Church of The Virgin Mary in the Sur district of Diyarbakir, Turkey
In January they were in the Church with bombs exploding all around. A rocket-propelled grenade destroyed a portion of the wall surrounding the Church. Initially, Father Joseph refused to leave the Church he has overseen for 23 years, fearing it would be leveled if left empty. Unfortunately, he did have to leave – it became too dangerous. Now, the state has seized it along with all the other Christian Churches in Sur, including one of the largest Armenian Churches in the Middle East, Surp (Saint) Giragos.
Father Joseph Akbulut pointing out the “holy spirit” door knocker once so prevalent in the Sur district.
Photo by Fran Fawcett Peterson
World Watch Monitor www.worldwatchmonitor.org
“We wouldn't have left the church. But when we looked [on the street] and saw that land mines and rockets were exploding non-stop, we knew that we couldn't stay,” he told World Watch Monitor. “Our house was shaking and we thought it would collapse.”
The power, electricity, and water were cut off. It was time to flee. They stepped out on the street cautiously, with Fr. Akbulut waving a white flag. Nobody was there.
"It was like a war zone,” he said.
Fr. Akbulut and his family are staying in a hotel for the foreseeable future. Ongoing clashes in the church's neighborhood prevent their return.*
But controversy has followed him. He has fended off reports from the Turkish media that his church had indirect involvement with the PKK.
Turkish newspapers claimed on 30 Jan. that a cache of ammunition and explosives was found on the site of Virgin Mary Church. Fr. Akbulut said that he knew nothing of this cache while he was there, and that it was likely deposited after he fled.
Fr. Akbulut was insistent that he stay in the church as long as possible, even at the risk of his own life. He considers the church indispensable for his congregation, and for Syriac Orthodox Christianity at large.
“I would not be able to live with myself if I abandoned the church," Fr. Akbulut told the Assyrian International News Agency. “It is a symbol for us Assyrians and a symbol for all Christianity. This is a holy place."
The church is of enormous importance to Eastern Orthodoxy, having produced theologians and patriarchs in the early centuries of Christianity. It holds relics such as a piece of the cross and the bones of the apostle Thomas.
Fr. Akbulut leads a congregation of 40 members. He speaks Syriac, a language closely related to Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his disciples.
Church of the Virgin Mary in the Sur district of Diyarbakir, Turkey.
This chilling video shows the “urban renewal” Erdogan’s Turkish government has planned for 6300 properties in Diyarbakir including the Virgin Mary Church. There are no churches in the video, only mosques. In the video Ahmet Davutoglu, the Prime Minister, vows to turn Diyarbakir into the “new Toledo,” as in Toledo, Spain. Spain was occupied by the Islamists for 700 years before finally freeing itself. (Davutoglu must not recall the chains of the freed Christians, which were hung on the walls of Toledo to let the people know the slaves had been freed in southern Spain and the slave masters, the Islamists, expelled from Spanish shores.)
Transcript of the Prime Minister’s audio:
Diyarbakir is a sacred city. The city of Diyarbakir has been ruined. I want to rebuild it. I will start this process of rebuilding to give Diyarbakir a new beautiful future.. I will rebuild the mosques so the sound of Quran will be heard again. I will make it green again like it used to be. I as the prime-minister will do it. Whatever building needs it I will rebuild. I will renew everything, new mosques, new roads, new houses, and new recreation centers. So that the children will again be happy playing and laughing. I will build big living spaces so people live happily and freely.
History hasn’t been kind to Diyarbakir. I will fix it so that you will be astonished. I will build the houses so people live happily and peacefully again enjoying the sun. I will build the houses in the big, old ottoman style so people live in renewed life style. I will build famous houses of worship so whoever wants to go to mosque can go and those who don't want to can go to their places to enjoy. I will rebuild Suleiman-prophet mosque so pilgrims will come and enjoy the mosque again. I will rebuild historical places. This new bright future will come soon
-The Republic of Turkey. Office of Prime minister.
Despite the video linked above, the head of Turkey’s Housing Development Agency is denying the planned urban transformation will result in any historic buildings being “rebuilt.” More than 6300 properties have been confiscated and are planned to get “renovations.”
Other Churches now under state control include: the Surp (Armenian for "Saint") Sarkis Chaldean Catholic Church, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, the Apostolic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, an Armenian Catholic church, and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Catholic Church.
"They want to destroy the living spaces and houses of the people who have survived death and massacres in those places," said Figen Yuksekdagi, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).
[. . .]
Looking up inside 1700 year old Virgin Mary Church, Sur, Diyarbakir, Turkey.
Photo by Fran Fawcett Peterson
The New York Times reports;
“This is reminiscent of the events leading up to the start of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 1915, when properties were illegally confiscated and the population was displaced under the false guise of temporary relocation for its own protection,” said Nora Hovsepian, the chairwoman of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America.
“That temporary relocation,” she added, “turned out to be death marches and a permanent disenfranchisement of two million from their ancestral homeland.”
Indeed, many Kurds believe that Erdogan and his government are trying to do to the Kurds what the then Turkish rulers did to the Armenians 100 years ago -- and that is drive them from their land -- dead or alive. *
Erdogan has reportedly threatened to revoke citizenship for Kurds. Fears are rampant that the Turkish government will force the Kurds over the border into Syria and Iraq. Already there are reports of Syrian refugees being housed in Kurdish homes evacuated in Diyarbakir because of the fighting. This is not confirmed.
In 2000 a Turkish newspaper, Hurryiet, asked Father Joseph about his views on the Armenian Genocide. He replied that not only the Armenians were massacred, but also Assyrian/Syriacs. His published views led to his arrest for “inciting racial hatred.” He told me that it was thanks to the western media and human rights groups that he was freed.
I consider Father Joseph brave and courageous because he did not leave his flock, he did not leave Diyarbakir, he did not leave Turkey. He stayed. Now, again, he is being persecuted -- only this time with bombs and bullets, as are all Christians caught up in the crossfire between the Turkish government and its seeming ethnic cleansing of now the Kurds.
Last reports are that Father Joseph and his family are still in Diyarbakir living in a hotel.
*As he has every April of his Presidency Mr. Obama again this year avoided using the term Genocide in commemorating the one and a half million Armenians slaughtered, deported or marched to their deaths in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915- 1916
May 1, 2016
Turkey Seizes More Christian Churches
By Fran Fawcett Peterson