06/14/2022, 13.36
TURKEY
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Scores of Muslims attack Assyrian family over land in Mardin

Local Christians had just celebrated the first religious service in the historic church of Mor Gevargis, following its restauration after a century of neglect. The Yilmaz family is the only Christian family left in the area. The crowd attacked with sticks and stones, then set fire to the family’s fields. Opposing claims to land are at the root of the dispute.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – A village in Mardin, a province in the southeastern Turkey, was the scene of a new episode of anti-Christian violence, triggered in this case by a dispute over land.

Scores of Muslims attacked a local Assyrian family, the only Christians who live permanently in the area, with sticks, stones and other makeshift weapons at the end of the Sunday service.

The incident took place on 5 June but was reported only recently. It occurred near the historic church of Mor Gevargis, in the village of Brahîmîye, right after the celebration of the first Mass in over a hundred years, in the presence of several prominent local Christians.

After the church was abandoned and left in disuse for many years, restoration work began in 2015 enabling local Christians to joyfully celebrate again a religious service.

Local sources report that at least 50 Muslims attacked the Yilmaz family. At the time of the assault, the latter were in the company of the priests who had travelled to the village to lead the Mass and inaugurate the place of worship after its restauration.

After attacking the Yilmaz house, the assailants set fire to the wheat grown in the surrounding fields. Once the fire was put out, witnesses alerted the police who made several arrests.

“They threatened us saying that they would not allow us to live in the village,” said Cengiz Yilmaz. “But we are not scared. We will continue to stay here.”

The head of the family then accused the attackers of deliberately choosing the day of the inauguration ceremony of the church to restart the dispute over land.

To try to ease tensions and avoid a sectarian clash, Rev Gabriel Akyüz – who was at the house at the time of the incident – said that religion was not behind the attack.

"The incident has nothing to do with the celebrations in the church after one hundred years,” said the clergyman. “This is a dispute between the parties” over land.

In the past, Mardin province was the scene of several episodes of violence and abuse against Christians. In one case, an Assyrian monk Sefer (Aho) Bileçen was convicted in 2021 and sentenced to more than two years in prison for allegedly helping a “terrorist organisation”.

In fact, all he did was to give a piece of bread and some water to people who had knocked at the doors of his convent. According to Turkish authorities, those people were members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The clergyman’s conviction came at a time of repeated rights’ violations and abuses, such as the sale online of a centuries-old Armenian church, the holding of a barbecue in the historic Armenian church of Sourp Asdvadzadzi and the conversions into mosques of the ancient Christian basilicas of Hagia Sophia and Chora after they were turned into museums following the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Atatürk.

Such controversial decisions were made against the backdrop of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy mixing nationalism and Islam as a way to hold onto power and distract the public from the country’s economic crisis and the COVID-19 emergency.

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