Priest forced to flee ancient church under threat in Turkey

St Mary church in Diyarbakir is believed to be one of the oldest in the world.A Demand for Action

An ancient Syriac Orthodox church in Turkey is under threat as violent clashes between Kurdish militias and the Turkish army draw closer.

The St Mary church in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey, is said to be one of the oldest in the world, having been first constructed as a pagan temple in 1st century BC. Fighting broke out in the city last year following the collapse of a ceasefire between warring parties and around 170 civilians have since died in the conflict. A 24 hour curfew was imposed in early December and clashes have now intensified, leading thousands to flee.

On Wednesday, the state ordered people to leave the church as the fighting drew nearer to its location in the Sur district of Diyarbakir. Father Yusef Akbulut initially refused, telling A Demand for Action – a group campaigning for the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East – that he could not bear to leave his church, and police were unable to reach him due to the heavy fighting.

"I would not be able to live with myself if I abounded the church, it has a symbol for us Syriacs and a symbol for all Christianity. This is a holy place," the priest said.

Syriac scholar Yusuf Begtas of Mardin, about 50 miles south of Diyarbakir, told ADFA yesterday that Father Yusef and his wife had eventually been convinced to leave St Mary's and seek refuge elsewhere.

"Our priest and his wife were just convinced to leave the church, but we are very concerned of the future of the church itself," Begtas said.

"It has historical value for our people all over the world. St Mary is one of the oldest churches in the world, where many have been taught the mother tongue of Jesus Christ. Many scholars have had their first education here. The church is now abandoned, because we want to save the lives of those living in the church buildings.

"We are now begging all sides of the conflict to save our church, to save our heritage. We are raising our voices to the European Union and Washington DC to take immediate action towards peace in this region of Turkey, where [we] have lived for thousands of years. We are imploring them to make sure our cultural, historical and religious heritage will not be destroyed. St Mary is our heart and soul."

Speaking to the World Council of Arameans [Syriacs], Father Yusef said he and his wife realised they had to leave the church as the fighting got closer. "We felt the ground shaking more and more. Especially my wife got terribly afraid and then we both decided that we had to run for our lives," he said.

"We ran outside with white flags in our hands and, thank God, we could barely find a safe place. Not even at home or church we were safe. Our psychology has been greatly impacted by what we have experienced lately."

He said many streets close to the church were completely destroyed, though it is not yet known whether the church itself has been damaged.

"Our hometown was unrecognisable and it looked like a war zone. We don't know what has happened to our church, because we didn't dare to look while we were running for our lives," the priest added.

"Now we have little hope left that there can be a future for us, Aramean Christians, to stay in the land of our forefathers."