From Place to Place: Syrian Christians in Istanbul

By Helen MackreathJune 10, 2016

From Place to Place: Syrian Christians in Istanbul
All photographs by Helen Mackreath. All rights reserved.

CHRISTIANS IN ISTANBUL make their own centers. They are in Zeytinburnu and Bakırköy, Yeşilköy, Kurtuluş, Samatya — the historical homes of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. Their fellow residents are still Armenians, but also Kurds, Iranians, Afghans, and the occasional Turk. These are centers of exchange, both conflictual and cooperative, in which coexistence takes many forms — in square spaces, inside flats, and on road junctions.

Syrian refugees live a precarious existence in Istanbul. The Christians have found some respite in a collection of churches in the city. In Samatya’s Syriac Church, marked by a plain cross on a makeshift bell tower, they are given food and accommodation while awaiting news of asylum applications. It is mainly the women here, whose husbands have left them behind to attempt illegal and dangerous crossings. They prefer seeking support from their religious community rather than government, or other NGO groups.

The Christian Syrians are also known as “Assyrians” — an umbrella term some use to include any Christian with Aramaic/Assyrian roots, including the Syriac Orthodox Church, Church of the East, Chaldean Church, Syriac Catholic, and Syriac Protestant. They are an indigenous population of northern Mesopotamia, around the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, scattered between southeast Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Assyrian/Aramean ethnic group adopted Christianity early on, in the first to third century. According to ecclesiastical tradition, it is the second established Church in Christendom after Jerusalem. The ancient Greek city of Antioch, known as the “cradle of Christianity,” lays on the eastern side of the Orontes River, close to the present-day Turkish city of Antakya. There are some among the Syriac Orthodox Church who refuse the term Assyrian, maintaining it is not a historically or territorially accurate description of their people. They strive to maintain the traditions which date to the time of Christ (although how close a resemblance they bear to what Christ experienced is debatable). The ancient liturgy is spoken in the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect.

The numbers of Christians in Turkey are increasing, pushed by Daesh from their homes in Hasakah, Qamishli, Aleppo, Saidnaya, Idlib, and other northern parts of Syria. But they are only in transit here, en route to other lives. Along with Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, they suffered persecution at the hands of Hamidiye regiments organized by the Ottoman State during and after World War I, forced to flee to Iraq and then to neighboring Syria in the 1930s. The 1915 Armenian genocide is called the “Sayfo” in Syriac, meaning “sword”; some also refer to it as the Assyrian genocide. The newly established Iraqi state then persecuted the Assyrians of northern Iraq, continuing to do so during the reign of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein. But in these communities, as today, Christian groups employed tactics to ensure their communal rights and managed to restructure their existence relatively successfully to adapt to changing circumstances.



On a Sunday evening, pink light sweeps over creamy apartment blocks. Young men chase on motorbikes, children skip across the square; there is the chatter of young women carrying babies. A family on a bright turquoise three-wheeler laughs their rickety way; the end of a wooden broom bobs into the sky as an old man washes the roof. This is the hour of light before darkness, the season of spring fading into summer. Time doesn’t mean much when there is nothing to distinguish waking from sleeping.

A makeshift Syriac church is based down these streets, parallel to the Bosphorus and alongside the train line that connects this city village to Asia. Streets have “Playboy/Ego” graffiti sprayed across walls; a group of boys pound the pavement. Opposite the church, behind a peeling door, an innocuous flat serves as a boardinghouse for a group of Syrian Christians. I visit in the morning. Women in pajamas sleep in bunks with their small children, a stale drowsiness even at this hour (they had risen early to attend church). Two young women with heavy black eyes unpeel sheets of bread from their plastic case. A lady calls down from the top of a winding wooden staircase, her face obscured between layers of drying bed sheets. Downstairs, a shrine to the Virgin Mary sits next to the sink. Behind her the men sleep.

There are 50 Christians housed in this ramshackle space. They have an allotted time of four months here, free board, before they’ll have to go back to the streets. Most of them have visas pending — one man has been in Istanbul for two years “waiting” for his visa to Australia. The embassy asked him to provide papers, but they are still in Syria.

A group of 12 Turkish, Christian businessmen, who live scattered around the city, fund the shelter. They have rarely visited in the three years it’s been open, but their money continues to fund its upkeep.

