ICC NOTE: Conflict broke out among Turkish forces and members of the sectarian Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Diyarbakir’s Sur district of Turkey. As the battle ensued the Virgin Mary Church, a 1,700 year old church, was damaged in the fighting while the church leader and his family remained in their home on the premise. Fr. Akbulut described it as a “war zone” as rocket propelled grenades and land mines exploded all around them. The Lord’s protection enabled them to flee the destruction safely even though Fr. Akbulut wanted to remain as long as possible to protect the church. The Virgin Mary church is very important to Assyrian Christians as the location has seen countless theologians and patriarchs enter and leave its doors.
2/2/2016 Turkey (World Watch Monitor) – One of the oldest churches in the world sustained damage last week in the intensified fighting between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists.
Rocket-propelled grenades destroyed a portion of the wall surrounding the Virgin Mary Church in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on 28 Jan. The Syriac Orthodox church is 1,700 years old.
Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, the priest of the church, was sheltered with his family at his home, located on church grounds, during the attack.
Violence has engulfed Diyarbakir’s Sur district, the location of the church, since early December. The government issued an evacuation order on 26 Jan. due to pitched street battles between armed militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish forces.
Fr. Akbulut, who has overseen the church for 23 years, initially refused to evacuate. He and his wife remained in the building until 28 Jan., saying he feared the church would be levelled in an aerial bombardment if left empty.
“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. “Our house was shaking and we thought it would collapse.”
The power, electricity, and water were cut off. It was time to flee.
Fr. Akbulut dialed 155, the police emergency line. He was told that his neighbourhood was a no-go area, barricaded off to civil authorities. The operator gave him instructions on how to escape. They stepped out on the street cautiously, with Fr. Akbulut waving a white flag. Nobody was there.
Whole buildings were collapsed, reduced to piles of rubble. “It was like a war zone,” he said.
Fr. Akbulut and his family are staying in a hotel for the foreseeable future. Ongoing clashes in the church’s neighbourhood prevent their return.
But controversy has followed him. He has fended off reports from the Turkish media that his church had indirect involvement with the PKK.
Turkish newspapers claimed on 30 Jan. that a cache of ammunition and explosives was found on the site of Virgin Mary Church. Fr. Akbulut said that he knew nothing of this cache while he was there, and that it was likely deposited after he fled.
Syriac leaders blasted 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.”
“We looked [on the street] and and saw that land mines and rockets were exploding non-stop, we knew that we couldn’t stay. It was like a war zone.”
–Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, priest of Virgin Mary Church, Diyarbakir
Turkish Protestant church leaders have condemned the PKK violence, raging for the past two months, issuing a joint call for the state 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.