By Diana Darke
Syria’s Christians belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, but chased away by the threat of violence some are heading for neighbouring Turkey, where they have been greeted with considerable enthusiasm.
Driven by a deep and humble faith, Father Joaqim is a young man with a sense of destiny. He has returned from 11 years in Holland to revive his dying community, high on a remote escarpment in eastern Turkey.
We are standing together on the terrace of his newly restored monastery, high on a remote escarpment near Nusaybin, looking south over the Mesopotamian Plain.
“Thank God our community is alive again,” he says, his face radiating out from the distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit. “On Sundays our church is full with worshippers from the village.”
“You have transformed this place,” I marvel, admiring the quality of the renovations. Back in the 1980s, when I first came here, there was no path and it took an hour to climb up here. This terrace was a vegetable patch and a local family was living in the ruins.
“Yes,” he replies serenely, “They were Yezidis. They moved in after the last monk died. They looked after the monastery very well.”
The thought of a Syriac Orthodox monk being grateful to Yezidis, sometimes reviled as devil-worshippers by Muslims and Christians alike, was a novel one.
But surprises like these come thick and fast in eastern Turkey, where the Turkish government has invested heavily over the past decade, building hydro-electric dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, extending agriculture and employment to help settle local communities, including Kurdish ones.
As for the Syriac Christians, custodians of some of the earliest surviving churches in the world, this was always their homeland, the region known as Tur Abdin, Syriac for “Mountain of the Servants of God”.
Father Joaqim guides me out of the blazing summer sun into a shady spot to sit. A young helper appears with a tray of refreshments.
“Once there were 80 thriving monasteries here,” he tells me. “This was the first, founded by Mor Augen – St Eugene. He was a 4th Century pearl diver in the Red Sea, who taught us the Egyptian monastic tradition.”
He describes – without any trace of rancour – how successive persecutions from Christians, Mongols and Turks decimated their numbers, leaving just a handful of monks struggling to keep the main monasteries alive.
“When I returned two years ago,” he continues, gently sipping his tea, “I asked the government for permission to re-open the monastery, and they agreed.
“They paid for the new tarmac road to reach the foot of the mountain, and they paid to bring the electricity. We paid for the road to continue up here and for the restoration works.”
“That can’t have been easy, getting permission from the government,” I say.
“It was very easy. We were invited back officially.” He explains how EU pressure has gradually forced a change in Turkish policy. “The politicians now realise it is good to have us here. Rich members of our community are returning from Europe and investing their life savings.”
He pauses. “What is more difficult,” he elaborates, “are the land disputes with our Kurdish neighbours”.
“In some places they use our churches as stables. We are only a minority, of course, but our local MP is now a Christian from our community. He represents the Kurdish Party, so maybe we can resolve our differences.”
I gesture down to the plain below and ask about the war in Syria just across the border, within sight of the monastery: “Are you afraid it will spill over here?”
“Not at all,” he replies. “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War. They have always shared our ancient Syriac language and culture. Several of their families are living in our village. They help our church – and our football team,” he smiles.
Across the Tur Abdin, some of the long-abandoned villages are slowly coming back to life, not just with emigre families from the Syriac disapora returning from Europe, but also with co-religionists from Syria, separated by an artificial border, returning to the bosom of their community in Turkey.
From a low point of just 80 families, there are now around 150. A slick Syriac-staffed factory even harvests the produce of Syriac vineyards, making Syriac wines for sale in the restaurants of the new boutique hotels in the historic towns of Mardin and Midyat.
“What about that smart refugee camp outside Midyat?” I ask him. “It looked brand-new but half empty.”
“It is for Syriac Christians,” Father Joaqim explains. “The land was donated by a Syriac businessman. Like us, he hopes many Syriac Christians from Syria will come with their families and settle here. Thank God for them.”
Who could have imagined that in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, the war in Syria would be reuniting an ancient community? Only Father Joaqim, perhaps.