My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Friday, 15 November 2013

Mor Gabriel Monastery, Tur Abdin

In the late 1990s the road up to the Mor Gabriel monastery had to be closed at dusk because of the civil war in the region. The local kurds would shoot anyone driving up after dark.
As we make our way there in the coach now we are reminded that we are in a feudal area, ruled by overlords, Agha or Kurdish chieftains. In the worst of the troubles, the safety of the monastery and Christians in the area was threatened and 90% of the Christians emigrated, many to Sweden or Germany. The 20,000 Christian population dropped to nearer 2000. We also learn that there has been a bad relationship between the villagers and the monastery over land ownership.
Recently though the Agha system has been collapsing and there has been a massive improvement over the last 2-3 years in the local situation. Just from our coach we can see a building boom all around, the checkpoints have gone, where they used to be every 4-5 km, and villagers are coming back to their villages. There may now be five to ten Christian families again in each village. The plain is so fertile for arable crops that the farmers can work very hard for a few months of the year and then afford to go away for long holidays somewhere warm during Turkey’s harsh winter.

the entrance to Mor Gabriel
We are to stay here for two nights. Mor Gabriel, (otherwise known as Dayro d-Mor Gabriel or Deyrulumur and the seat of the bishopric of Tur Abdin) is the greatest of the Tur Abdin monasteries. This monastery has strong links with the Church of England through the Tur Abdin Focus Group. We are formally greeted by Mor Timotheus Samuel, who has been the Archbishop of Tur Abdin since 1985. For our leader Stephen Griffiths this is like a homecoming; he clearly feels very comfortable and at ease here. He has spent many years studying this part of Turkey and its Syriac Orthodox religion, getting to know the people well. Immediately on arrival we are invited to sit in a huge circle on the balcony in the shade. We are served the usual small glasses of cay by boys, students and lay workers at the convent, and we sit around talking for quite some time. We are not used to this style of welcoming and hospitality in our hurried western world, but here we are to become very used to it over the next few days. On this first day we seem reticent to speak and somewhat daunted by what seems a strained atmosphere.
The Archbishop is chatting with the Revd Stephen Griffiths, Abba Seraphim, (Primate of The British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate), Archimandrite Deiniol (of the Wales Orthodox Mission of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) and Bishop Christopher of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark, updating on the local situation particularly about the land dispute with the Turkish government that threatened the monastery's very existence and which is very much on everyone’s mind at present.
Then our accommodation is sorted out. There is a new wing and an old wing. I’m in one of the old rooms, which seems good enough, although with 4 single beds very close together albeit with our own modern bathroom this would have been quite uncomfortable with 4 females. Fortunately there are only two of us!
guidance for visitors
There is very little parking space for cases, clothes, and the general clobber of 2 women, let alone 4!! But it was fine. The new accommodation is apparently very much nicer with tables to write at, much more space and lovely views to the south over the Tur Abdin region.
But when one reflects on the plight of so many refugees not so very far from here in refugee camps how can we complain? 
Once the greeting and accommodation is all sorted out we have a tour of the monastery. Established in 397, this is the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, and the most vital, with some 15 nuns, two monks, several lay workers and always providing hospitality to visitors from overseas. It is very much a working community, with productive gardens and orchards, and
its primary purpose “is to keep Syriac Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling, and ordination of native-born monks." 
On occasions it has provided physical protection to the Christian population during the civil strifes.

This is such a fascinating area of Turkey, and the tenacity and perseverance shown by monasteries such as Mor Gabriel through the difficult times they have suffered is surely an inspiration to us all...

For those interested in looking at the situation of the Christians in Tur Abdin in more detail, I can recommend the following links:
For a very succinct explanation of the political situation as it has affected Syrian Christianity in the Tur Abdin region of South East Turkey there are the reports from 1997 onwards from the Revd. Stephen Griffiths on the Tur Abdin Focus Group website – for example see for his first visit in 1997, with much detail of the history of the Syriac Christian Church up to that time: for more on the political background. Also Will the Christians be driven out? for even greater detail and analysis…
Also for more background to the current status of the church in Turkey
and for the land dispute see for the detail on the land dispute and the latest somewhat more positive update at

the deer that lives at the monastery cared for by one of the nuns

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