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Turkish Chaldeans Welcome Back Armenian Faithful
By Amer Hedow :: Friday, November 11, 2011 :: 16250 Views :: World News & Odds 'N' Ends, Chaldean Churches

Turkey, Gavur – Hidden from many is a small town in Turkey of peaceful survivors of Gavur.  Defying all odds these humble groups of villagers have survived the holocaust of WWI and continue to rebuild their lives under ongoing persecution and threat. 

The town’s name alone makes the point.  Gavur is an offensive ethnic slur used by Muslims in Turkey and the Balkans to describe infidels, with particular reference to Christians like Chaldeans, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs and Assyrians. The term is considered highly offensive and meant to say somebody is inferior, an immoral creature, less than human. 

In Turkish history gavur is so deeply rooted in society as an insult. The Ottoman leaders in the First World War were motivating their soldiers by convincing them they were fighting a war against infidels.

Between 1919 and 1923, large number of Christians that lived in Anatolia and surrounding regions were made as scapegoats and targeted for annihilation. 

Turkish forces and Mosques quickly spread gossip and rumors of Christian treason and collusion with opposing forces which led to the led to the deportation and mass killings of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Greeks, and Armenians during the First World War. To this day being ‘Armenian’ is considered derogatory in Turkey, and is often used to define somebody as unreliable among Turks.

In 1923, the Turkish Republic was formed as a nation state and a Turkish patriot was based on two things: being a Turk and being a Muslim. Being foreign or Christian, or in short, being gavur, become synonymous to being against the Turkish state, equal to being untrustworthy and treacherous.

According to one source at Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarchate, it is estimated that at least 300,000 Armenian and Chaldean Christians converted to either Sunni or Alawite Islam after 1915 to avoid forced deportation.  “This means there could be as many as a half million ethnic-background Christians in Turkey today who carry ID cards stating they are Muslims,” the cleric observed.

Those that survived the death camps, forced conversations, or were unable to flee the region gravitated over time into small neighboring villages inside Turkey for protection.  Eventually these villages were labeled Gavur villages or districts.
 
Today in the city’s Gavur district, neighboring St. Peter’s Chaldean Catholic church is a newly restored St. Giragos cathedral celebrating their rebirth. 

“This is an historic enterprise,” declared Abdullah Demirtas, Diyarbakir Sur’s district mayor. “Diyarbakir will become Anatolia’s Jerusalem!”

The district mayor highlights the diversity of faiths in the district.  Along with the Chaldean and Armenian Church restoration projects are a mosque, the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, a synagogue, and construction plans for places of worship along the same street for Alawite and Yezidi adherents.

Complete with seven altars and multiple arched columns in the sanctuary, St. Giragos was virtually abandoned after the massacre and deportation of its congregants in 1915.

According to Taraf newspaper columnist Markar Esayan, the church building was still intact until 1980, after which “because of hate … in modern times” it was attacked, looted and fell into disrepair, with just the walls and arched columns remaining.

Costing US$3.5 million, the church’s two-year restoration project was funded largely by Armenian donations from Istanbul and abroad, although a third of the costs were donated by the Diyarbakir municipality.

By raising private funding, the Armenian church has regained this ancient building for its own use as a consecrated sanctuary, rather than a Turkish government-controlled museum like the 10th century Akdamar Church in Van, where only one religious ceremony is permitted annually.

Although no Armenian community still exists in Diyarbakir, a priest has been named by the Armenian Patriarchate to conduct occasional worship services for visiting clergy and Christian groups within Turkey and from abroad.

At the conclusion of the Sunday mass, Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir addressed the congregation, declaring first in Armenian, and then Kurdish, Turkish, English and Arabic: “Welcome to your home. You are not guests here; this is your home.”

“We all know about past events,” he said, pointedly referring to 1915, “and our wish is that our children will celebrate together the coming achievements.”

The mass was the first worship service in decades in the ancient St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church, built 350 years ago and still the largest Armenian church building in the Middle East, it once served as the metropolitan cathedral of Diyarbakir.

Although political dignitaries representing a number of foreign embassies attended the Mass, along with Armenian spiritual leaders from around the world, most of the congregation consisted of Armenian and Chaldean pilgrims from Armenia, the Netherlands, Germany, Syria, Lebanon and the United States.

“It was like they were returning from exile!” one Diyarbakir resident who attended the Sunday mass said. “Here were these elderly Armenians who used to live here, walking through the streets of Diyarbakir, weeping and looking for their old homes and places they remembered. They all still spoke Turkish, Aramaic, and Kurdish, as well as Armenian.”

Vartkes Ergun Ayik, a businessman of Armenian origin who spearheaded the project funding, said the restored church property will also be used for classical music concerts and exhibitions in the city.

“Our expectations are good,” the new priest  for the Church said. “Even though Armenians are not living in the city today, we are praying that God will use our church to bless Diyarbakir in a very positive way.”
 

St. Joseph, MI USA

St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church
2442 E. Big Beaver Rd.
Troy, MI 48083
Tel: (248) 528-3676
Fax: (248) 524-1957

Congregation Organizer:
Rev. Michael J. Bazzi

Church Constructing Pastor:
Rev. Sarhad Y. Jammo

Current Pastor:
Msgr. Zouhair Toma

Parochial Vicar:
Rev. Ayad Hanna

 Current Pastor: Msgr. Zouhair Toma

Msgr. Zouhair Toma (Kejbou) was born in Telkaif, Iraq in 1947.  He was ordained a priest in Baghdad, Iraq in 1968, and accepted his first assignment to serve the community of Baquba.  The Monsignor’s leadership skills and organizational talents along with his mastery of theology were immediately evident.  He later assisted Sts. Peter and Paul in Al-Salehia, and St. George in New Baghdad.

In August, 1978 Monsignor Toma was called to serve the growing community of persecuted Chaldeans finding refuge in Australia.   Being the fist Chaldean priest to arrive in Australia he quickly established a parish for the Chaldeans in Sydney to serve their social and spiritual needs.  The parish was named after St. Thomas the Apostle and built a rectory. 

In 1989, for his incredible work he was granted the title of Monsignor, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar for Australia and New Zealand.  Continuing his passionate work to serve the Chaldean community the Monsignor moved the Parish Center to a more accessible location and built a large church campus featuring a modern community center, residence quarters, and administrative offices in 1995. 

In 2003, Monsignor Toma added a magnificent church to replace the previous one in order to serve the fast growing community and also opened two other centers.  The first was Our Lady Guardian of Plants in Melbourne, and the second was Mar Addai the Apostle in Auckland, New Zealand.  Mar Addai in New Zealand included two very large churches along with rectories and community centers.  Overseeing the Patriarchal Vicariate for 28 years, he managed to inspire six more priests to help minister to the fast growing Chaldean community. 

In August 2006, Monsignor chose to assist the St. Thomas the Apostle Diocese in the U.S. as more Catholic churches were being built in America and address the growing need.  On October 2006, Monsignor was incardinated and appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Troy.