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Turkish Chaldeans Welcome Back Armenian Faithful
By Amer Hedow :: Friday, November 11, 2011 :: 97044 Views :: Article Rating :: 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. Thomas, MI USA

St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church
6900 Maple Rd.
West Bloomfield, MI 48322
Tel: (248) 788-2460
Fax: (248) 788-2153

Founding Pastor:
Rev. Hanna Cheikho

Current Pastor:
Rev. Frank Kalabat

Parochial Vicar:
Rev. Jirjis Abrahim

Rev. Emmanuel Rayes, Retired  

Rev. Frank Kalabat

Rev. Frank Kalabat was born in 1970 in San Diego, California and entered St. Francis Seminary of San Diego, California.  The admission to the Catholic seminary made him the first born U.S. Chaldean to enter an American seminary.  In 1992, Fr. Kalabat continued his studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.  In July 1995, shortly after graduation he was ordained as priest by His Excellency Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim.  

Fr. Frank chose Mother of God Parish in Southfield, MI. as his first assignment serving the Chaldean community as an associate pastor for half a decade.  In 2001, Fr. Kalabat was elected to serve as Pastor of St. Tomas Parish in West Bloomfield, Michigan where he remains today.   

Rev. Jirjis Abrahim

Rev. Jirjis Abrahim was born in Telkaif, Iraq in 1942. Upon graduation Fr. Abrahim was admitted to St. Peter Chaldean Seminary in Baghdad, Iraq.  After a decade of studies and numerous degrees, Fr. Abrhim was ordained a priest in 1967.  He chose to continue ministering in Baghdad, Iraq.  There he was appointed the headmaster of the catechism at Mother of Sorrows Cathedral.  Fr. Abrahim also assisted St. Therese Church in Baghdad until 1978.  Afterward he was asked to assist St. Joseph Church in Baghdad and was appointed Parochial Vicar from 1978-1992. 

In 1992, Fr. Abrahim was called upon to assist the growing Chaldean population in Michigan.  Upon his arrival he was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Tory, Michigan.  Two years later Fr. Abrahim was asked to become the pastor of a Parish community in Windsor, Canada  where he remained the parish pastor until 2001.

Continuing demographic changes in Michigan required Fr. Abrahim to return to St. Joseph Parish in Tory as a Parochial Vicar, where he remained until 2006.  In 2006 he was elected to St. Thomas Parish as Parochial Vicar in West Bloomfield, MI. where he currently serves the Chaldean community.


Rev. Emmanuel Rayes

Rev. Emmanuel Rays was born in Araden, Iraq in 1930.  He studied at St. John Dominican Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1954.  The Chaldean catholic ambassador ministered in northern Iraq from 1954-1963, in Syria and Lebanon from 1963-1980, and in the United Stated from 1980 to the present day.
Form 1980-1983, he was appointed associate pastor at Mother of God Parish in Southfield, Michigan.  From 1983-1989 he served as pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, Michigan.  During the early 1990’s he ministered to the Chaldean community in Farmington Hills and was at St. Joseph Parish in Tory where he was Parochial Vicar until 2000.

Although Fr. Rayes retired in 2001, he remains active in serving the community.  He is the author of many articles in Arabic and is the editor-in-chief of the Al Mishal and Al-Tariq magazine.  He has translated and continues to translate many books from French and English into Arabic.