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Our Turkish-speaking drivers were taking us through the Fertile Crescent, that crossroads of great civilizations, but it did not appear very fertile. On this visit to eastern Turkey, religious freedom advocate Paul Marshall and I saw little cultivated land and a striking level of depopulation. We met the only two monks remaining in the monastery of the village of Sare (or Sarikoy). They were resigned, calm, and ready for the apocalypse.

Syriac-speaking Christians in this area have persisted through more than a dozen centuries of Muslim, Ottoman, and now Turkish rule. They languish between the secularizing government of the Republic of Turkey and an Islamic culture that views them as heathen outsiders. The government has long given them minimal "freedom of worship" while decisively restricting property rights for local congregations. Nor do authorities allow them any avenues of new growth—communication, speech, normal press freedom, or economic development.

Syriac-Aramaic comes as close as any living language to what Jesus spoke. It is the liturgical and poetic language of these Christians. Yet authorities forbid Christians on Turkey's southeastern border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran to teach that language—nor can their schoolchildren learn any subject in it. Christians in Syria, by contrast, legally teach and worship in that language.

Besides the secular and Islamic opposition, modern forces also threaten. Dams for electric power and irrigation are filling up the great valley of the Tigris, threatening to submerge lands—including churches and monasteries—on which Christian families have lived for more than a millennium. In any case, as in the rest of Turkey, Christians cannot buy property.

In short, the government would be pleased ...

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In the Magazine

January 2003

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