Saturday, December 17, 2005


Diyarbakir is not one of your better known tourist destinations. This city of near 2 million people lies in far eastern Turkey and is not really on the way to anywhere, unless of course you are going to Iraq or Iran. The area is overwhelmingly Kurdish and was at the epicenter of the PKK guerilla war with Turkey in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Things are calmer and safer now, though travel there can still be a little dicey. This didn't stop intrepid travelers Rich and Wendy, though. Check out their excellent travelogues at Diyarbakir is not without its attractions. Over 3000 years old, the city is the repository of layer after layer of varied civilizations. Until the 1920s, Diyarbakir had a vibrant Armenian and Syrian Orthodox Christian community. Before 1920, the city was one quarter Armenian. The Christians, as is often the case in this part of the world , got caught between the feuding Turks and Kurds, and have been effectively squeezed out. Yet behind its Byzantine walls, a handful of churches and Orthodox Christians struggle on. Rich and Wendy relate an interesting experience among the Diyarbakir Christian community:

"On to Meryamana Kilisesi, its tiny congregation just as beleaguered as Keldani's but retaining far more dignity, as befitted one of the oldest functioning churches in the world--- it had been built in the 3rd century. Services there were still conducted in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The fierce-eyed, black-bearded Syrian Orthodox priest met us and pointed out details of the small domed nave. Directly across the narrow street from this venerable edifice with its rich rites so closely connected with their object, stood a brand new building. A friendly young man beckoned us in, and the moment he opened the inner door I knew where I was. The small room was packed with people praying--- in the arm-waving ecstatic style of American Pentecostals. Our teenage guide was very uncomfortable, so we backed out after a minute or so. An unsmiling young American woman in the hall explained to me that the church had been founded by Assembly of God missionaries 10 years before. For our guide's sake we soon left."

Does this story make you as uncomfortable as it does me? The Meryamana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary) was built in the 3rd century. Not only have they kept things going for oh, say 1800 years or so, but they are even still worshipping in the language that Jesus spoke! I find this remarkable. These Christians have withstood invasions of Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Kurds and Turks. They have suffered persecution and martyrdom, and now struggle to survive in a culture than can quickly turn hostile. Notice especially Rich and Wendy's description of the church: "this venerable edifice with its rich rites so closely connected with their object."

Now let's inject American Protestant evangelicals into the cultural mix. What do they do? They build a "brand new building" directly across from the ancient church. One almost imagines a metal building with a bright, white steeple. Such perception!

But of course, this is the American way, is it not? We build the Baptist Church next to the Methodist Church which is across from the Church of Christ which is around the corner from the Bible Church which shares a parking lot with the Believers Outreach Victory Chapel Community of Faith Church or some such--all enticing choices in the cafeteria of American religious pluralism.

Don't get me wrong, I humbly commend anyone who attempts to take the message of Christ to the Islamic world. But before it was an Islamic world, it was a very Christian world. And pockets of these Christians are still holding on. Pray for them. Respect and honor their witness. Perhaps evangelicals should consider this before they set up shop in the neighborhood, with buckets of American dollars, and seek to "compete" with the beleaugered locals. All I am saying is that a little less hubris and a little more perceptiveness to the witness of the apostolic faith seems to be in order here.

I found it ironic that their teenage Kurdish guide moved comfortably within the 3rd century church, but was spooked by American-style Pentacostalism across the street. You got it, kid.


Steve Robinson said...

Yikes... reminds me of the cover of a local Mega-church's missionary magazine: It had a picture of some very American looking Missionaries standing IN FRONT OF a thousand year old Russian Orthodox Church with 3 onion domes and crosses on them and the caption was: Help us take the Gospel to Godless Russia.

Lord have mercy! 40 times.

Christina said...

This is why years ago my mom stopped buying things from Dr. Dobson... he was intent on "helping spread the Gospel to the unbelieving Greeks". uhm, yeah, if anyone has ever been to Greece they MIGHT notice the hundreds of churches that dot the landscape (my dad's village of 1200 people has almost 400 churches, chapels, etc. in it... unbelieving Greeks my foot).

Terry (John) said...

Well put, Christina. But i can top that anecdote. Back before becoming Orthodox (but well on the way), I showed slides of my trip to Greece to our Wednesday night Bible study class. When viewing Athens from the Areopagus, church domes are in view everywhere. I made special note in my travelogue of the ruins of the Church of St. Dionysius, as well as some of the more historical churches seen in the foreground.

During the Q&A afterward, one man asked, "Are there any Christians in Greece." Though initially dumbfounded by the arrogance and ignorance of this remark, I did understand what he was asking, but I refused to play along. I said, "Absolutely. Greece is well over 90% Orthodox Christian." He replied (a little condescendingly, I though), "No, no, no. I mean are there any New Testament Christians in Greece." I finally replied, "I just can't answer the question the way you want me to." Then someone else piped up, "Oh yes, there are some Christians in Greece, because Sunset School of Preaching has an English-language school mission there."

After that bit of wisdom, I figured I was just wasting my breath to continue any further. But it was exactly that kind of thinking, though, that hurried me down the road to Orthodoxy.