By Susanne Güsten
IDIL, TURKEY — Clambering over the rubble of what was once his hometown, Robert Tutus pointed to a spot just up the road from where his family’s house had stood. “This is where my father was assassinated,” he said. “Two men walked up to him as he was returning home one evening, and killed him with a bullet to his head.” His father, Sukru Tutus, was the last Christian mayor of Azeh, known as Idil in Turkish, a town in southeastern Anatolia that traces its Christianity back to the time of the Apostles.
Within a month of his killing, which happened on June 17, 1994, Mr. Tutus recalled last month, the remaining Christian population of the town, several hundred people at the time, had gathered their belongings and fled to asylum in Western Europe.
The departure marked the end of the Christian era of Azeh, which had been a bishop’s seat as early as the second century and home to a Christian population of several thousand until the late 1970s.
Only ruins scattered about the hillside remain of their town today, while above it shabby concrete buildings rise to form the new town of Idil, inhabited by local Kurds and Arabs as well as a few Turkish administrators on temporary postings to the east.
And then there is Mr. Tutus, 42, camped out in an apartment in one of those buildings while he tries to reclaim his father’s properties and rebuild his parental home among the ruins on the hillside.
“This is our home, the home of the Syriac people,” Mr. Tutus said. “We will not give it up.”
The plateau of Tur Abdin, upon which Idil lies nestled between the Syrian plain and the mountain ranges of southeastern Turkey, is the historical heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose patriarchate resided here until tensions with the Turkish republic pushed it to move to Syria in 1933.
The region is still dotted with Syriac churches like Mor Gabriel, which was founded in the year 397 and is one of the oldest active monasteries in the world today. But apart from the monks, very few Syriacs remain.
A century ago, they numbered 200,000 here, according to the European Syriac Union, a diaspora organization. Some 50,000 survived the massacres of Anatolian Christians during World War I, in which the Syriac people shared the fate of the Armenians. Today, no more than 4,500 Syriac Christians, who speak a local dialect of the Aramaic language as well as Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish, remain in Tur Abdin.
In Azeh, which held out against a siege by surrounding Kurdish villages for months in 1915, the final push in the age-old power struggle over the town began in 1977, when Mayor Sukru Tutus was deposed by the Turkish authorities in what his successor, Abdurrahman Abay, today freely acknowledges was a rigged election.
“The military commander, the judge, the district governor — they encouraged me to run and they helped me” to win, Mr. Abay, chief of the powerful Kurdish Kecan tribe, said last month over a glass of tea in Idil. “After the election, I received a telegram from Egypt, from Anwar el-Sadat. It read: ‘I congratulate you on the Muslim conquest of Idil.”’
The takeover brought the dramatic shift in the town’s demographics that was completed in 1994, with Kurds from the surrounding villages moving in as Syriac families sold up and joined the rising flow of Christian migration from the Tur Abdin to Europe.
Today, 80,000 Syriacs from the Tur Abdin live in Germany, 60,000 in Sweden, and 10,000 each in Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to estimates from the European Syriac Union.
Mr. Tutus found political asylum in Germany, together with his mother, six sisters and three brothers, all but one of whom have since acquired German citizenship and settled there.
A decade later, he was one of the first exiles to accept the Turkish government’s public invitation to Syriacs to return home. It was issued in 2001 under pressure from the European Union and repeated on several occasions.
Although he carries a German passport, Mr. Tutus spends much of his time in Idil, where he has overseen the restoration of the Church of St. Mary and last year founded an Association for Syriac Culture.
“Our aim is to keep the Syriac language and culture alive in Idil, and to remind people that this is the home of the Syriacs,” Mr. Tutus said.
Although the association’s office was fire-bombed this year, Mr. Tutus remains undeterred.
“We want the world to see that Syriacs still live here,” he said. It is a desire he shares with hundreds of pioneering Syriacs across the Tur Abdin, who have returned from exile in Europe in recent years in an attempt to reclaim their heritage and pave the way for a Christian resettlement of the region.
In the village of Kafro, 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, west of Idil, villagers out for a stroll in the spring sunshine on their neatly stone-flagged street last month gathered around a baby carriage to coo over its occupant. They were admiring Nahir Demir, 1 year old, the first offspring of his family to be born in Kafro since the Syriac village was abandoned by order of the Turkish Army in 1994.
“My father was the last to go,” said Aziz Demir, 45, mayor of the newly rebuilt village. The order to evacuate, he recalled, came at the height of fighting between the army and Kurdish rebels in this region.
But when permission to return was issued in a brief bureaucratic directive by the Turkish government in 2001, the Syriacs of Kafro rushed back from Europe to rebuild their village and to resettle their children in an ancient land they had never seen.
A dozen modern limestone villas now rise up over the ruins of the old village of Kafro, complete with walled gardens and pink-tiled bathrooms, built with the lifetime savings of Syriacs returning from decades in the factories of Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
Six years after the first moving trucks arrived, Kafro’s population is around 50 and rising, despite the hazards. Both schooling and employment prospects are poor in this impoverished region, where neighboring Kurds herd sheep and ride donkeys to market.
“We knew it would not be easy, and we knew the risks,” said Israel Demir, 46, builder of the villas and father of little Nahir as well as of three teenage daughters transplanted from Goppingen, Germany, in 2006. “But we also know our duty.”
That duty, Mr. Demir said, lies in ensuring the future of the Syriac people.
“I feel a great responsibility, toward my children and toward my people, for safeguarding our homeland for future generations,” Mr. Demir said in an interview in Kafro last month. “Because I know that when a people leaves its land, its home, it has no choice but to assimilate. We can see it happening to our families in Europe and in America. There is a danger that in a few decades the Syriacs will cease to exist.”
Mr. Demir paid a personal price for his mission last year when he barely survived after being shot by Kurdish shepherds while trying to prevent them from grazing their flocks on village land.
But neither the hostility of the locals nor a perceived lack of support from the Turkish authorities will deter him, he said.
“I am trying to open the door to the return of our people,” he said. “I have pushed the door open. Now others must decide whether they will follow me and step through it.”
In the neighboring village of Enhil, Fehmi Isler, 50, took a more sober view of the future as he gazed out from the slim bell tower of the village church over dozens of newly restored houses, one of them his own.
“Only the older people come back, the ones who were born and raised here,” he said.
Dormant in the winter, Enhil comes alive at Easter with the arrival of 300 to 400 Syriacs exiles from Western Europe who have restored their family homes in the past few years for use as summer houses.
“But the young people won’t come, and who can blame them,” Mr. Isler said. “There’s nothing for them to do here but gaze at the cattle and collect cow patties.”
Mr. Isler, who was in Enhil to bury an aunt, who died in a retirement home in Augsburg, Germany, in keeping with her last wish, said his own five children had made the trip from Germany only once.
“No Internet, no mobile phones, no swimming pool — forget it,” he said. “And the Kurdish women yelled at the girls to show some modesty and cover up.”
In Idil, Mr. Tutus is similarly skeptical of his chances of success in attempting to persuade the Syriac diaspora to resettle in Idil. With the war raging on between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish Army, it is an uphill struggle, he said.
“Everyone talks about returning, but it’s just talk,” he said. “I’m here fighting for our return, but they’re sitting tight over there.”
Even Mr. Tutus’s wife, a Syriac herself, and his children, aged 11 and 7, will not come, preferring to stay in Frankfurt after being badly frightened during a visit to Idil.
“There was a power cut and gunfire in the street at night,” Mr. Tutus said. “After that, they refused to come back.”