A lady emerges from the bed sheets. She wears a purple velour tracksuit with leopard print slippers, her hair dyed dirty blonde. She takes long drags from her cigarette; it becomes apparent that, though holding no position here, she is in charge. The real manager, a young man in his 30s, lets her do all the talking as we sit under a plastic awning in the communal eating area. A few old men also sit around, blinking slowly and sipping tea. Lunch is between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m.; church is from 7:30–8:30 a.m. Other than that, their day is free.

“People are so lazy. But they go to church. If they don’t go to church, it’s not Sunday. We have to go to church, it’s in our blood.”

And then, after a short pause, “If we don’t go to church every Sunday, the government will close it down.”

If a family fails to attend church three weeks in a row within this community, their access to assistance will be cut. This is not a result of the NGO’s request. The local community self-imposed the rule to ensure Syrian newcomers actively socialize and integrate among their Christian brethren. But it strikes of the need for more categorization and identity affirmation.


20160602_192251The Christian community in Istanbul is bounded together by fear. Some parents (not all) don’t let their children interact with Muslim children. Every week, a few thousand young Christians gather to socialize and meet potential spouses in an informal matchmaking ritual. Marriage to a person of a different religion is dangerous, according to the organizer of a small center providing education for Syrian Christian children — he believes it produces marginalized children who could become more radicalized. But relations between Syrians and Turks within this Christian community are also strained.

“We speak with Turkish Kurds who live here, because we speak a bit of Kurdish,” says one of the Syrians staying in the boardinghouse. “And Turkish Armenians who live here too. But we don’t like to deal with Turkish people.”

The men dismiss the Turkish Lig with tuts of annoyance — the Spanish La Liga is the only true football competition (one man’s Instagram account profile: Age: 24; Assyrian; From: Syria; Team: Barcelona and Brazil).

Two or three Syrian families live in one flat, their children crowded and restless in such a small place. Unemployment messes with sleeping routines; music at 4:00 in the morning between thin walls stirs discord. The desire to keep the Christian community close is a natural one. There has been discrimination at every turn. In the refugee camps, according to one Christian in Istanbul, they are accused of being agents, or pro-Assad. Officials from the Directorate of Migration Affairs accuse detractors of “purposefully” sending Christians to them as a means of provoking hostility.

Yakup has been helping Christians of all nationalities in Istanbul for many years. He was sent to a monastery in Mardin in southeast Turkey when he was seven and lived there for 13 years. He left when he was 20 after deciding against a life in the priesthood, and traveled to Istanbul at the turn of the millennium to help Iraqi Christians who fled persecution. His help was basic — finding them a house to rent and some small work to fund themselves — but crucial. Today he does the same thing for Syrians, and is responsible for 150 families. The cycle of persecution, flight, and communal support continues.

20160602_190836Yakup directly manages the financing of a small community center set up to provide education to the children of the local Christian community. Assyrians Without Borders funds it: a Syrian organization in exile in Sweden, administered by the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (SRII), attached to the Swedish Consul. It is the only “school” the local children have here — Turkish, science, and handicraft classes on Monday; math and English three days a week. There are dancing and cooking classes, practical tests, a class on representation, and time for sports. Older members of the community learn too, or just use the space to create a home. When one of the youngest members of the community lost her first milk tooth it hosted the traditional celebration. This is an international mission — volunteers come from all over the world. A South Korean pastor runs the nearby Protestant church and his son helps out.

It is a transient community. Many here are en route to Europe, mostly Germany or Sweden where there are already existing Assyrian communities. Some pass through quickly (three siblings were in Istanbul only three weeks before they moved on to Sweden); for others the stay is painfully protracted. One young man has waited a year and a half to be reunited with his family in Australia; he has not seen his sister for five years, his brother for two. He was a conscript in Syria before escaping, and is now stuck in limbo without the documents which would allow him to apply for asylum.

A young girl walks arm in arm with her elderly father, already as tall as him — they wait for news on when they can be reunited with mother, sisters, grandparents in England. Since the EU-Turkey deal, and more stringent infringements on Syrians entering Turkey via the border, there have been fewer arrivals in the community — but people continue to leave on planes for new lives, further diminishing the community left behind.


