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.

 

Advertenties

Yesterday I wrote about the Pope’s visit to Palestine and the strange moments Mahmoud Abbas shared with the Pontiff. Monday evening, it was Benjamin Netanyahu’s turn in trying to show some love towards the Christians of Israel. Maybe his mistake of claiming that Jesus spoke Hebrew is a bit less scary than Abass’ antics, but it is exemplary for the tough relationship between Israel and the Church, and between Jews and Christians. The Pope corrected Netanyahu and said that Jesus spoke Aramaic, which Netanyahu quickly confirmed and added “but he did know Hebrew”. As a native Aramaic speaker (more specifically Syriac, the Western Aramaic dialect of Edessa) I was thrilled to see Netanyahu getting his facts served right, but at the same time I realized that we as Christians have a very long way to go in safeguarding our culture and heritage when even the PM of Israel struggles with our history, although Arameans have always lived in Israel.

The struggle is deep, just moments after the Pope’s visit to the Church of the Dormition a fire was discovered in one of the rooms. A couple of wooden crosses and a book in which pilgrims inscribe prayers was lost. No persons were arrested but suspicions point to radical Jews who want to see Mount Zion ‘cleaned’ of non Hebrew influences. Another act radical Jews and Palestinians alike take part in is throwing rocks at people who ‘don’t belong’ in Jerusalem. I had to run for my life after an encounter with Palestinian kids on the Mountain of the Olives last year. These conservative orthodox Jews pose a big challenge for the Israeli government. Some of them don’t recognize the government and refuse to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces, although a lot of military personnel protect the settlements they live in. Read some of stories of ex-IDF soldiers on http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/

Recent changes in applying for military service made it possible for ‘Christian Arabs’ to join the ranks voluntarily. Some christian groups, mainly based in the West Bank, see this as a deliberate attempt by the government to split Christians. Others, like some Aramaic Christians I know personally, welcome this step and even petitioned the governemt a year ago to allow them to enlist. ‘It’s our country too and we need to make clear to everyone that we are not Arabs. This will help us’. It’s a small step in the emancipation of this small group but it’s an important one. Abraham said; ‘my father was a wandering Aramean’ and in the years after, the Syrian Orthodox especially, have always wandered and lived under various rulers. After the fall of city states such as Damascus the people learned how to survive and pass on their culture and identity to this very day. When I introduced myself as ‘Aramit’ to IDF staff at the airports and various checkpoints, their eyes widened and I was treated with admiration even.

The Pope maybe has opened the eyes of Israelis a little bit, but there are still a lot of fires raging threatening the presence of Christians and their culture and traditions. Much more work is needed, but with this Pope, I think we have an excellent advocate.

 

 

 


Pope Francis’ visit to Israel, Jordan and Palestine held a message of peace to the Middle East and the world, but the message PM Abbas of Palestine was awkward at its best. Last December he claimed that Jesus was a Palestinian “who brought the gospel and became a guide for millions worldwide, just as we, the Palestinians, are fighting for our freedom, 2,000 years later. We try to walk in his footsteps to the extent possible.” In his latest attempts to depict Jesus as the Che Guevera of the Palestinian cause, Abbas presented doctored images of famous paintings that try to depict the current suffering of the Palestinian people. An extensive article was written by Paul Alster for foxnews.com: www.foxnews.com/world/2014/05/25/outcry-as-palestinians-present-doctored-christianpaintings-on-papal-route/

How inappropriate these pictures may be, Abbas feels he’s free to use them and express his opinions to the world. I would not deny him this right, but only if he also would consider the same freedom and rights for his Christian countrymen. Two weeks ago I wrote about islamist groups profiling themselves in Bethlehem and Nazareth. By distorting the narrative of the Bible and the image of Christ, Abbas is aiding those who do not allow a Christian presence in the streets, towns and villages where not only Christianity began, but where millions of people travel to experience what it is like to truly walk in His footsteps.

Pope Francis has invited Abbas to visit the Vatican, I would also recommend to give him a crash course on Christianity.


Church of the NativityA strange thing occurred in Bethlehem last Saturday: at the entrance to the Nativity Church a group calling itself ‘Dar assalam for introducing Islam’ was handing out free copies of the Quran and other books on Islam. There are two things that are unnerving: first, there is a mosque on the other side of Manger Square, and second, why does Islam need introduction in this particular part of the world? Tensions almost never cease to be high in Israel or the Palestinian Territories, however the remaining Christians could live in relative peace the past years. To the law, they are as mobile and free as their Palestinian countrymen. However, I cannot see this handing out of books in front of one of the most important and oldest churches in the world as nothing short of a provocation. I received comments from Bethlehem that ‘no Christian dares to hand out the Bible in front of a mosque’, and no official institution has commented on the matter since. It is not clear what the true purpose of this organization is, nor what it’s affiliations are. The pictures and texts on their FaceBook page (see link below) don’t seem provocative on first sight, but bear in mind the fragile position of Christians in the Middle East. Some fundamentalist are more subtle than others, but not less dangerous.

