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ICC Note: The ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq has driven hundreds of thousands of Christians from their homes. Some of those have made their way back to Southeastern Turkey, where they are now living in what was the homeland of Christians who 100 years ago fled those lands as Ottoman persecution drove them out. The region remains one hostile to those who do not share the religious beliefs of those in power and persecution often follows. Christian communities in Turkey have had their churches revitalized with growth from the refugees who have come there for shelter. 

12/29/2014 Turkey (National Geographic) On most afternoons, Mor Barsaumo, a honey-colored, fifth-century stone church nestled in a warren of slanted streets, draws a crowd. In the narrow courtyard, old men smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, while children kick a soccer ball across the stone floor. In a darkened classroom, empty except for a few desks, a teacher gives private lessons in Syriac, derived from Aramaic, the language of Christ. 

And now, the refugees also come.

Advised by relatives or other refugees, newcomers to Midyat often make the steps of the church their first stop. Midyat and its environs—known in Syriac as Tur Abdin, “mountain of the servants of God”—are the historical heartland of the Middle East’s widely dispersed Syriac Orthodox Christian community. Now the region has become a haven as the fighting in Syria and Iraq has forced Christians to flee their homes.

“All Syriac Christians come here. Most of the aid is delivered from here,” says Ayhan Gürkan, a deacon at Mor Barsaumo and a member of the Tur Abdin Syriac Christians Committee, set up to look after Midyat’s Christian refugees.

Only four of Midyat’s eight churches are still used. Mor Barsaumo is the most central, and hence the easiest for newcomers to find. Its courtyard and schoolroom serve as a de facto community center for local Christians and refugees alike. Gürkan, smoking a cigarette by the church gate, is flanked by two Syrian refugees, Yusep Souleman and Nahir Mirza. Souleman’s grandchildren play alongside local children in the courtyard.

Gürkan estimates that of the 500 Syriac Christians in Midyat, about a hundred are refugees—most from Syria, with a handful from Iraq. Midyat is in southeastern Turkey, just 32 miles (52 kilometers) north of the border with Syria. Although an official refugee camp for Christians exists in Midyat, built on land donated by nearby Mor Abraham Monastery, few have chosen to live there. This is due partly to the poor provisions, says Gürkan—tents are no defense against the region’s cold winters—but also to the success of the Syriac Christian community at looking after its own.

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