Prayers during wartime
By Umit Bektas
Sunday mass has just begun in Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church. It is seven o’clock in the morning and the streets of Midyat, where the majority of the population is Muslim Kurdish, are empty.
But despite the calm outside, the historical church is overcrowded with a community of three hundred people, mostly children. Candles are lit, hymns are sung and prayers are made.
The reason that the mass is so crowded today is not because it is the festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is because for over two years now, Syriac Christian families escaping the bloody war in Syria just across the border have been joining the congregation, adding to the Turkish Christian citizens of Midyat.
Since then, Sunday masses have become more crowded, more enthusiastic.
Ibrahim (not his real name) is one of those who pray and sing hymns along with his family at Sunday mass. He is a 45-year-old Syrian citizen, a carpenter.
For eight months, Ibrahim has been living with his wife and seven children in Midyat, in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin Province. The family has been staying in a refugee camp established by the Turkish authorities.
Ibrahim, who is not so alien to these lands, does not want to disclose where he and his family lived in Syria and only describes it as a village close to Qamishli, in the northeast of the country.
Ibrahim’s grandfather was born in Mardin. He, like thousands of Syriac Christians, had to flee the area because of the chaotic and bloody events during the First World War, just prior to end of the Ottoman Empire. But nearly 100 years later, Ibrahim was fleeing in the other direction, leaving war-torn Syria in order to survive.
Ibrahim looks at the events in his country differently from the Sunni Muslim Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey and who are almost all against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We would like to go back to our country but not much of a country is left. To be frank, we would like Assad to stay. We were living a happy life before the civil war began. Especially for us Christians, life was good, and we had no trouble. We are extremely scared of what’s happening right now, watching every day in the news, they’re massacring Christians,” he said.
A 40-year-old housewife who declined to give her name because of fear of retribution, thinks along the same lines.
“It’s not anymore clear who is fighting for whom. Some are fighting for Nusra, Qaeda, some are fighting for Assad. Some are just fighting. They need food, shelter, so they come and harm us. We liked Assad because we were peaceful. We had a house; we had a place that we called our home. Now we are refugees”.
The husband of this Syrian woman, who lives with her six children in a relative’s house in Midyat, took refuge in Germany. She is waiting for the day when she can go to Germany too, together with her children. “We had to flee Qamishli after my husband’s shop was looted. I am not sure who did it. We have been living in Midyat for the past 10 months,’’ she said.
Fifty-year-old Josef Hamado was a trader in Syria. He came to Midyat six months ago with his family. He had a stroke in Syria and is just recovering now. He expressed his thoughts with a few words, “We were able to practice our religion with Assad, we were able to be ourselves, and we did not have to hide our identity. I would vote for whoever brings peace to Syria”.
Ayhan Gürkan, 40, is a volunteer and unofficial religion teacher of the church. Summarising what is happening in Midyat he says, “For the past year, these people have been fleeing here from Syria. They’re mainly coming from the Qamishli area. They don’t prefer to stay at the camps. The number of people changes from 250 to 300.
“There are houses that our community provides for free, some work in day jobs, but mainly their relatives and we support them (financially). We can’t handle any more refugees here, especially because of financial difficulties.”
It is February 2, 2014. Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen light their candles as part of the ritual at church. Women wear their loose, lace veils – mostly black. Young women in high-heeled boots, handsome men in polished shoes… But among these smartly dressed people there is sense of sorrow hanging in the air.
Ayhan Gürkan tells the reason why: “These are the same people that were ousted from this land 90 years ago. These people are their sons, daughters. They were kicked out from here at the time, now they are being kicked out from Syria. These painful migrations, exiles… They never end for our people.”