From my home in Enschede I can read, see and hear what goes around in this world. Although modern media are within a hand’s reach I also like to travel and learn more about this world we live in. I also like to share my views and thoughts on the matters which captivate me the most: Politics (I have served one term on the city council in Enschede), church (I am a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch) and society (because everything is tied together). Some older posts are only available in Dutch, I preserved them from my previous blog because I think they still hold relevance to these subjects. The views expressed here are my own and you are welcome to comment on them as long as you keep to the subject, not the person who wrote them.
Net thuis van de Paasmis in ons klooster welke sinds twee jaar op initiatief van het Syrisch Orthodox Jongeren Platform georganiseerd wordt. De oude traditie herleeft en heeft hier en daar een moderner jasje aan. Het is voor sommigen misschien vreemd, raar of zelfs ongepast om voor de mis op zondagochtend het vasten te breken. Maar onze bisschop gaat voor en laat zien dat het kan. Immers, in het land van de voorouders was de viering van de heilige Eucharistie altijd midden in de nacht. Wat het SOJP heeft toegevoegd is een Nederlandse vertaling en hier en daar wat kleine aanpassingen om het beter te kunnen volgen.
Helaas is dit voor een deel van de gemeenschap een schending van de regels. Het is niet en zal nooit anders zijn: er zal altijd weerstand zijn tegen veranderingen in de kerk. Maar heel radicaal hoeft het roer ook niet om. En juist daar waar het schuurt zijn verbeteringen te behalen, en als je tot stil staan wordt gebracht, dan is het tijd voor reflectie.
Zoals de kerken van Urhoy (Edesa, nu sanliurfa) na te zijn verwoest in de vierde eeuw opnieuw zijn opgebouwd, en de Aramese christenen verder bouwden aan hun traditie, zo zullen er altijd tegenslagen zijn die we moeten overwinnen. In Sanliurfa worden sinds enkele decennia geen missen meer gehouden, maar hier en elders in de wereld wel.
Deze les haal ik uit deze Paasviering, onze traditie leeft maar heeft af en toe nieuw elan nodig. Ze is niet gebonden aan een tijd of plek. De kerk heeft veel veranderingen ondergaan, maar de kern is al bijna 2000 jaar hetzelfde, en die was ook afgelopen nacht enorm voelbaar.
Imagine, snow capped mountains in the distance, a small village on a hill in front of you, surrounded by ploughed fields and rocky hills. On the right hand side of the road is a church, on the left hand side some sand coloured houses and dirt roads. You can hear a rooster cuck-a-la-cooing in the distance, you see a shepherd with goats, sheep and a dog strolling in the road towards you. Welcome in Hah, one of the oldest villages in Tur Abdin in Southeast Turkey, where time passes slowly and the Arameans almost still live the same way as their ancestors did more than 2000 years ago.
The romantic view is contradictory to the situation the odd 140 villagers find themselves in. Thousands of acres have been confiscated by the government. Fields that are not used, or lands with rocks and trees can be confiscated just for those reasons only. Even a cemetery with two trees and the ruins of a church from the 5th century are state owned. On top of that, the village is deemed a cultural historic site. Houses and churches may not be renovated, and young married couples find themselves almost literally between the rock and a hard place: they cannot build a house of their own and continue the way of living of their fathers and fathers before them. Together with a Dutch film crew I travelled the lands of my forefathers. We collected stories about the present day life of the 5000 Arameans still living in Tur Abdin. One villager told us: “we are shouting from inside the well, here, nobody hears us. It is through you we can make our voices and plights heard”
This year we commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Seyfo, the genocide the Aramean (Syriac) people endured together with their Greek and Armenian Christian brethren during World War I. The denial by the Turkish Republic of this dark episode still has its mark on the souls of the Aramean people living in the world wide diaspora. With lands, houses and lands confiscated a return to the homeland is not easy. Judicial trials are bureaucratic and expensive at best. Add to this the on going war in neighbouring Syria and it is not hard to imagine that the perspective of a Christian presence in the middle east is very grim.
