The Turkish president says he understands the problems of minorities and has pledged a "contribution" to reconstruction. But his anti-Kurdish offensive has led to violence against Christians as well. In Diyarbakir, Christians complain that they are getting “no support from the State.” In Syria, Christians say “we are afraid for our children and our families.”
Damascus (AsiaNews) – Assyrians and Chaldeans in Turkey and across the border, in north-eastern Syria, are increasingly victims of violence despite proclamations by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that he is a defender of minorities, a claim also relayed by Catholic media.
In reality, repression and attacks have increased in recent weeks in connection with the sultan’s offensive against the Kurds in Syria, which has turned into softer version of ethnic cleansing that has crushed even Christians.
In the 1960s, several hundred Christian families lived in Diyarbakir, the most important (and mostly Kurdish) city in south-eastern Turkey. Today only four are left, two of whom live inside the parish Church of the Virgin Mary in Sur district.
For 43-year-old Saliba Acis, the others “left for different reasons: economic pressure, political pressure”. Some moved to Istanbul, but most fled to Europe, Australia or America.
There are many reasons that have generated the Christian diaspora from Middle East, from the war in Syria to the violence of the Islamic State group,
But what the members of the parish of the Virgin Mary fear the most is President Erdoğan’s war on the Kurds and the destruction by the Turkish State of their living heritage (Christian history and culture).
Last August, in Istanbul, Erdoğan took part in the laying of the foundation stone of a new Assyrian church in the Yesilkoy district. On that occasion, he said that "the true target of terror groups is our common homeland" and the best way to fight them is to "see our differences as our most important richness.”
Recently, after he met US President Donald Trump, Erdoğan said that the Turkish government is not indifferent to the condition of Christians, and pledged a "contribution" to the reconstruction of churches and shrines. Ankara, he added, was drafting plans for communities in the border areas, starting with "health care and humanitarian aid".
Such words sound hollow in Diyarbakir, where the congregation says it has very little reason to thank the Turkish president. "We get no support from the state,” said Acis. “This church is alive thanks to the community.”
The same fear and concern are palpable across the border, among the residents of the predominantly Christian villages and towns of north-eastern Syria, who barely escaped the grip of the Islamic State group, and today anxiously watch the Turkish advance.
Simon, 56, fled her village of Tal Kefji, which is not far from areas of sporadic fighting, and sought refuge with a relative in Tal Tamr to the south.
"We women left because we were afraid of the bombings," she said. “We just want peace," she added. "I left behind so many memories... my husband, my house, my family and neighbours."
Her husband joined the Khabur Guards, a small Christian militia that was set up in 2015 to defend more than 30 Assyrian villages with the help of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Since Erdoğan launched his offensive some 150 civilians have been killed, including Christians, whilst more than 300,000 people have been displaced.
"There are Turkish threats to attack our villages and many are fleeing," said 48-year-old Assyrian Aisho Nissan. "The fate of the region remains uncertain; we are afraid for our children and our families.”