After Turkey’s devastating earthquakes, can a 2,000-year-old Christian community survive?
“We’ve been here for 2,000 years, and we’re here to stay,” says Ibrahim Gülenay, a feisty 60-something who stops at every street corner in Samandag to greet someone he knows. Mr. Gülenay is a Turkish citizen of Arab descent. He has been living in this city in Turkey’s Hatay province his whole life.
“We are an Arab people,” he says, speaking of his ancestors, one of the first people to settle in the region while modern borders were drawn around them. This duality of national and ethnic identity is common in Hatay, in southwest Turkey, one of the regions most affected by two devastating earthquakes—7.8 and 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale—that struck on Feb. 6. The death toll in Turkey and Syria from the resulting catastrophe is now more than 52,000 and still rising as more bodies are discovered under the debris of thousands of buildings.
Long before the earthquakes in February, the viability of the Christian community in Samandag had been under cultural and economic threat.
Survivors in Samandag report that eight members of the city’s small Christian community died in the earthquakes. They have been buried in the city’s Christian cemetery. Because of the risk of further collapse, Turkish authorities have prohibited the return of survivors to their damaged homes. Many will have no choice but to leave Samandag to seek shelter with relatives in other cities or outside of Turkey altogether.
Long before the earthquakes, the viability of the Christian community in Samandag had been under cultural and economic threat. Many from the city’s minority Christian community had already departed, seeking economic or educational opportunities in other parts of Turkey or Europe or even further abroad in the United States, Canada or Australia. Others have moved on because of the growing Islamicization of the Turkish state. Now community leaders fear the earthquake has struck a perhaps fatal blow to the viability of this small community.
Samandag is located just 20 miles from Antakya, modern-day Antioch and the capital of Hatay Province; and 100 miles from the epicenter of the twin earthquakes. Before the disaster, it had been a picturesque city of 120,000 inhabitants with a long sandy beach running into the Mediterranean Sea. Though many homes in residential neighborhoods survived the earthquakes, Samandag’s city center, once bustling with busy shops and crowded restaurants, is in utter ruin. Its main park has been transformed into a tent city. Shops are closed, and only a few people roam the streets.
A family rests by a pile of rubble. “This was our house; we are trying to save what we can,” says a woman watching a construction excavator at work. As in other cities in Hatay, virtually all of Samandag’s tall buildings have collapsed, and many structures that remain standing are clearly damaged, with cracks visible in bearing walls and foundations.
As in other cities in Turkey’s Hatay province, virtually all of Samandag’s tall buildings have collapsed. Many structures that remain standing are damaged, with cracks visible in bearing walls and foundations.
Mr. Gülenay points out that the Christians of Hatay are descendants of the world’s first Christians and have lived in Hatay for centuries. “We need to protect the Christian community of Samandag,” he says. The Christians wish to remain here. “This is our home.”
“We love our traditions, our culture; we have been living this way for two thousand years,” says the Rev. Abdallah Yumurta Trifon, pastor of the heavily damaged St. Elias, a Greek Orthodox church. Founded in 1901, it was built by the Bassous family, a still-prosperous Samandag family.
Though the city is also home to a small Armenian Christian community, the largest religious communities in Samandag are Alawite Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians. Originally from the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia, both communities have remained Arabic speakers. Their rites are celebrated in Arabic, and they have maintained their distinct culture throughout the centuries.
Arabic is the language of everyday life among the Christian and Alawite communities in the south of Turkey. Syria is very close by, and more than 3 million Syrian refugees have entered Turkey over the last decade as civil war raged in Syria. Those who cannot travel further into Turkey or Europe stay in the Hatay region. Over 400,000 Syrian refugees have taken up residence here.
Samandag’s Christian community resides primarily in the city’s Zeitouneh neighborhood. Zeitouneh, from the Arabic word zeitoun, “olive,” is close to the sea. It had been a wealthy neighborhood—each house a villa with large gardens and everywhere the aroma of oranges. Now the residences of its long streets are mostly empty. Most homes here have been declared uninhabitable.
“For now, we can pray outside, but if our community disappears because their houses aren’t repaired, it’s useless to restore the churches.”
There are four churches in Zeitouneh: St. Elias, St. George, the Church of the Virgin Mary and St. Takla. All four churches were damaged by the earthquakes and scores of tremors that followed but are still standing.
Sera, 34, is a Christian resident of Zeitouneh. She works as a teacher. “School is closed for now, at least until the end of March,” she says. Of course, under the circumstances no one can say for sure when schools will actually reopen. She worries about the impact the dislocation will have on her students.
Sera stays at home with her son, but now the family is now living off of one income. “How do you hope to teach children who do not have a home? They cannot focus; they cannot study correctly.”
Out of the 22 teachers of the school, 18 are now living in tents. Others have fled the region. Sera initially continued living in her house after the earthquake. “The soil our houses are built on is very dry, so it is more stable,” she says. But after another 6.4 earthquake struck on Feb. 20, she moved into a tent in the family garden with her husband and son.
