A recent visit to eastern Turkey by the dynamic Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has given some hope of progress for the Syriac Christian minority in eastern Turkey.
Davutoglu, a former university professor, who had presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Houston in the year 2000, is currently reshaping Turkish foreign policy. In recent decades, there had been a strong emigration of Syriac Christians from that area, where they have lived since the times of early Christianity: their number is reported to be down to 3,000. Beside the troubled situation in the area, including the Kurdish insurgency, they have often felt on the defensive, and there have been fears that the Christian presence could be erased from the area over time and their churches would finally be turned into museums.
Davutoglu’s visit was part of a wider project of “tearing down walls” between foreign and domestic policy in border areas: the Ambassadors’ Evaluation Conference was held in Mardin, where the remaining Syriac Christians are mostly concentrated. Davutoglu acknowledged the decrease of the Christian population, while expressing hope that the trend could be reversed (Today’s Zaman, January 11). The foreign minister pledged to help Syriacs to sustain their culture, religion and language (Hürriyet Daily News, Jan. 11).
The visit paid by Davutoglu to Syriac Christians is considered important because it might be one of the signals of coming changes in Turkish official attitudes toward Christian minorities in the country, especially for developing their own educational facilities in order to preserve their legacy. This would be one more change brought by the AKP, the moderate Islamic party currently ruling the country and enforcing a variety of reforms domestically, as well as making Turkey a more active player in regional politics.