But there is more than the beautiful sights and dark stories. The people are used to survival. And their faith is a source of hope. It is the hope of monks who re-opened the monastery of Mor Augin on Mount Izlo. One monk and one deacon are still a lot less than the 350 monks who once occupied the place, “but we continue to pray in the same language as Jesus Christ did, and we try to continue the tradition”. It is the hope of children who want to be part of a better world. “I want to be an architect” one boy said, and his sister startled us with her answer to our question about their future: “I want to be a Turkish language teacher.” “Turkish?” She was adamant: “yes, Turkish” One can study now, be a lawyer and open up shop in the old city quarter in Midyat. People from Europe build second homes in their villages, and hold on to the believe that it can be their first and only home some day. When the people started to leave their homes en masse in the late seventies and early eighties, one man asked Mor Dolabani, then bishop of Tur Abdin: ‘will this be the end of our people?’ he answered him: ‘As the sun sets here on our people, it will rise again in some other place. The tree may be cut down, but the root is strong, and it will grow again.’ The lands of Tur Abdin may be rocky, but they are fertile. The Aramaic language and Syrian Orthodox liturgical tradition are still being taught in monasteries and village schools. The seeds our forefathers sowed can still grow, but we need the Turkish government to hold the earth firm so we can reap again.
The ancient Arameans were nomads, always traveling, herding and trading with the people they met. Some founded city states like Damascus, Palmyra, Edesa (now Sanliurfa) and built empires. Their cultural and linguistic influence spread throughout the region. Wars and conquests of others made an end to their national power, but as a people, they adapted. They always maintained their way of live, and after converting to Christianity, lived under Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman and Turkish rule. They are the indigenous people of the lands and part of a country. But they are not always viewed as such, yes, the Turkish government uses its power to confiscate lands throughout the whole country. But by denying the Arameans to renovate or build new churches and taking their lands which they need to feed themselves it almost feels like being choked. It is odd that villages and churches are deemed as cultural and historic important objects, but that the immaterial cultural worth is neglected. If Turkey really wants to uphold the old cultural traditions within its border, it also needs the Aramean people. In an ever changing world, a small people forgotten by almost all just has one plight: “God is great, the only thing we want is to just live”.
The documentary is a joint project of WCA and EO (evangelical broadcasting) and will be shown first on Dutch TV April this year.
“Run, leave everything behind!” The mother picked up her youngest child, an infant of a few months old, grabbed her youngest daughter with her other hand and called the others. They left their home without looking back and set for the caves in the hills surrounding the small village. They met with other families and hid themselves. Outside they could hear the sounds of the nearing horsemen. Men were shouting and giving orders. The baby started to cry and his mother pressed him against her chest. The wait was long, and only when a fellow villager entered the cave to tell them the coast was clear, they dared to speak again. Some praised God. The mother looked at her boy, he had stopped breathing and passed away.
This particular event took place 99 years ago in the Christian village of Bote (Bardakci), a village near Midyat in current South East Turkey. And in the 99 years that followed this and other stories were passed on to younger generations of Aramean Christians, so we would never forget. The boy in the story, if he would have survived, would have been my grandfather’s uncle. What is known to the world as the ‘Armenian Genocide’ is also a dark chapter in the history of Greek and Aramean christians who lived in the Ottoman empire. It’s successor, the Turkish Republic, still denies that these events were in fact a genocide.
‘Never again’ said the whole world after World War II, ‘Never again’ said the world again after the horrible genocide committed by the Hutu on the Tutsi of Rwanda in 1993. But it is happening again, right under our eyes, in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan. With reports and graphic images pouring over Twitter and FaceBook feeds and other media, I can only ask: what is happening to the world, why is no one helping? I find it inapropriate to congratulate someone in the midst of these unnerving messages or post something about things as a football match.
The US, France and England started to act by aiding the Kurds in Iraq’s beleaguered north. But the US is reluctant to commit itself again to a war (for which it holds part of the blame). Nearer to my home, the EU fails to formulate a sensible foreign policy and is still stuck in the aftermath of the financial crisis (where is Ashton by the way?). Russia, while more realistic towards the uprising in Syria a couple of years ago, shifted its focus to the Ukraine, a conflict it instigated for a large part.
