1,700-year-old Orthodox church damaged in Turkey fighting; priest escapes with his family

The St. Mary Churchin Diyarbakir, Turkey was built by Syriac craftsmen in the third century.(World Watch Monitor)

The intensified fighting between Turkish government forces and Kurdish separatists recently damaged one of the ancient churches in the world founded around 1,700 years ago in Turkey.

The Syriac Orthodox church was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, destroying a portion of the wall surrounding the St. Mary Church in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir on Jan. 28.

"It was like a war zone... Our house was shaking and we thought it would collapse," said Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, the priest of the church, who hid with his family at his home located on church grounds during the attack.

"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.

Akbulut said he initially dialled 155, the police emergency line, for help but was told that his neighbourhood was a no-go area, barricaded off to civil authorities. The operator also gave him instructions on how to escape and was told to wave a white flag once out of the street.

The priest said he and his family were staying in a hotel when he learned that his church is facing accusation of indirect involvement with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), World Watch Monitor reported.

Turkish newspapers reported on Jan. 30 that a cache of ammunition and explosives was found on the site of the Virgin Mary Church. But Syriac leaders rejected the reports for insinuating that their church could have any link to violent terrorism.

"We know the goals of these reports, which are hateful and completely made up," announced Evgin Turker, president of the Federation of Syriac Foundations. "After the news came out, threats against us started to rain down."

Akbulut said he knew nothing of this cache while he was there, and that it was likely deposited after he fled, according to reports.

Violence has engulfed Diyarbakir's Sur district, the location of the church, since early December. The government issued an evacuation order on Jan. 25 due to pitched street battles between armed militants from the PKK and Turkish forces, according to reports.

Fierce fighting has escalated across southeastern Turkey since the end of a two-year ceasefire in July 2015. Youth members of the PKK declared self-rule over large parts of Sur, digging trenches and building barricades to keep authorities out, reports said.

Turkish Protestant church leaders have condemned the violence that has been raging for the past two months. They have joined the Syriac Orthodox Church in calling for the Turkish government to show justice and mercy to its citizens.

In early January, a 12-person delegation came to Diyarbakir to issue a statement calling on both sides to seek a peaceful solution, reports said."We came to beg all parties to take steps towards peace to escape from this spiral of violence," said Ihsan Ozbek, leader of Turkey's Association of Protestant Churches. The pastors met with the district governor, Huseyin Aksoy, and Diyarbakir mayor, Gultan Kisanak.

A military statement in the official Anadolu Agency said Turkish forces have so far killed 500 PKK fighters in the southeastern town of Cizre and 149 in Sur since December.