Skip to comments.In the language of Jesus - Turkey's Christian revival has a message for Iraq's own communities
Posted on 08/05/2004 4:45:20 AM PDT by a_Turk
This week's attacks on churches in Iraq are a reminder of a small community that has lived for years with the term "beleaguered", but has the potential to re-establish a more tolerant way of life in the Middle East. It might easily be assumed that Iraqi Christians are a colonial implant that any self-respecting nationalist would view with suspicion.
But in fact they are among the oldest religious communities in the world.
Protected for most of their long history by Islam's tradition of tolerance, they are honoured for their own great gift to mutual understanding:
Syriac, a version of Jesus's native language, Aramaic. This was the vital bridge in the transmission of Greek, Roman and Jewish thought into Arabic, from which Aristotle, Plato and company eventually returned in the Renaissance to Europe.
Its greatest stronghold is just outside Iraq, in Turkey's Tur Abdin, the "Mountains of the Servants of God", where an intriguing shift is taking place.
Pilgrims, students, and tourists of all faiths and none, are returning to nearby monasteries, which were 700 years old when the first stones were laid at Fountains or Rievaulx. Four-and-a-half centuries after the English abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII, the cloisters still ring with Syriac chants.
Yet it is only 20 years since the pocket-sized congregations lived in terror, with bombs going off outside their walls. Almost everyone with the money to do so had fled to the west.
Like their co-religionists in Iraq today, the Christians were caught up in a civil insurgency that saw fundamentalist hatreds let loose.
As in Iraq, the quarrel was not of their making. The issue was Kurdish separatism and the Turkish army's iron-fisted response.
Anyone "different" was potentially a target for both sides; and old resentments resurfaced that Christians were better-educated and had a rich diaspora in the United States.
It was the thinnest of times; but the churches not only survived but are now enjoying a revival that could in due course help their Iraqi counterparts.
With armed Kurdish insurgency defeated, the Turkish government two years ago began to move towards greater regionalism.
Its need to reach first base for membership of the European Union has been a key factor. Most encouragingly of all, the region's Muslim communities are lending a hand.
The process is best seen in Sanliurfa, an important Islamic shrine. Abraham - Ibrahim to Muslims - is said to have lived here and his cave attracts permanent devout queues.
But the city is also crucial in Christian history. As pre-Byzantine Edessa it was the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as the official religion, more than 500 years before St Augustine landed in Kent.
Jesus legendarily corresponded with its king, as the local council goes out of its way to acknowledge.
Sanliurfa is now promoting what it calls "belief tourism", inviting Muslims, Jews and Christians to come together and share the ancient sites.
The process is an eastern version of Spain's work in Toledo and Cordoba to create "three faith" centres where divisive myths can be dismantled and real divisions understood.
And what lessons there are to be learned: how Christians, Jews and Muslims lived as neighbours for centuries under the Caliphate and the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Ottoman empire.
How Saladdin's strongest allies against the tolerance-wrecking Crusaders were the Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Egyptian Copts.
This may seem far off and fanciful to the now embattled Christians of Iraq. But it is a stone's throw from their border; it honours the noblest traditions of Islam; and it has deeper and longer-term potential for countering al-Qaida than guns.
· Martin Wainwright is the Guardian's Northern editor; he presents The Tongue That Wouldn't Die, a study of Syriac, at 11am today on Radio 4
Most people prefer to focus on the plight of the Christian/Animist part of So. Sudan, but they don't dwell on the hardships of the Coptic Christians living to their North.
Personally, I think that the most intransigent force in these "peace" negotiations between the SDPLA and the NIF-Islamist government in Khartoum has been Hosni Mubarak.
As bad as Omar al-Bashir and his cohorts are (and don't forget that they were the ones who gave sanctuary to UBL and Zawahiri for so many years and along with the help rendered by the mullahs in Iran, made Al Qaeda into the efficient killing machine that we all witnessed in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and my own beloved city, on September 11, 2001), they would never be able to get away with some of their most outrageous depredations if they did not have diplomatic cover from the state of Egypt.
Lest we forget, there are two important factors that ensure religious tolerance in Turkey. 1) The secular tradition established in the last century by Kemal Attaturk, and 2) the combat power of the Turkish military. And, BTW, Attaturk did not interpret secularism in the same manner as secularists in our country, who define that term as complete intolerance to Christians....
Tolerance for what?
Here's hoping a spark becomes a flame.
Interesting article, thanks for the ping.
actually the MUSLIM attackers used BULGARIAN CHRISTIAN troops to attack CONSTANTANOPLE
The nations around Byzantium under her suzereinty had had enough of high taxes. They invited us in to free them from Byzantium. We lived well together for several hundred years. But when at the end of the 18th century the wars had emptied the treasury and Europe no longer needed us to trade with the orient, our own taxes became unbearable to those same nations.