“My son didn’t really feel the first one,” she remembers. “He was sound asleep and didn’t realize what was happening. But during the last one [on Feb. 20], he was very, very scared. He even asked me, ‘Mom, why is God letting this happen?’ It was very hard on him.”
Julia Helin resides in Zeitouneh with her husband and son. Her family is of Syrian Lebanese descent, moving to Hatay generations ago from Aleppo, Syria. Her adult daughter and son live in France, where many members of her family now permanently reside. Julia is a fervent defender of her Greek Orthodox community in Samandag. Her family is wealthy, and she and her husband have helped pay for the restoration and maintenance of St. Elias and other Christian churches. “My religion is very important to me,” she says.
Her husband owns a trucking company in the region, delivering fruits and vegetables to market, and Julia and her family had a comfortable life in Samandag before the earthquake struck. Their three-story villa had been a proof of the family’s success. “We are Christians of the Orient; we like luxury,” Mrs. Helin says with a wry smile.
Residents have been ordered by municipal officials not to return to their homes, which have been damaged beyond repair. Some take the risk of entering to collect what belongings and family mementos they can.
She is not sure that life can be restored now.
“Before, I used to go to the salon to get my hair done before going to the restaurant with friends,” Mrs. Helin says. “And the best restaurants, of course.”
She and her husband were asleep when the earthquakes struck at about 4 a.m. She remembers: “I was yelling his name; he was yelling mine, but we couldn’t hear each other with all the noise. The bed was moving up and down and from side to side. We couldn’t walk; we had to wait until it was over to get out of the house.” The furniture in the Helin house shifted and fell, and the villa’s walls cracked.
Now, she is living in a big tent in her garden. Like many of her neighbors, she is fearful of sleeping indoors, inside a building that could collapse around her. Many others have been ordered by municipal officials not to return to their homes, which have been damaged beyond repair. Some take the risk of entering to collect what belongings and family mementos they can.
Used to living in luxury, Mrs. Helin is now learning to sleep in a car or in a tent. “My family tells me to come meet them in Paris; I’ll surely go!” There is little reason to stay with her home and the family business in ruin. “The earthquake destroyed my husband’s garage; all of the trucks are crushed,” she says. “We have no more income.”
Only one of her adult children remains in Samandag. The rest are abroad and will now stay abroad. This is the greatest fear of the representative of the Zeitouneh Christian community, Demyan Emektas. He is in the beginninig of his third five-year term as Samandag’s Christian designated representative before the Turkish state. In his day-to-day life, he is a family doctor. His daughter, studying in Istanbul to be a doctor as well, will come back to Samandag someday, he says.
Julia Helin is living in a big tent in her garden. Like many of her neighbors, she is fearful of sleeping indoors, inside a building that could collapse around her.
The Christian community here was 2,300 families in the 1950s, about the time the Christians began to drift away to seek better opportunities. “There was no money, no jobs here, so many [Christians] left,” Mr. Emektas says. Most moved to other cities in Turkey, among them Mersin, 150 miles north of Samandag, a bigger city that also hosts a small Christian community. Now there are only 430 families remaining in Samandag, around 1,600 people.
The Christians of Samandag say the different Islamic and Christian communities here have always enjoyed good relations, though most say they support a secular Turkey and see the current government as a threat to their way of life. Mr. Gülenay characterizes the city’s political sensibilities as “left-wing… socialist,” adding, “We believe in equality for all, no matter who you are,” he says. That is a standard many here fear is being lost in the wider Turkish society.
Under Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, state authorities and bureaucracies “are becoming more and more Islamist,” one Samandag Christian, who asked to remain anonymous, says. “This is not something we view in a positive way.”
The governor of Denizli, Ali Fuat Atik, is leading recovery efforts and accompanies a group of reporters touring relief efforts in Samandag. One of his aides takes pains to point out signs of good interreligious relations. “Look, the governor is here,” he tells reporters. “There is even a Mufti, one of the heads of Islam, and we are all in the church garden,” he says, insisting that there are no tensions related to religion in Turkey.
Local people complain that aid coming from the state has been insufficient to the need and that what did arrive came too late to help. It was three days after the earthquake before government assistance began reaching Samandag. By then, many of the people entombed under the rubble of their own homes had perished.
But Turkish citizens have tried to fill the void when the government proved slow to respond in Hatay. “We have volunteers from all of Turkey,” says the Rev. Dimyan Yaacoub, pointing to a sociology professor from Istanbul who has been assisting recovery work for weeks. The volunteers have been crucial to the local relief effort, which so far has included distributing clean water and 3,000 hot meals a day to survivors.
Father Yaacoub has lived in Zeitouneh for 15 years. He has a plan for its restoration: Churches come last. “First, we need to fix the houses and the shops for people to come back to, then fix the country,” and only then, he suggests, should resources be expended on repairing the churches. “For now, we can pray outside, but if our community disappears because their houses aren’t repaired, it’s useless to restore the churches,” he says.
Despite the devastation around him, Father Yaacoub says he remains hopeful about the future for Christians in Samandag. “If I didn’t have any hope, I would not be here,” he says. “But we have a lot of work to do.”
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