This area is no stranger to migrant communities, or Christians. It is nestled just outside the city walls, home to the tanneries of Byzantium Constantinople since the 14th century, established by Fatih Sultan Mehmed Han. A community known as “Kudüslü Papazlar” (Priests from Jerusalem) settled in the area, and it became known as a neighborhood of agricultural products, olives, and various fruits grown by them. Those same market gardens (bostans) were the subject of intense debate in 2013 when they were buried under “low quality soil” to be developed into a thousand square-meter park. Up until then the gardens were farmed variously by Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, and, since the 1950s, migrants from the Black Sea region of Kastamonu. Afghan Turkmen and Iranians most recently made a living here since the early 1980s, drawn to the leather workshops and ateliers of which the area is still, since Byzantine times, known. “We are like mercury. We can split apart but in the end we roll into our ball all together again,” one Afghan woman told a researcher a decade ago. Today in this area Surp Pırgiç Armenian Hospital still stands, serving an Armenian community, and other architecture acts as a physical reminder of the diversities of communities living here.

The Syrian Christians, and Iraqi Christians before them, are part of this cycle. But they are in a minority because of both their nationality and religion. There were around 160,000 of all denominations in Turkey before the arrival of Syrian Christians — 0.2 percent of the total population. A spate of murders of Catholic missionaries and priests a few years ago left the community in shock. In February a leading pro-government newspaper claimed that the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition, faced a crisis over the religious identity of its public voice, Selin Sayek Böke, whose father is from Hatay province and an Orthodox Christian — Boke made a statement denouncing the article as “hate speech.”

The construction of a new Syriac church in the Yeşilköy district of Istanbul on the shore of the Marmara Sea was greeted with much fanfare. Since 1923 the country had been in the habit of converting churches to mosques, but this was the first non-Muslim place of worship to be built from scratch since the founding of the Republic that year. Today however, members of the community are scathing about the prospects of the church — the law only allowed for the possibility of building a new church, they say, not the funding of an actual project. “The government does not give money to build churches.” Their skepticism is natural — they were first promised a church in 2009 but bureaucratic obstacles have slowed down its construction. In Diyarbakır six ancient churches were recently taken over by the government in the name of protecting them from the armed conflict raging in the Southeast of the country between Turkish armed forced and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK).

Things will not necessarily be easier in their new homes either. Christians from the Middle East have formed a large immigrant group in Sweden since the 1960s. In Södertälje, foreigners make up half of the town's 92,000 population and 30,000 of those are Christians fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq. Unemployment in the town is 15 percent, double the national average. There is a mismatch between jobs available from the two main companies in the town (truckmaker Scania and AstraZeneca), and skills of new immigrants and refugees. There is also a lack of housing. A lack of integration has led to resentment and violence — six nights of race riots in 2013 were blamed on “irresponsible” immigration policies by the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party, and more recently knife attacks have specifically targeted migrants.



Waiting is the only thing to be done. One old man with a young daughter sits for a few hours, first on the seat overlooking the children’s play area and then to the opposite side for a different view. Another older man takes English classes — his schoolboy learning eked slowly from the recesses of his mind. An Armenian woman spends all day crying, except for Sundays when she pauses to sing with the choir. Her sister is still in North Syria, in danger but too poor to get out.

There is one elderly couple waiting to leave for Sweden. They fled their home in the countryside surrounding Damascus, leaving a son and two daughters behind. They recount how the shopkeeper next door was killed at his post; a friend blown away in the doorway of a pharmacy. All the homes in their village have been bombed, they say matter-of-factly, and talk of having to fix their own front door, which had become misshapen from the impact of so many explosions.

“When people ask us why we stay so long, we don’t have an answer,” says the husband, wide-eyed. He’s an architect by profession. Both are gentle and attentive; she is quiet and withdrawn. They are inseparable.

Bernadette, aged 15, speaks seven languages. She works as a translator in a soap shop on a tourist street in central Istanbul. On Sundays she’s allowed to wear make-up and a short skirt to Church. She is only a few years older than the other children in the community, but is already a mother figure to them — she teaches them “behavior” classes as well as volunteers with Syrian orphans on the other side of the city.

“I will be so sad to leave this place,” she whispers, head bowed, about her imminent departure to Canada.

There is an ache of confusion between waiting to leave and wanting to stay. Other countries whisper of promise and a form of progression (stability, family reunification, a life development in a period of stagnation). But the community here is close and emotionally bound. It is in the bursts of joy on the children’s faces as they gallop home from the bus after a trip to a church in Eminönü, by the Bosphorus; they spent the day singing, and return clutching boxes of gifts. Children alternate between easy laughter, despondency, and being quick to anger. Adults adopt all of them naturally. Boredom and desperation turn to joy, and tears for the departure of the lucky ones who gain asylum elsewhere.


Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.

LARB Contributor

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.


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