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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.


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.

 


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.

 

 

 


qum Moran men auw qabro, eido brikho al kulkhun, Our Lord has risen from the grave, a blessed Easter to all of you. Here is yesterday’s story.

This shabto d-shulyo (lit. ‘Saturday of Silence’, Holy Saterday in the RC tradition) was a remarkable day. For the first time in more than 30 years a large group of Aramaic christians visited the Mor Augin monastery on Mount Izlo. The monastery was founded by Mor Augin, the saint that came to Tur Abdin from Egypt and with his followers established monasticism in the region. The monastery is one of the many places of worship they build in Tur Abdin. Two years ago raban (monk) Yoken and raban Aho got the keys and started renovating and rehabilitating yet another pearl on the neklace of this ancient treasure chamber. With them the christian villagers of nearby villages of Marbobo, Gremira and Kritho d-Ito joined hands and formed a new comittee to support their efforts. The buses barely could maneuver the steep road that winds up the ridge. We had to walk the last 500 meters. With each step I took, more of my breath was taken away by the splendid edifices hewn and build on the mountain. The Pilgrim has again reached a destination.

We were received by the two monks and people from the villages previously mentioned. A storm changed the plan slightly so we got a tour of the place first and seated for lunch later. Raban Yoken gave us a brief history of the monastery, its churches and the tombs holding the graves of Mor Augin and various saints and patriarchs. The construction of the altar is unique and it is believed that the wooden beams supporting the roof of the altar were once part of Noah’s Ark. Various universities already offered assistance in researching this claim. After this introduction and some words of gratitude 150 voices sang Abun d-beshmayo (Our Father) in aramaic. Upon leaving the church I could still hear the prayer echoed by the thirteen meters high vaulted ceiling.

Outside I tried to take a moment of silence to really breath in the place. What struck me was how many noises were around me. It took some concentration to filter out the talk of men and hear the songs of birds and the rustling of the wind as it graced over the mountain. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again I noticed the warde d-nison, (lit. ‘flowers of April’, poppies in English). I already saw a lot of them growing in the fields around Midyat but here they seem to defy nature and grow out of cracks in the rocks. Many books have been written with the ink made from this flower. When I thought I could feel the mountain itself breathing I was called to lunch. Was it my imagination or the feeling of the want of food that was made known to my brain by my growling stomach? We enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by the good people of the villages, I can even say the love that was put in making it fed our souls. It was rumoured that it took them a week to prepare. We had to walk the whole way down but I dare to say that not a single person did not turn his or her head around to have one, two or more final looks at Mor Augin. A view words cannot describe.

In the evening we visited the center of Syrian Orthodoxy, the Mor Gabriel monastery. Founded in 397 it stands on a hilltop overlooking hundreds of olive trees. Although it housed saints, bishops, monks and thousands of student ever since, it is now struggeling for its survival. It is sued to the courts by the treasury department and nearby villages claiming its lands and the destruction of the surrounding walls. Again the tourists were preoccupied with taking pictures and chatter as I was looking for a place to clear my mind and just not think of anything. It was not easy because the path of the Pilgrim crossed that of the tourists in the church of the Virgin Mary, the Dome of Theodora, the Church of Mor Gabriel, the beth qadishe (burial tomb of the saints). Finally I found a place away from it all and realised how much of our time is taken by activities that do not feed our souls and do not provide peace of mind.

When we returned to our hotel with a small group later that night in Midyat I said to my small fellowship, just be silent and look to the stars. And so it happened that we saw a shooting star for the first time in our lives.

On a side note:

  • We celebrated the birthday of Adam Cello, who turned 26 ( just before seeing the shooting star)
  • When I asked during dinner and later at the small birthday party if anyone noticed that we did not get tlauhé at lunch in Mor Augin everyone replied they did not, and smiled
  • Some people are blaming the rain on the travellers from the Netherlands, Johny Messo turned it around and called it a blessing for the grounds
  • We received training in bargaining from a pro when a traveller from Kerboran gave the store owner a dismal look, turned around, waved the last offer of with his hand and gave a ‘tsssssk’. The sunglasses 10 meters further down the road dropped in price by 50%

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