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.”