The most blatant example of indifference towards the killing of thousands of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq came from the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs, mr Frans Timmermans. On questions asked by MP Pieter Omtzigt (CDA), which were sponsored by various other parties, on the current situation and whether the massacres can be classified as genocide. The Minister answered that although Christians have no easy time in Iraq, their rights are protected by law. Whether genocide is commited by IS can only be determined afterwards. His answers couldn’t have been more cynical. Who will give the people their churches, homes and livelihoods back? Who will be prosecuted in court for killing, raping and kidnapping of innocent women and children? A law can only protect someone if it’s enforced and if the society is willing to uphold and abide to it. While IS has shown no restraint whatsoever, the Dutch Parliament even failed to pass a motion to call on an international investigation to be led by the UN. Not long ago, there were a couple of million Christians living in Syria and Iraq. One can’t dare to imagine a Middle East without its indigenous people, but it will be a reality if actions are not taken soon.
100 years ago the world waited for the Ottoman empire to fall apart, to find out about it’s horrors much later. ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Hitler concluded his statement at the advent of the invasion of Poland with this reference. Had the world acted then, in 1939, the Holocaust would not have happened. ‘Never again’ was the credo of the United Nations and world leaders. Dear nations and leaders: it is happening again, please unite and lead.
Update 14-08-2014: The Dutch government now speaks of ‘possible acts of genocide committed by IS’. With this breakthrough, The Netherlands and others are called to action to prevent further destruction of lives and property by various MPs. According to the UN charter the world has to act. A Security Council resolution is desperately needed. EU talks will be held this Friday.
Never again was the promise of European countries to each other, that no cause or economic dispute, would lead to the domination of one over the other and the destruction of lives and cultures. Almost 70 years have passed since the end of WWII and Europe has been at peace and prospered (aside from the crisis in the Yugoslavian Republic in the 90s). But today, the 20th of July 2014, we see the world around us burning. It is this day that I stopped reading my Twitter feed for the first time because I couldn’t control my anger and frustration anymore. I can’t read anything anymore on #mh17, #nigeria, #gaza, #israel, #syria and especially I feel all my positive energy flowing away as I can only fathom to understand what has happened in #mosul today. For the first time in maybe 1800 years, there is no Christian living in Mosul, Iraq.
Christians of various denominations and ethnicities build cities throughout the Fertile Crescent, sowed the fields, harvested the crops and tried to survive under Islamic rule. Some harsh spells aside, after the collapse of the Ottoman Republic they enjoyed modest religious freedoms. But for the first time in over 1600 years, no Sunday mass was celebrated in Mosul, as there is no church left anymore. The current war between Sunni’s and Shia’s has torn Syria and Iraq apart, and the various militant groups have made one thing absolutely clear: there is no future for Christians in Iraq or Syria. Christians have few options left: flee their homes, pay a djiza (special protection tax for non-Muslims), convert or die. They survived the Persian, Arabic and barbaric invasions that swept over their lands, but this storm is proving too strong, especially without allies coming to their aid. Their desperate pleas fell on deaf ears, and now they turn to the Kurds (the enemy during the First World War) for protection.
But not all times were like these. There were times the Arab nobility and caliphs sought the wisdom held in the Christian monasteries, churches and schools in the Nineveh plains. Great polymaths like the Syrian Orthodox Maphrian Mor Gregorius Yuhana bar Hebreaus ( John Abu’l-Faraj) translated the works of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato from Greek to Syriac to Arabic in the 13th century. There were schools in Mosul where the teachings of Mor Jacob of Nisibin and his pupil Mor Ephrem the Syrian were passed on to each and every ruler who loved his own people and allowed them to benefit from the great corpus of Syriac literature and scientific knowledge. What the Islamic State is showing us is that they do not love peace. They do not love freedom and only seek hate and destruction. My frustration comes from the fact that the West did see it fit to remove Saddam Hussein from power, support groups that wanted to topple the Baathist regime of Assad in Syria, but fail to make a stand against a group that is far more evil and dangerous than anything the Middle East has seen before.
The people have fled their homes and are at the mercy of others. Mosul is in the darkest of its times and without its Christian population, will it ever see enlightenment again?
