dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Syrian Christians”

#Syria Death of a priest – What can be learnt from Father Francis’s murder in Homs?

6th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs, possibly the oldest in Syria [2010, DD]

12th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs [2010, DD]

After living peacefully in Syria for nearly 50 years and devoting his life to Christian/Muslim harmony, Father Francis van der Lugt, a Dutch-born Jesuit in his mid-70s, was dragged into his monastery garden and shot twice in the head. It happened on 7 April 2014 in the Old City of Homs, in front of two witnesses, a fellow Jesuit and a local Christian woman, who said it was carried out by a single masked gunman as a deliberate, premeditated act. A few days earlier he had been beaten up, supposedly by a rebel group. Father Francis had been instrumental in negotiating the UN-supervised ceasefire in Homs in February reported on by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet (see last of ‘Related articles’ below), but had himself refused to leave the devastated and besieged Old City, preferring to stay behind in solidarity with the 24 Christians who were either too old or too sick to leave. As leader of his flock, to leave would have felt to him like the captain abandoning ship while some of his passengers remained aboard. According to some reports he was, at the time of his death, again involved in negotiating for more besieged residents to be allowed out, something some rebel groups were said to be angry about. The siege of Homs’s Old City has become a symbol of resistance, a thorn in the side of the regime, and many rebels feel strongly that if all civilians are allowed out, the regime will simply flatten what remains in order to crush all remaining opposition.

In happier times Father Francis used to run two initiatives to help bring Syrians closer to nature and closer to each other. The first was called ‘Ard’ (Earth) and was an agricultural centre based on a hill outside Homs where young Syrians could camp, work on the land and talk freely among each other. The second was called ‘Maseer’ (Walking tour) and involved him guiding groups of young Syrians on 3 or 10 day hikes in the countryside, where they would sleep in orchards or in village schoolhouses, meeting local farmers and villagers. He was trained as a psychologist and understood well how to encourage open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Among those who came on such hikes was the young film-maker Basil Shehadeh, whose funeral Father Francis helped organise in Homs in 2012 after the authorities refused to allow his body to be returned to his native Damascus. Father Francis’s own funeral was conducted by local Muslims who knew and loved him. He was closely integrated into the community, helping whoever was in need, Muslim and Christian alike, making no distinction.

Who stands to gain from the death of such a man? No one has claimed responsibility. The regime has blamed ‘terrorist groups’ while the rebel opposition groups have blamed the regime – the usual scenario. We will probably never know for sure who carried out this killing and on whose instructions. But one thing is sure – Father Francis himself, as a Jesuit priest, would not have wanted his death to be avenged. It would go against all he stood for. That would mean his death was simply one more death in the equation, allowing the never-ending spiral of revenge attacks to continue – and to what end? The inevitable destruction of the country.

Much more constructive – though of course much harder – would be to try to emulate what he strove to achieve all his life – bringing people closer together and treating all in need equally. Not long ago he was quoted as saying::

“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have”.

The best way to honour his memory would be to remember this deep belief of his in the Syrian people. Revenge would have been alien to him.

Relic of the Virgin's Belt, Umm Al-Zinnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

Relic of the Virgin’s Belt, Umm Al-Zunnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin's Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin’s Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

Related articles:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10751067/Dutch-priest-murdered-in-his-church-in-the-besieged-Syrian-city-of-Homs.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26927068

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/07/dutch-priest-shot-dead-homs-syria

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/07/francis-van-der-lugt-dead-syria_n_5104676.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26148194

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/world/middleeast/syria.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27155474

 

 

No appetite for war in Eastern Turkey – except with Israel

My research trip to Eastern Turkey over the last couple of weeks yielded some unexpected discoveries. The trip was designed to update my Bradt Eastern Turkey guide for its second edition, but I kept finding myself sucked towards the Syrian border.

After revisiting Urfa’s Balikli Gol, the sacred fish ‘Pool of Abraham’ in temperatures of 40C, I drove 45km south to Harran to inspect its famous termite-like beehive houses, relics of biblical living, and its ancient university on the site of a pagan moon temple. All was quiet and exactly as I remembered it, so I drove on just 15km kilometres further south to Akcakale, the border town with Syria where five civilians were killed in October 2012 by shells fired from inside Syria. All quiet now, but on the edge of town I was startled to see a heavily crowded tent city, hemmed in by barbed wire fence. Its misery was palpable even from a distance. Designed to house 23,000 Syrian refugees, I later learnt it was now home to 36,000, a figure that defied belief. How could so many possibly live in such conditions in such stifling heat – let alone in Ramadan, due to start in a few days’ time?

I drove back and forth along the main road in front of the camp, feeling helpless, passing  several families hitching lifts, wondering if I should stop for them, but fearful in case I was in turn stopped by the Turkish authorities and in some way implicated for my involvement. Stories had reached me about how some Syrians were starting to run away from the camps, desperate to lead something closer to a normal life, after months of confinement.

In the end I decided my most useful contribution would be to give my food away – my picnic lunch plus two bags of nuts I had bought in Gaziantep market a few days earlier. Driving slowly, I pinpointed two small boys returning towards the camp who were carrying nothing at all. When I stopped and got out of the car to offer them the food, they were visibly startled and frightened, and required some coaxing to take the bags from me. They spoke neither Turkish nor Arabic and I wondered afterwards if they might have been Kurdish, since the area around Tell Al-Abyad across the border was a heavily Kurdish part of Syria. When I looked in the rear view mirror after driving off, I saw they had quickened their pace, hurrying back to the camp with their unexpected gift. It was an image that has stayed with me since.

Syrian refugee camp at Akcakale, south of Harran, Turkey (DD)

Syrian refugee camp at Akcakale, south of Harran, Turkey (DD)

The road past the front of Turkey's Akcakale camp for Syrian refugees (DD)

The road past the front of Turkey’s Akcakale camp for Syrian refugees (DD)

A few days later in Midyat on the way to visit the Syriac Orthodox Monastery at Gulgoze (Syriac name Ainwardo), I stumbled on another refugee camp. In contrast to the camp at Akcakale, this one was spacious and well-appointed, with cabins rather than tents, and numerous bathroom blocks similar to a European camp-site. Far from being overcrowded, it seemed largely uninhabited.

My subsequent enquiries explained why – the camp had only been built about three months ago, on land donated by a wealthy Syriac businessman, and was only for use by Syrian Christians.

Refugee camp for Syrian Christians in Midyat's Turkey (DD)

Refugee camp for Syrian Christians in Midyat’s Turkey (DD)

Syriac Monastery of St Cyriacus at Gulgoze, south of Midyat

Syriac Monastery of St Cyriacus at Gulgoze, south of Midyat (DD)

‘We feel very sorry for the people of Syria, and of course we have to help them when they come across the border to us. But we don’t want our government to go to war against the Syrian regime. We have problems of our own in Turkey, and our government should concentrate on those, not get involved in a difficult war next door.’

But a handful of people, Sunni Turks to a man, went one step further. ‘We don’t want war with Syria. But if this war grows and  becomes a war against Israel, that would be different. For that we would be ready…’

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