A brutal Islamic State offensive that begun in late February against Syria’s dwindling Assyrian Christian population is accelerating, forcing a steady stream of Christian refugees to undertake a desperate flight to the relative safety of Turkey, northern Iraq and Lebanon.
The fate of the refugees is far from guaranteed in Muslim-majority Turkey.According to the Turkish press, the government recently dug a trench on the Turkish side of the border and sealed off the two border crossings with Syria on March 9th.
Many of the Assyrian Christians fleeing from the IS and other jihadist groups that now control huge swaths of northeast Syria over the past two years have made their way to Mardin and Midyat, two cities in southeastern Turkey’s historical homeland of Syriac Orthodox Christianity.
To avoid retaliation against relatives who remain in Syria, refugees commonly use an assumed name. A young Armenian Catholic who calls himself Kevork is one of 150 Christian refugees from Syria who live in Mardin. He crossed the border into Turkey in October with his cousins. Smugglers demanded $400 from each of them for safe passage across the Khabour River separating the two countries.
“My family is still in Syria. They are afraid, so my goal is to get to Europe and bring them there. They know that life is better there because you have your rights to live and work,” Kevork told World Watch Monitor.
Christian refugees cannot flee Syria by conventional means since the Turkish border crossings are closed to all but commercial trucks and emergency medical vehicles. So the Assyrians are forced to pay smugglers to take them across the border, as did Kevork, or risk traveling overland to Lebanon or northern Iraq, which requires crossing extremist checkpoints.
One Christian refugee who managed to escape Syria to Mardin by plane is a man who calls himself Gabriel. He was able to board a plane because he had a passport from his previous service in the Syrian military. Most residents of northern Syria are poor and do not have passports.
Gabriel’s city of Qamishli has been under siege from IS ever since the militants’ February attacks that emptied out a cluster of Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabour River. Now, more than a month later, some 220 or more Christian villagers who were kidnapped in the attacks are still being held hostage.
Mardin is built on a massive hill and still retains its Middle Eastern architectural style with limestone rock buildings and semicircular arched doorways. Donkeys are still the most effective means of transportation for carrying heavy loads up the network of stairs that connect the city.
One of the aid coordinators for Mardin’s refugees is a middle aged-man who uses the name Joseph. Although he has only been in Turkey for two years and does not speak any Turkish, he is the first point of contact for new Assyrian arrivals in the city.
Joseph was a relatively wealthy real estate contractor in Syria before the war broke out. Christians lived relatively securely during the first decade of President Bashar al-Assad’s reign. But Joseph and his children fled for fear of being kidnapped after militant Islamists began to target wealthy Christians. Though he would like to return to his home, he is not hopeful. “If the war ends, I will go back to Syria because my house and land are there. But if the situation gets worse, we must leave Turkey.”
At any given time, there are approximately 150 Assyrian refugees from Syria and Iraq in Mardin, most viewing their stay in Turkey as temporary. They tend to avoid the refugee camps, opting to live in apartments near the church or whatever other space locals can provide for them, until they can move on to Europe. Some stay in the empty houses vacated by the thousands of Assyrian Christians who fled southeast Turkey in the 1980s, during a period of violence between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatists. “They usually stay here for one or two months, up to a year,” said Akyuz. “If they have the chance to go to Europe, then they go.”
The Assyrian refugees in Turkey view the IS targeted violence against Christians as a genocide against their people, much like the first massacre that occurred in 1915, when the crumbling Ottoman Empire killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians and 300,000 Assyrians. “[Islamic State] is trying to commit genocide against us,” Kevork said. “After 100 years, the past is coming back to us.”
Many of the refugees spend their time drinking tea in a silver shop run by the sons of local Syriac Orthodox priest Gabriel Akyuz. Fr. Akyuz sees more hope for Assyrian Christianity in Turkey. The predominantly Muslim nation has done more in recent years to recognize the heritage of its tiny Christian minorities. The nearby Artuklu University offers courses in Syriac language study, which was essentially illegal until a decade ago. There is now a Syriac-language preschool in Istanbul. The national government has finally promised to give Syriac Christians permission to build a new church there, which will be the first officially recognized new church building in Turkey since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. “Our future is connected to the future of Turkey,” he said. “If the Republic endures, then we will be able to endure.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, what terrible hardship our fellow Christians in Syria have suffered. Indeed, the whole nation of Syria is in the midst of affliction. We lift them up to You today; that You might soon bring about peace. We pray for those who have fled to Turkey; that You would comfort and sustain them there. We give thanks for Joseph, Fr. Akyuz, and others caring for the refugees, and pray that You would continue to provide needed resources. We pray for those who are looking for ways to flee to Turkey, northern Iraq and Lebanon; that You would grant opportunity and safe travels. And, we pray for Your hand of protection to guard those who remain in Syria; that You would sustain them with food and shelter. In the midst of the turmoil, we pray for the Holy Spirit to use Your Word to comfort and encourage those who mourn, strengthen those with struggles of faith, and bring life to those who live in spiritual darkness. In the name of Jesus, our anchor of hope in this world of tumult, Amen.