But just 10 kilometres to the east of Enhil, the picture is totally different: suddenly, two dozen smart stone villas appear from nowhere in the middle of the rocky desert. Over the past few years, returnees from Germany, Sweden and Switzerland have settled in Kafro, a village that stood empty for 12 years.

Built in the architectural styles used by their ancestors, the neat houses seem to send a message: we’re back to stay. On the edge of the village there’s a chapel with a stone plaque stating that it was sponsored by the church of Wurttemberg. In the village itself, there’s a flourishing pizzeria run by a returnee from Stuttgart. "Kafro’s Pizzeria" is very popular with young Muslims from the province of Mardin.

Tuscan scenes in Anatolia

Eating pizza in the vine-clad summer garden, a visitor might imagine that this could just as well be Tuscany as south-eastern Anatolia. Only ayran, the chilled yoghurt drink, locates the scene firmly in Turkish culture. This new prosperity in Kafro clouds a very recent memory: just 40 kilometres to the south over the Syrian border, the fate of Aramaic Christians looks very different.

People sit in the shade in front of the Mor Barsamo Church in Midyat (photo: Marian Brehmer)
The number of Aramaic Christians has been declining steadily for decades. As early as the sixties and seventies the Aramaeans began to move to Europe for economic reasons. In the nineties, the Kurdish war in south-eastern Turkey led to the exodus of entire villages to Europe. Today about 100,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians live in Germany, many of whom visit their old villages in the summer

During an Islamic State campaign in the winter of 2015, hundreds of Christians were abducted and murdered in the villages around the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. Most of the villages inhabited by Syriac-Orthodox Christians in northern Syria have been destroyed, churches burned and abandoned. IS violence has driven many Christians out of Syria into Tur Abdin. Within the Kirklar Church congregation too, many of the 150 Aramean new arrivals found refuge in Mardin. For them, the town is a base on the journey to Europe where as Christians, they believe they will have a better chance of being granted asylum.

Iliyo’s father co-ordinates the emergency assistance, arranging meals and accommodation for those refugees who don’t want to live in Turkish government camps. An irony of history: some of them are living in the empty houses of Christians who were themselves forced to leave Mardin during the conflict with the Kurds. In addition, many Arameans in Syria are descendants of Christians who had to flee Anatolia 100 years ago because of Ottoman persecution.

Iliyo thinks it’s highly unlikely that the true owners of the dilapidated stone houses in Mardin will ever come back: "If Aramaic Christians from Europe move back to Tur Abdin today, then they do it for spiritual reasons. Certainly not for economic ones. They do better in Europe," he says, adding that most of those returning from Europe are elderly people yearning for retirement in their homeland.

Nevertheless, there’s no talk of dying out in the Kirklar congregation of Mardin. In fact, there are also positive signs: for example, the Artuklu University in Mardin has been offering a course in Aramaic language and history for several years now, something that would have been inconceivable in Turkey 10 years ago. Amid what are otherwise gloomy scenarios concerning the future of the Middle Eastern Christians, the resilience of the Tur Abdin Arameans offers a glimmer of hope.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2019

More on this topic