Assyrians are one of the oldest communities in Mesopotamia and one of the earliest Christian communities in history. Although the relationship between Muslims and Christians was not free of problems during the Ottoman period, different religious communities were able to co-exist for many centuries. Nevertheless, following the collapse of the empire and World War I, the centuries-old grievances of Assyrians entered a new phase, especially for Assyrian communities remaining within the borders of the Turkish nation-state. Although the Turkish Republic signed the Lausanne Treaty, which granted the collective rights of Christian communities in Turkey, Assyrians were not recognized as a minority within the scope of this treaty and were subjected to gross human rights abuses throughout the last century. Although the majority of Assyrians supported Kemalist reforms, they could not protect their community from state repression. In 1928, two schools belonging to the community were closed down. The repression increased in the 1930s; the centuries-old Assyrian patriarchate moved to Syria from the city of Mardin when it was forced to leave the city. The Turkish authorities refused to recognize the Assyrian religion and language officially and seized some Assyrian properties. Systematic discrimination targeting Assyrians fostered waves of migration to metropolitan areas of Turkey or abroad during the following decades. After civil war broke out in the Kurdish region in the 1980s, Assyrian migration gained new momentum, so that an Assyrian diaspora emerged in Europe. After martial law was lifted in the early 2000s, some Assyrians began to return to their hometowns, and the relative normalization in the region has allowed Assyrians to restore buildings reflecting their religious and cultural heritage. Crucially, efforts to protect and restore Assyrian religious sites go beyond the physical aspect, since they also call into question the decades-old denialist policies of Turkish state. This trend of renovating ancient churches started in Midyat and has continued with Nusaybin.
Scope and Purpose
The idea of creating a “faith park” was first suggested in 1999 by Nusaybin Municipality. The project began a year later as a collaboration between the municipality, the ÇEKÜL Foundation and the governorship of Mardin. At first, the legal owner of the church, the Deyruzzaferan Ancient Assyrian Church Foundation of Mardin , was also involved in the project. Excavations to reveal the ruins of older buildings began in 2000 and continued in the following years. Buildings located between the two religious sites were torn down in 2007 to remove barriers between them. The purpose of the project is to create a “faith and culture” park in which Saint Jacob Church and Zeynel Abidin Mosque would be excavated, restored and restituted. At the same time, the institutions supporting this memorialization project would like it to serve as a reminder that these two different religious sites were able to co-exist together for many centuries, and hope to pass this insight along to coming generations. The symbolic value of Zeynel Abidin Mosque is significant for Muslims, since the shrine of Zeynel Abidin, one of the 13 grandsons of the Prophet Mohammed, is located next to the mosque. Saint Jacob Church was constructed in the third century and is one of the oldest existing churches in the world; it also played a major role in educating scholars in the pre-modern period. Bringing together the church and the mosque in Nusaybin symbolizes a culture of mutual respect for different faiths. The project also hopes to teach about the practices and theology of the two different religions. In a period when religious and cultural identities have become a basis for polarization and conflict among different communities, the project aims to show that co-existence was possible for nearly a millennium, and can be possible in the future as well.
The first impact of this project is recovering a historical heritage that represents the coexistence of different religions for centuries. At the same time, the project has struggled to foster the idea of multiculturalism in Nusaybin. However, radical Islamists with no tolerance for churches have initiated some campaigns to intimidate worshippers at the church. In July 2010, fundamentalists wrote a series of threatening messages and curses on the walls of the church. This incident demonstrates that the project’s message cannot necessarily reach all segments of society, and additional efforts are needed to engage communities in the design and implementation process to increase the impact of the project.Another purpose of the project was to encourate tourism to Nusaybin, which is otherwise known mainly for violent clashes between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement. This project has focused considerable positive attention on Nusaybin and has already begun to attract the attention of tourists.
The challenges the project has faced are not limited to the attacks on Saint Jacob Church mentioned above. In recent years, there have been incidents indicating a security problem for Assyrians. The cleric of Saint Jacob Chruch in Midyat was kidnapped in November 2007 and perpetrators asked for 300,000 Euros in ransom for his release. Although the cleric was released in the end without being hurt, such incidents create a climate of fear among Assyrians, who have very bad memories of violence. Additionally, Saint Jacob Church of Ancient Assyrian Congregation encountered serious legal problems regarding the land on which the church is built. Property ownership by non-Muslim foundations has been a major issue in Turkey since the establishment years, and in such troublesome cases, the court has decided to transfer ownership rights to the church to the state, which is undoubtedly an unjust decision. Moreover, systematic discriminations against Assyrians by the Turkish state continues in Turkey, which should be considered a serious challenge in terms of the spread of hate speech through the state. In history textbooks for tenth grade students, Assyrians are portrayed as betrayers and collaborators with Turkey’s enemies. NGOs advocating the rights of Assyrians have asked for this to be changed and are waiting for state authorities to amend textbooks and bring an end to hate speech targeting Assyrians.