Tag Archives: European Union

Syriac Christians Between Syria and Turkey

Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.

As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…”  (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.)  So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.

It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.

We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery.  Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.

The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars).  I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles.  It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).

The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar.  Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”).  It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts.  As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.

It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis.  It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam.  On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds.  When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image.  I wish I had a photo of it.

As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins.  In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit.  The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange).  Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century.  This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.

On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication.  It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest.  Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.

Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.”  It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres.  The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds.  Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.”  The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection.  On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I.  It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them.  They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.

My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government.  On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region.  And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan.  This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.

But this call has a context.  The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians.  There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater.  I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.”  They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam.  The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.

(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı.  When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language.  So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.”  I think that’s just awesome.)

So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin?  As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge.  In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.  In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU.  In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.

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Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.