrote of my visit, here, back in 2006. I had been an Orthodox Christian for only 7 months at that time, so some of my commentary on such matters may be more crudely put than I would do so today.)


Milton T. Burton said...

Moving post. One cannot help but admire Fr. Yusuf and his courage.

BJohnD said...

William Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain" has much to say about the sad plight of Syriac Christians.

David said...

Thank you for this.

John said...

Dalrymple's book changed my life. On several trips to Anatolia and the Levant, I retraced his steps as much as possible. He was why I was in Diyarbakir, and in the Tur Abdin, as well.