Of the 26.000 inhabitants of Bethlehem, some 4.000 are Christian. They are not only the caretakers of various important religious sites, but also the indigenous inhabitants of these lands. Christianity was born here, well before the Arabian conquest of the area. Ever since the first ‘introductions’ of Islam the Christians learned to cope with the constant fear for their safety and freedoms. Whether good or bad will come out of this book sharing organization remains to be seen. However, the West should always consider the religious freedoms of Christians when dealing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, especially when the local authorities turn a blind eye.

Main source (in Arabic and with pictures): http://www.calam1.org/a/11159/

Update: signs have been posted by this and other organizations in places like Nazareth. The texts are not pro-Islam in nature, but more anti-Christian. See or


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.


Expectations. I never travel with high ones but I thought I would leave the way of the Tourist to become a Pilgrim in Jerusalem. Almost nothing less is true. I tried to find spirituality in the Via Dolorosa (contains 9 of the 14 stations of the Cross), the tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (last 5 stations) and various other places, but it was hard. Only in the last two days I felt the meaning of this place. One moment was in the church of he Holy Sepulchre where we celebrated holy mass with the bishop and a small part of Jerusalem’s Syrian Orthodox congregation in the tiny church of St Nicodemus. It truly is special singing from the fankitho about the crucifixition and resurrection while you are standing at the very place it took place (also the grave of Joseph of Arimathea is only two meters away from the altar). Hearing and singing the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic together with forty voices in the small cave that is our church warmed the heart, spirit and soul.
This morning it was only me with the two monks at St Mark’s church. Their solemn prayers made me finally feel at rest. The weariness of walking, talking and haggling washed away and only the good memories remained.

Bethlehem was something else. The surreal experience of passing through the wall on foot (first words that came to mind: scary, desolate, prison) made a big impression, the hustle downtown a couple of minutes later makes you forget such a thing exists. But it does has a profound influence on the lives of people in the West Bank, something the majority does not deserve I believe. With a dear friend I visited the church of the Nativity, the church of the milk grotto, had falafel at Dawood and later passed by shepherd’s field (which could have been any field in the vicinity, but still three different denominations claim a part of a tree-lined area). Here I also felt a sense of belonging, not in the least part due to a belly full of maqloobe, labaneh, figs and knafeh. The warmth of a Syriac home or church can never be cooled off by a wall, government or war.

Where Turkey felt like a home without a ‘welcome’ doormat, I think that I have fallen in love with this country. It has its downsides too, I saw two beat up women in the streets of the Old City, I saw a wall that should not exist and I saw the greed in the people’s eyes and their actions. The peace in Jerusalem floats on a cork made of money and a strong military presence. There is more respect for a full wallet than the religion of the other. I do not think a pilgrimage by air, airconditioned and WiFi fitted buses and greedy taxi drivers is the way to find Christ nor your inner self. The nature of cities is that they grow with the needs of their people and visitors. As a city councillor, I know these needs and expectations can interfere with each other. Where I took the cable car to Qarantul on the Mountain of Temptation in Jericho, which has charms of its own but still, I would have rather walked up there. Where I entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a photo camera, and I did take some nice pictures, I should have done so with a bible in hand. And where I spend most of my time in and around the Old City visiting various biblical sites, I wish that I had spent more time with my new friends who took me in their home and showed me around.

‘Why are you leaving so soon?’ Raban Shemun asked me yesterday. ‘I got a taste of this place, and I am no satiated yet.’ Shalom, toda, Shlomo and taudi. It has been a terrific journey.

On a side note:
– Celebrating mass at the tomb of the Virgin Mary is something special. ‘Celebration’ is not the right word though, it is a yelling contest between the Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox as they pray at their respective altars at the same time. The Copts have their own altar but are with even less people than the Syrian Orthodox.
– Mor Severius, the bishop of Israel and Jordan has a great sense of humor, and loves to share funny youtube videos.
– Raban Shemun is an old, gentle and peaceful man. He knows almost all residing clergymen in the Old City and they all stop to greet him. But when walking to church, it takes a pair of very good legs to keep pace with him. Thankfully he stops for a short prayer at each station of the Cross.
– Lines at check-in counters and security gates tend to be long due to a lot of baby carts, that’s why there are no lines at food courts, bars or fast food restaurants. You just fight your way up front, place your order and wait until someone shouts your name.

Read previous: Intermezzo: Petra & Wadi Rum


I can cross the border between The Netherlands and Germany a hundred times a day without anybody asking me what I am doing, why I want to go to the other side and what the names of my parents are. Even if this may look suspicious, upon identifying myself (and provided I am not carrying illegal goods), I can cross that border a hundred times more. Such is not the case between Israel and Jordan. Getting in to Jordan was not that big of a deal (it did cost $60 though), but getting back to Israel was. But more on that later because spending a day in Petra, a night and a full day in the desert of Wadi Rum, now that’s something special that makes the trouble at the border a minor nuisance. But it does makes you appreciate the EU and Shengen treaty more.

