It was a sunny morning in May, and I was in a car with a linguist and a tax preparer trolling the suburbs of Chicago for native speakers of Aramaic, the 3,000-year-old language of Jesus.
The linguist, Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge, was nominally in town to give a speech at Northwestern University, in Evanston. But he had another agenda: Chicago’s northern suburbs are home to tens of thousands of Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Christians driven from their Middle Eastern homelands by persecution and war. The Windy City is a heady place for one of the world’s foremost scholars of modern Aramaic, a man bent on documenting all of its dialects before the language—once the tongue of empires—follows its last speakers to the grave.
In recent years, around 60-100 Syriac Orthodox families have returned from central Europe to Turkey. Encouraged by changes in the political atmosphere, the minority nonetheless faces a host of problems, from the expropriation of land belonging to a monastery, to a ban on special schools and kindergartens, and also a lack of places of worship in Istanbul. By Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere
MIDYAT, TURKEY — The bright voices of children at play echoed off the ancient walls of Mor Hanonyo last week, breaking centuries of stillness in this 1,600-year-old Syriac Orthodox monastery outside Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Little boys skipped around the monastery courtyard zipped up in quilted winter jackets, while their elders huddled indoors and lamented the violence and mayhem that have forced them to flee their homes in Syria.
Leading Syriac figures say they met with officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Foreign Ministry in an effort to establish a separate camp in Mardin for Syriac citizens who are defecting from Syria.
The European Union has stated that it is "seriously concerned" about a court decision on the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Mardin.
The spokesman for Stefan Füle, the commissioner responsible for the Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy said the commission was concerned both about the verdict and about the fact that the litigation against the monastery had been started by state authorities.
WHEN the Young Turks enlisted Kurdish tribesmen to take part in the mass slaughter of the Armenians in 1915, Muslim clerics spurred on their flocks: those who slew Christians would be blessed with wealth and beautiful girls and their places in heaven assured. Although the deaths of around 1m Ottoman Armenians are well documented, little is known about the tens of thousands of Syriacs, one the world’s oldest Christian communities, who fell with them.
Turkey is home to Syriac Christians, whose followers extend across the Middle East. In the 1990s, many Syriac Christians fled Turkey during years of fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels. In the last few years, they have been returning. But a series of court cases against the ancient monastery of Mor Gabriel, in southeastern Turkey, has put their return increasingly in doubt.
For 1,600 years, the bell at the Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel Monastery has called people to prayer. The ceremonies are conducted in Aramaic, a language spoken at the time of Christ.
GianThe building and region around it have survived invasions by Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Kurds and Turks, going back more than 1,000 years.
A group of Syrian Syriacs have thrown their support behind the struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by forming an agreement with the leading representatives of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC). In the agreement a democratic Syria is demanded, in which all peoples would have equal rights and could alternately come into power after the al-Assad regime falls.
Twelve Syriac-origin lawmakers in the Swiss Parliament have come together to establish a group that aims to make the voice of Syriacs heard.
The group, named “Schweiz Suryoye” (Switzerland Syriacs) will aim to bring the problems of the Syriacs in Turkey and the Middle East to the agenda, Rima Tüzün, the head of foreign affairs at the Brussels-based European Syriac Union told the Hürriyet Daily News. “The main objective of the group is to distribute information about the cultural, communal and social situation of the Syriacs in their native countries [Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon],” said Tüzün. “This is the first time MPs have come together politically in a group for our people and therefore this group is a historic step for us,” said Tüzün. “The Syriacs are not yet united and do not have a powerful voice ... The Syriacs have a chance to regain their rights,” he added.
A recently established council bringing together Syria’s Christian minority groups in Syria has no fear of a possible Muslim Brotherhood rule in the country, according to a prominent member.
“We want to live as equal citizens and with equal rights all over the Middle East, especially in Syria,” Bassam Ishak, leader of the Damascus-based Liberal Party, told the Hürriyet Daily News on behalf of the council after announcing the establishment of the “Syrian Syriac National Council” on Sept. 8.