Associated Press Worldstream
December 30, 2004 Thursday 10:13 AM Eastern Time

Christian rebirth in southeastern Turkey amid calm, EU bid

by JAMES C. HELICKE; Associated Press Writer

HABERLI, Turkey


Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside a stone,
seventh century village church as men drank tea and chatted in an
ancient tongue similar to the one spoken by Jesus Christ.

These Assyrian Christians, a tiny minority in Muslim Turkey, were
waiting for the local Turkish governor who was making Christmas
visits. Such visits would have been inconceivable just a few years
ago, when the Christian community in southeastern Turkey was caught
in the middle of fighting between Turkish security forces and
autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels.

But now a sharp decrease in the fighting, and Turkey's bid to join
the European Union are giving one of the world's most ancient
Christian communities more hope that it can preserve its traditions
in a region long considered its spiritual center.

Turkey, which faces EU pressure to grant greater rights to
minorities, is encouraging thousands of Assyrians who left the
impoverished region to return and rebuild a community that has shrunk
to just a few thousand. Dozens have returned so far, Assyrians say.

Gov. Osman Gunes, the top government official in the region, paid a
Christmas visit to Assyrian towns and monasteries this year and
welcomed those who had come back.

"If there hadn't been peace, we wouldn't have returned," said Ninua's
father, Erden, who spent his first Christmas in Haberli since he and
his wife left the village to work in Switzerland more than two
decades ago. "We're here to live in solidarity with the other
villagers."

Saliba's wife, Sara, offered guests Swiss angel-shaped Christmas
cookies as they sat in front of a Christmas tree in their new, stone
three-story home, which towers over the other houses in the village
of some 140 people.

Erden Saliba said the family of five easily secured Turkish
permission to return, but described other difficulties facing
Assyrians in the village. Besides such nuisances as frequent power
cuts and lack of public sewerage facilities, Saliba said there was no
suitable school for Ninua and her two older brothers, who cannot
speak Turkish.

Unlike such officially recognized religious minorities as Jews and
Greek Orthodox Christians, Assyrians are not permitted to run schools
in their language, Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic, the language
of Jesus.

Government-paid Kurdish militiamen stand guard at the road leading to
the village. In another reminder of the conflict with Kurdish
separatists, a sign outside a Turkish paramilitary police outpost at
the village's entrance proclaims: "The motherland is a whole and
cannot be divided."

Saliba said that 30 years ago, around 75 families lived in the
village, a rural farming community filled with stone houses, ancient
ruins, and carved churches. Now only 20 or so families remain. Most
have left for work abroad or to avoid the strife.

The neighboring village, Sarikoy, suffered more. The military
evacuated residents from there during the fighting, villagers say.

Fikri Turan returned from Germany to Sarikoy to find his house
reduced to rubble and the village occupied by Kurdish militiamen who
refused to leave until the governor intervened.

Human rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of
villages throughout the region in a move aimed at depriving Kurdish
rebels of local support.

Turan spent Christmas at the 4th century Mor Gabriel monastery, one
of the world's oldest, where visitors from Europe attended morning
services.

For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were only the most
recent in a series of challenges to a community that traces its
origins to the ancient Assyrian Empire, which peaked between the 9th
and 7th centuries B.C.

According to tradition, Assyrians began adopting Christianity in the
first century A.D., 600 years before the region was conquered by Arab
Muslim armies. The area remains important for Assyrian Christians,
and the nearby Deyr-ul Zaferan monastery served as home to the
Assyrian patriarchate until 1933.

Assyrians say the community here once numbered hundreds of thousands,
but that many of them, like Armenians, were victims of mass killings
during World War I that the two communities have labeled genocide.

Turkish officials say the killings resulted from civil unrest and
that the death count - which some Assyrian groups put at hundreds of
thousands - is inflated.

Mass migration abroad and, finally, the fighting in the southeast
reduced the number of Christians in the region to an estimated 2,000
to 4,000. Many Assyrians left for Europe, North America, or Istanbul,
and other communities remain in Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Fighting fell sharply after the 1999 capture of Kurdish guerrilla
leader Abdullah Ocalan, although rebel attacks against security
forces have picked up in recent months.

The EU, too, noted disapprovingly in an October report that "very
few" Assyrians have returned because of harassment from Kurdish
militiamen and paramilitary police.