8 Mar 2019

Travels with Bishop Robert in Turkey

In the extreme south east of Turkey alongside the Syrian border south of the great city of Diyarbakir, there lies a rocky plateaux called Tur Abdin, meaning ‘Mountain of the Servants of God’. It is the ancient heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It is a place of remote monasteries and Christian villages, but clinging to Christian faith in this area over many turbulent centuries has been tough, and has required bravery, sacrifice and resilience. Many Christians in this area lost their lives in the turmoil of the early 20th century, and economic and security problems meant that there was a steady flow out of the area in the 20th century. Now just a few thousand Syrian Orthodox Christians remain, amongst a large Kurdish population, but we were glad to see that there are some encouraging signs of growth here, for the first time in years.

I first travelled to this fascinating area in the early 1990s during the course of a long journey in the Middle East. Longstanding friendships exist between the Church of England and the clergy and laity of this area. My own predecessor as Chaplain in Izmir, the Ven Geoffrey Evans is fondly remembered, as is the tractor which our Diocese purchased to help the monastery of Mar Gabriel in the early 1980s.

I was delighted when Bishop Robert told me last year that he would like to make a visit with me. We flew to the beautiful city of Mardin on 13 February 2018 and were met by our host, the Bishop of Mardin and Diyarbakir (Bishop Saliba), who took us by car along the Turkish side of the Syrian border, with its forbidding concrete walls and surveillance towers, to the city of Nusaybin.   For further details of this fascinating visit see Bishop Robert’s blog here.

We continued our journey that afternoon to the monastery of Mor Augin, dramatically situated among the cliffs overlooking the Mesopotamian plain.   Because of poor security and general decline in the area the monastery was abandoned in the mid 1970s. We were delighted and impressed to meet Fr Yokim, the energetic young abbot, who is in the process of restoring the monastery and has resident students (Syrian Orthodox young men from the local area and from Germany) who assist him and gain a theological and biblical education with him. After attending prayers in the church, we were invited to sit and chat in the monastery parlour, warmed by a roaring woodstove.

Bishop Robert with monks and students in the monastic parlour, Mor Augin Monastery.We then drove back to Deirulzeferen (‘The Saffron Monastery’), where we were to stay during our visit. This is an impressive (and amazingly ancient…) edifice in a secluded valley, a few miles outside bustling Mardin.

Photo: Bishop Robert with monks and students in the monastic parlour, Mor Augin Monastery.

 The entrance to Deirulzeferen Monastery, Mardin.

Photo: The entrance to Deirulzeferen Monastery, Mardin.






 Photo: Bishop Robert with Fr Gabriel, head monk of Deirulzeferen monastery in the pre-Christian sun temple, which lies underneath the sixth century monastery chapel. Note the astonishing ceiling, made of ingeniously placed stone blocks. 



Photo: Bishop Robert and Bishop Saliba, with Fr James Buxton, and residents of the monastery: a monk, monastery guides and Syriac teachers and schoolboys.

Monastic offices are chanted in church by monks, schoolboys (who board in the monastery) and young men who acts as guides and Syriac teachers. Worship involves many vigorous prostrations, which remind us of Islamic prayer, but in fact predate Islamic prayers! Christian witness has taken place here since the early centuries of our faith. We were glad to see how that witness continues, when on the following day, we visited Christian communities and churches in Mardin (Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic and Protestant). The eight or nine monasteries which remain in the Tur Abdin area continue to be a source of inspiration and encouragement for the Christian communities in this area, and their abbots and bishops are important community leaders.

After our short but profoundly moving visit, we flew to Izmir (on Saturday 16), arriving just in time for a rehearsal for the next day’s celebration of baptism and confirmation at St John’s Anglican church. Sunday 17 February was a proud day for our community, which will be remembered for years. The bishop baptized and confirmed 9 candidates, three of whom were received into the Anglican Communion. The celebration was the culmination of a period of discernment and preparation which began in January last year, and which involved using the Alpha Course (which it turns out you can obtain with Farsi subtitles, making it very suitable for our group!).

Photo: Bishop Robert stands with the Churchwardens of St John’s Church, surrounded by the chaplain and the newly baptised, confirmed and received in the Communion of the Church of England on 17th February 2019.  



 In the evening the bishop hosted a remarkable ecumenical dinner, which included the Roman Catholic and Orthodox archbishops of Izmir, as well as Protestant pastors, Christian workers and members of St John’s Church Council.   It was a pleasure to be able to host our Christian brothers and sisters in this city where Christians form a tiny minority and need to support and pray for each other, to maintain and develop the Christian witness here, which dates back to the Biblical period. A witness that has involved so much suffering and loss as well as joyful celebration of God’s blessing and faithfulness.  

Photo: Ecumenical dinner hosted by Bishop Robert on 17th February 2019 at Recep Usta Restaurant, Izmir.  

The Revd James Buxton
Chaplain at Izmir and Area Dean of Turkey.