Yesterday was the big game for a place in the ConIFA World Football Cup final between Arameans Suryoye and Ellan Vannin. After 1-1 at half time the Manx came up stronger in the second half to win the game 1-4. Coach Alan was left with few options after three players got injured with a bench already lacking in depth.
1-4, not what you expected, what went wrong?
“We knew this would be a tight game. Three of our players were not fit enough and we had to substitute three injured players early in the game. We did start well and opened the score but lacked the strength to hold them off. It was still 1-1 at halftime but after their second goal we were too tired to turn the game around. Our team was less well organized due too the injuries and substitutions. One player needed 17 stitches to close a wound around his eye. Their tactic was to play the long ball and this proved too much for our defenders. We eventually came up short in physical strength and condition. With few attacking options this is a loss I can find peace with.”
Tomorrow you have to play South Ossetia for third place, are the players motivated enough for this game?
“We shall see, it’s up to the players really. We skipped this morning’s training too find some relief at a pool nearby Östersund. The players can cool their legs in the water and get their mind of last game. As the head coach, I’m more than satisfied with the results of this team. We had little team to prepare and most of the players never saw one another before this tournament. We are in the final four and beat other much bigger nations. I am proud of what we have shown here.”
The bronze medal game will kick-off at 10.00 am CET Sunday 8, at 13.00 Countea de Nissa and Ellan Vannin will meet in the final. See for more information, schedule and live stream http://worldfootballcup.org/
This article was published in Dutch on voetblah.nl Due to the fact that football and the Aramean community are world wide phenomena, I decided to publish it here in English
About 600 kilometers north of Stockholm the ConIFA World Footballl Cup for stateless peoples and independent football associations is well under way. In Östersund’s Jämtkraft Arena, which seats 6000, 12 independent football associations from around the world are playing for the World Cup. One of the participating nations are the Arameans/ Suryoye, one of the oldest peoples of ancient Mesopotamia. Coach and co-founder of ‘Football Association Arameans Suryoye’ Mr. Melke Alan, also found a number of players in Netherlands. Andreas David, Marco Aydin (both Excelsior ’31) and Gaby Jallo (Willem II) are capped players now. Other stars like Chris David (Fulham) and Sanharib Malki (Kasimpasa) could not participate due to other commitments, Sharbel Touma (old FC Twente, now Syrianska FC) is injured. I spoke with coach Alan about the tournament, the team and the chances for the title.
ConIFA, Östersund and Arameans, what and who are we talking about?
“ConIFA is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations and was founded in 2013. The Federation members represent nations that do not participate in FIFA or FIFA affiliated competitions and tournaments. For the first time ConIFA has organized this tournament for the World Cup and Östersund offered to host it. It is the largest city in Lapland, the land of the Sami and home of FA Sápmi. The Arameans, or Suryoye, are an ancient Christian people that spread all over the world over the years. Their home countries are modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.”
What is it like to play as a national team in a real World Cup?
“Besides wanting to play good football it is even more important that we can represent our people. Football is a very good means to reach out and connect with each other. We participated in the 2008 VIVA Cup, the forerunner of this tournament, but we are seeing a lot more impact now because we have also organized ourselves in an association. Our own players who speak our own language poorly, are now forced to speak Aramaic, and they have improved it over the course of two weeks. This is wonderful to witness and it shows once again how important language is. Furthermore, we get to learn new people such as the Padanians and the Occitanians and they get to intereact with us. This is a great experience for the boys. As the technical staff, we do not only teach the players how to play as a team on the field, but also how they can represent the Arameans. Via FaceBook and other channels we see that a lot of fans are following us and watching the games. The reactions are all positive and encouraging. The atmosphere is similar to games played by The Netherlands or Sweden in big tournaments.”
How did players react when you asked them to play for the team?
“We had limited time to get a squad together. In 2008 we played with guys who all came from Sweden, but because the tournament is now aligned with the leagues in Western Europe, we can also use players from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. We even selected a guy in Turkey. With the boys living outside of Sweden I have had contact by phone and had to find some of them through others. Sometimes you cannot tell by the name if someone is Aramaen or not, they can have Turkish or Arabic names or English sounding like Chris David. But we managed to pull a group of 22 players together. Everyone responded enthusiastically and came here in high spirits. We don’t have the money for a training camp and players paid some of their own expenses. This left us with only two days of preparation time for the tournament but our organization coped pretty well with the situation. We have a decent squad with good players and are even tipped as contenders for the title. With our association, Syrianska FC and Aramaen clubs worldwide, we hope to continue to professionalize. We need the help and support of our people if we want to succeed.”
