Christian group seeks rights in Turkey’s south

MARDIN, Turkey – On a hill overlooking the Mesopotamian valley, a small, ancient Christian community hopes Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will help it win official minority group status. The Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite, community, whose liturgy still uses the Aramaic language spoken by Christ, counts only some 20,000 members throughout the country. Most are in Istanbul, but 5,000 or so remain on ancestral lands here in southeastern Anatolia – a region better known for another minority, the Kurds, who waged a bloody battle against central authority for their own recognition. «We’re a minority, but we don’t have minority rights,» said Ishak Ergun, who teaches Aramaic and guides tourists around Mardin’s ancient Deyrulzafran monastery, which dates back to the fifth century. In 1995, the community petitioned Turkey’s prime minister and president to allow it to open a school to keep its culture alive. But Ergun said it never received an answer. «This sort of thing shouldn’t happen in a Turkey which is looking to joining the European Union,» he said. In August, the government managed to push through a series of democracy reforms, including education and broadcast rights for its large Kurdish minority, to help meet EU norms. But the Syrian Orthodox community says it continues to be ignored while other communities, such as the Jews, the Greek Orthodox and Armenians, have been given official minority status that allows them certain association and property rights. «We’re a minority, but we’re not recognized as such,» said Hanna Cilli, a 63-year-old jeweler working in Mardin’s bazaar. He sees the problem as partly one of size; his tiny Syrian community, he said, does not have the clout enjoyed by communities with outside homelands like Greece for the Greek Orthodox or Israel for the Jews. «We’ve been living here for 5,000 years and we live in peace,» he added. Since a rebellion by Turkey’s main Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), petered out two years ago in the wake of the jailing of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, tourists have begun to return to the region. A key site is the monastery, whose name means «saffron» in Arabic and whose ocher color is said to come from adding the spice to building materials at this stop on the old Silk Road trade route. Jacobite metropolitans had their See in Mardin from 1186 to 1933. And some 7,000 Syrian Orthodox families lived in the region less than a century ago. Many, spurred by economic necessity or fear brought on by Kurdish civil unrest, left for Istanbul, western Europe or the USA.

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