We arrived by mini bus before noon in Petra. I can go to lenghts describing everything, but lucky for you others did this already so you can find the stories and books on the web. Some of the good stuff: Al Khaznah, the Treasury, even more impressing in the dawning sun and the reason why Petra is also called the Red Rose City, Al Deir, the Monastery, as it takes a good 800 steps to get there (some claim a thousand) and the Aramaic inscriptions on some of the tombs. The Nabateans who founded this necropolis employed the Aramaic script, so you can say my ancestors rocked literally. If not famous for its place in history, it sure is because scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were shot here. The day which constituted a 7 miles walk and the hike up to the Monastery could have ended two ways: in a nice comfortable three stars hotel with a swimming pool and hamam, or in a bedouin camp in the dessert. I chose the latter of course.

The Ammarin Bedouin camp is almost completely surrounded by rugged rocks and mountains. Imagine a natural amphitheater with black tents surrounding a huge sand square in the middle. I was welcomed by an attendee with some sweet thick Bedouin tea. Not that later I met my fellow campers, an American/ French couple from Paris and a couple from Amman, the capital of Jordan who “got away from the hustle and bustle of the city”. We shared a traditional meal, stories and after dinner some more tea near the campfire while listening to Abu Mohammed, the tribe leader, playing on a Bedouin guitar. As the fire got smaller the tea got thicker to a point that I had to refuse. Immerged in stories on culture and habits we lost track of time until we were informed that the generator would be switched off in 15 minutes, so if we would like to brush our teeth, we had to do it then. We brushed, washed up and returned to the fire. We layed on our backs, conversating until all sounds seized to exists. As the generator was switched off and the lights were killed, thousands of stars lit the sky above the dark silhouettes of the mountains surrounding us. “There’s one” were the only words softly spoken as another star shot through the sky. I wonder if Abraham looked at the same sky as he was told: “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants I will bless you with”.

I got drowsy while still riled up by the spectacle above so I decided to sleep outside by the fire. I got the matress, blanket and pillow out of the tent, prepared my bed and layed there. I did had one concern though “Aren’t there any scorpions around here?” The Jordanian answered, “well, probably there are some, but you know, the scorpion that decides to find you here, will also find you in the tent” with that reassuring thought I went to sleep. I managed until about two in the morning, the cold desert wind blew in my face and sent chills through my spine. The log in the fire place was consumed completely. I took to the the tent, but woke up early enough to find a place on a rock and feel the sun’s first rays as it climbed over the mountains.

image

The adventure continued immediately after breakfast. With Mohammed, the driver, guide and cook for the day we picked up three fellow travellers at the hotel (sucks to be them) in Wadi Musa. We only stopped for more Bedouin tea or Turkish kardamom coffee on the two hours drive to Wadi Rum, the valley of sands. We hiked up sand dunes and rocks to capture the breathtaking views of this famous desert. At the start the Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be seen and later on some more places mentioned in T.E. Lawrence’s book, on which the motion picture ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is based. Depending on the time of year, the desert can be a combination of red, hot, yellow, white with flowers, brown, cold, green or wet (just a couple of days). Me, Mohammed and the Aussies had great fun, did some Bedouin disco (watch for it on my Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/ErwinJI ) and enjoyed an excellent barbeque prepared by Muhammed in his special restaurant “the other drivers don’t have the cars or camels to get here”. He grilled the chicken he slaughtered earlier the day, and together with salads, hummus and bread prepared by his mother we had more than our share. There was just enough room to finish the desert picknick off with a dessert of goat cheese with honey baked in thin layers of pastry (local version of knafeh. Of course we ended in another Bedouin tent where we were joined by the American/ French couple and as custom dictates, tea was served.

image

Tired, with a head full of memories and shoes filled with sand we were dropped off at the border crossing. I still do not know what makes me so interesting, but what clearly does not help when going into Israel is having a Turkish last name and a Turkish visum in your passport. Not only was I put through the list of questions, I had to wait half an hour for ‘some extra security checks’. I really hope that they have all my answers and details in a digital file now, as I plan to travel into the West Bank this week. Also, I got a sense of what the bedouin tribes had and still go through, they feel like the desert is their home and the desert knows no national boundaries. Tomorow starts the first visit of this pilgrim to the Holy City. Mode of travel will be an airconditioned bus through the Negev.

On a side note:
– there is a star rating system for bedouin camps too, they range from one star (only tents, not even made from goat hair) to five (bathrooms, sat TV, wifi and a restaurant).
– aside from being sweet, bedouin also put herbs like sage and thyme in their tea, which makes it absolutely super refreshing
– I was mistaken for an arab so many times I decided to get a head scarf, now I am on the market for camels and wives.
– a camel can cost as much as a new Volkswagen Up! A camel can park by itself though.
– Jordanians can talk about food the entire day, Jordanians make me hungry, but also rise to the occasion.

Read next: A week in the Holy City
Read previous: First week in the Promised Land: Diving in the Red Sea