ConIFA and Östersund are not really names that capture one’s imagination, does the tournament draw the attention it deserves?
“With ConIFA we set forth on a new path. It is carried by the individual associations and really serves as a platform for all participants to present themselves. Regional departments are working on the further professionalisation. It’s true that there are not that many spectators in the stadium, but everyone around the world, poor and rich, can stream the games online for a small amount of money. Thanks to the internet we are not dependent on TV networks who need to buy the rights and distribute the images. ConIFA and this tournament are growing and we are working together to develop them further. The world should embrace this tournament and aid us. We do not have the money or the sponsors, but we are just as legitimate as FIFA. In ConIFA the associations have a bigger voice in the organization and they reinforce each other. It’s not about money or being the best in football, it’s about giving people a chance to show themselve to the world and help to give those people a sense of dignity.”
You are being tipped as favorites for the title, but Friday you must face Ellan Vannin, the Isle of Man, in the semi-finals first. How do you perceive your chances?
“My experience with this kind of opponent is that all depends on concentration. It will be an open game and the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. They have a strong side with ten players who all play on the same team on the home island. We really have to operate as a unit and make as few mistakes as possible in order to win this match. Despite our short preparation time, I noticed that the boys share the same winners and survival mentality distinctive for our people. This is a very good quality in a tight match. We talk a lot to them about this and they may have gotten a bit bored, but opponents and people here in town all say that our group shows the most joy. There can hardly be a bigger compliment.”
I’ll post an update on Saturday. The game against Ellan Vannin will be played 19.00 CET Friday June 6. Check for more info, the schedule and live streams http://worldfootballcup.org/
The picture of the Aramean squad is from the FaceBook page of Football Association Arameans Suryoye
The panorama of the Jämtkraft Arena is from http://www.groundhopping.se/Ostersund.htm
99 years ago hundreds of thousand Armenian, Greek and Aramean christians were murdered in what has become known as the first genocide of the modern era. The world stood by as the Ottomans gave Kurdish militias a free hand in cleansing Anatolia of its, mostly indigenous, Christian inhabitants. Sadder still, the modern Turkish Republic never came to terms with this dark page in its own history. Numerous Armenians and Greek fled the country and most of them could find a safe haven in their own countries. This was not an option for the remaining Arameans who have been living in the south eastern province of Mardin ever since history was recorded. They formed scattered communities all over the world. Although Erdogan has called upon them to return ‘home’, his administration has done little to provide a basis for their return. On the contrary, numerous lawsuits have been filed against monasteries and villages in an attempt to expropriate lands belonging to the small Aramean communities that remained.
Almost a hundred years have passed and even in the West the Turkish denial of the genocide is stinging like a sword (the Arameans call the events that passed ‘the times of the sword’) in the hearts of many descendants of the survivors. On April 24 a monument was taken into use at the Apostolic Armenian Church in Almelo, The Netherlands. A few hundred Turks took to the streets to protest against the use of the term ‘genocide’ and petitioned the local government to take down the monument. Seeing no results, a massive protest with nationalistic imagery only seen around football matches and elections was held last Sunday. Again, Almelo was the stage. Police counted 3000 participants. The demonstration was peaceful in nature, but its message was grim: ‘we do not acknowledge you’.
One could think that the present Turks can not be held accountable for the sins of their forefathers. But by keeping denying the events they rule out every possible form of rapprochement and reconciliation. I speak of Turks, but this has been and still is the official policy of the Turkish government. Even Turkish scholars like Taner Akçam have pointed this out and conclude that the current Turkish Republic is still responsible. It’s bad when your home country isn’t your home country, but it is even worse when deliberate policies are employed to erase the history, language and culture of the indigenous people of a country completely. Denying the right to commemorate our dead on our own properties in The Netherlands is a crime in itself.