Saturday, January 29, 2005

HABERLI, Turkey — Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside a seventh-century church as village men drank tea, chatted in a language similar to that Jesus spoke and waited for a visit by the local Turkish governor.

The politician’s stop and the calm in the ancient village would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, when the tiny Christian community in southeastern Turkey was caught in the middle of fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels.

But a sharp decrease in fighting, and Turkey’s focus on democracy and human rights as it seeks to join the European Union, are boosting hopes that one of the world’s oldest Christian communities can rebuild itself in its spiritual heartland.

Turkey, which faces European pressure to return displaced villagers to the region and to grant more rights to minorities, is encouraging thousands of Assyrians to come back, and dozens have returned, Assyrians say.

Gov. Osman Gunes’ visit to Assyrian towns and monasteries underlined the new spirit.

“If there hadn’t been peace, we wouldn’t have returned,” said Ninua’s father, Erden, who left with his family for Switzerland more than 20 years ago and returned for Christmas in Haberli.

“We’re here to live in solidarity with the other villagers,” he said, as his wife, Sara, offered cookies to visitors sitting in their house.

Mr. Saliba said he easily secured Turkish permission to return and build a three-story house of stone that towers over the village. But he said Haberli suffers frequent power outages and lacks a public sewage system.

Unlike officially recognized religious minorities such as Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians, schools aren’t allowed to teach Syriac, a modern version of the Aramaic spoken in the time of Jesus. So there’s no suitable school for the Saliba’s three Swiss-raised children who speak Syriac, but not Turkish.

An EU report in October said “very few” Assyrians have returned, due to harassment by pro-government Kurdish militiamen and paramilitary police.

The Assyrians encapsulate the complexities of a country that is mostly Muslim, professes strict secularism and shrinks from any recognition of ethnic pluralism. A sign at the entrance to Haberli proclaims that “The Motherland Is A Whole And Cannot Be Divided” — a warning to Kurdish rebels and anyone else seeking separate status.

The Assyrians have mostly sought to stay neutral between the government and the Kurdish rebels, but neutrality has sometimes made their loyalties suspect on both sides. That, and a lack of jobs, have pushed many of them to emigrate, reducing the number of Christians in the region to an estimated 4,000 at most.

Mr. Saliba said that 30 years ago around 75 families lived in Haberli. About 20 families remain.

Human-rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of villages throughout the region to deprive the Kurdish rebels of local support. Fikri Turan returned from Germany to the village of Sarikoy to find his house occupied by pro-government Kurdish militiamen who refused to leave until the governor intervened personally.

Mr. Turan spent Dec. 25 at the fourth-century Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the world’s oldest, where visitors from Europe attended early morning services and ate traditional Christmas meals of boiled meat with onion.

For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were the most recent in a series of challenges to a community that traces itself to the pre-Christian Assyrian Empire.

According to tradition, Assyrians began adopting Christianity in the first century A.D., 600 years before the region was conquered by Arab Muslims. The Deyr-ul Zaferan monastery was the seat of the Assyrian patriarch until 1933.

Assyrians say the community here once numbered hundreds of thousands, but fell victim to massacres during World War I that Armenian and Assyrian groups have labeled a genocide. Turkey denies that charge, saying the killings stemmed from civil unrest, the death toll was inflated, and the Christian population was never as big as its members claimed.

Isa Gulten, an Assyrian leader here, said Turkey should ease restrictions on language and religious education so that Assyrians can preserve their culture.

But he noted that reforms passed as part of Turkey’s EU bid have made it easier to refurbish ancient monasteries and churches and start resettling nine villages.

“It’s a small number,” he said, “but this is the first step.”

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