A few days ago, Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen, the priest of the Saint Jacob’s church in the city of Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey, was arrested on charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist group. Like many others, my conscience was made deeply uneasy because of his arrest.
Father Aho is a Syriac Orthodox Christian who was born in Istanbul. After working for a long time in the tourism sector, he dedicated himself to ecumenical life. He went to Britain for training and returned to be priest of Saint Jacob’s, called Deyr Gazalke among the people.
Deyr Gazalke means the monastery of the gazelles. The story goes that as the monastery was being built, there was no water in the mountain to mix into building materials, so gazelles would come every day and offer their milk to be made into plaster. Deyr Gazalke is a monastery on top of cliffs on Bagok Mountain. Even the kitchen of the monastery is inside a cave. After villages in Turkey’s southeast were emptied out in the 1990s due to clashes between the government and Kurdish militants, many Syriacs emigrated to Europe, so as a result the church was unused and began to fall into ruin.
Father Aho cleaned those ruins. With his own hands, he cleaned each stone one by one, carried the soil on his back, and planted flowers and trees. He turned those ruins into a magnificent monastery. His beautification were so successful efforts that he attracted a lot of attention. Every year, thousands of guests began to arrive. Not only residents of the region, teachers, and doctors, but also government officials, assistant governors, regiment commanders, lieutenants … Everyone who passed by the area stopped by the monastery for breakfast or tea.
Father Aho kept his door open to everyone. He lived in the monastery alone for years, and offered the pastries he baked to his visitors. This nature-loving priest turned the monastery and its surroundings into a heaven. A friend recounted to me that Father Aho had talked for hours to their child about the importance of foreign language education. Father Aho is also a good teacher.
When the Turkish government and Kurdish guerrillas began their peace process in 2013, Syriacs began returning to their villages around Bagok and the surrounding areas. Some 150 to 200 Syriacs returned in this period. Many began spending winters in Europe, and summers in their homeland. Some families would stay during the winter as well. With the air of optimism brought on by the peace process, Syriacs were reunited with their land after decades abroad.
When the peace process collapsed in 2015, pressures on Syriacs began once more. I have written many times on the loneliness of Syriacs in the region, and the pressures they face. In the past few years, the government tried to take over the monastery, local pro-government Kurdish militiamen set their eyes on Syriac property, the remaining few Syriacs were threatened, and only last summer the olive groves and vineyards of the Syriac people mysteriously caught fire. I think we all know what the cause was.
The handful of remaining Syriacs has been trying to resist such pressure for centuries. Neither the cruelty, nor the pressure have abated. The cruelty is not only enacted by the state; Muslim Kurdish neighbours also refuse to offer assistance. They devise thousands of ways of taking over Syriac villages, property, and belongings. For centuries, the government and the people have operated under the adage that “taking infidel property is permissible” and worked together to take over Syriac land and possessions.
The arrest of Father Aho, who has for years welcomed everyone to his monastery with love and without prejudice, is part of the pressure that has been continuing for centuries. Arresting Aho is nothing more than a tactic to intimidate Syriacs who were forced to flee to Europe and now want to return. I have met dozens of Syriacs in the past few days, and they are all wondering what will happen to them. It is a good question, what will happen to the remaining few of this beautiful people? Syriacs are again filled with loneliness, fear, and anxiety about the future.
Now, Father Aho and the Syriac people need you, need us, to bear witness. I am calling to the thousands of people who have experienced Father Aho’s hospitality over the past decade. You were all there. You witnessed Father Aho’s humanity, hospitality, love of nature, and his home. You have all witnessed what Father Aho accomplished at the monastery. Now, you will either allow this beautiful man to stay imprisoned, or you will loudly declare, “you are not alone Aho, we are your witnesses!”
I am Father Aho’s witness, and I bear witness to the Syriac people.
Note: Three days after this article was written, Father Aho was released.