Violence against Syria’s centuries-old Christian community from the government as well as Islamic radicals in the rebellion of the Syrian civil war is driving thousands of those Christians from their homes, with many fleeing to their ancient homeland in neighboring Turkey, the New York Times reported.
Syriac Christians make up one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. First established by the Jesus’s Apostle St. Peter in Antioch, the Church uses the world’s oldest liturgy—the Liturgy of St. James—and many adherents still speak Aramaic, the ancient Semitic language that was believed to be spoken by Jesus and his followers.
A Syriac priest, Father Gabriel Akyuz, described the threats Christians are facing in an interview with the New York Times.
“The gangs are kidnapping people and holding them to ransom. They are perpetrating great injustices. That is why Syriacs are fleeing,” he said.
As a result, tens of thousands of Syriac Christians are fleeing Syria for the Turkish region of Tur Abdin, the ancient heartland of Syriac Christians. The small Syriac community remaining in Turkey— estimated to be around 5,000, down from 200,000 a century ago—has been sheltering the Christian refugees in churches and monasteries with the help of Turkish authorities.
But many Christian refugees want to leave the Middle East altogether, requesting visas from their Christian brethren in the West. Local Christian leaders, however, are adamant about remaining, despite fears of the civil war and growing Islamic extremism.
“We tell every refugee who comes that he must not emigrate to Europe or America, but hold out in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, because emigration means that we will lose our homeland and our roots,” said Aziz Demir, the mayor of Kafro, a Syriac village in Tur Abdin, according to the New York Times.