Generations on, Christians fleeing Syria return to Turkish homeland they once fled

February 28, 2014

(Syriac Christians from Turkey and Syria attend a mass at the Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey February 2, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

When Louis Bandak fled the violence in Syria, he sought refuge in the country his grandfather was forced to abandon exactly 90 years ago this week.

Bandak, his wife and two daughters are part of a small but growing trickle of Christians arriving in Turkey after three years of civil war in Syria killed more than 140,000 people.

“Although I had never been here before, it does not feel strange. This too is my homeland,” says Bandak, sitting in warm winter sun outside the 5th Century Mor Abrohom Monastery in Midyat, 30 miles north of the border.

While most Christian refugees are in Lebanon or Jordan, countries with which they share linguistic or cultural ties, several thousand have come to Turkey. For many it is a reversal of their ancestors’ flight around a century ago, when World War One and the subsequent building of the post-Ottoman Turkish state made Turkey a hostile land for millions of Christians.

The sectarian strife that has rent apart Syria’s delicate multi-ethnic fabric has spawned a severe humanitarian crisis and driven 2.5 million refugees into neighboring countries.

Turkey has taken in 700,000 mostly Sunni Muslim refugees.

The United Nations does not register Syrian refugees by religion so cannot give an exact figure for Christians who have left, but estimates vary between 300,000 and 500,000, says Mark Ohanian, director of programs of the International Orthodox Christian Charities, which works inside Syria.

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