Turkey Encouraging Displaced Christians to Return

Turkey is encouraging thousands of Assyrian Christians to return to their spiritual heartland, as the predominantly Muslim nation faces European pressure to return displaced villagers to its southeastern region and to grant more rights to minorities.

According to the Associated Press, a sharp decrease in fighting and Turkey's focus on democracy and human rights as it seeks to join the European Union, are boosting hopes that one of the world's oldest Christian communities can rebuild itself in its spiritual heartland.

"We're here to live in solidarity with the other villagers," one returning villager told AP. He is one of the dozens of Assyrians who have reportedly returned so far.

For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were the most recent in a series of challenges to a community that traces itself to the pre-Christian Assyrian Empire. Just a few years ago when the tiny Christian community in southeastern Turkey was caught in the middle of fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels, the calm that is currently present in the ancient village would have been inconceivable.

Even in October, an EU report stated that "very few" Assyrians had returned due to harassment by pro-government Kurdish militiamen and paramilitary police.

Although the Assyrians have mostly sought to stay neutral between the government and the Kurdish rebels, neutrality has sometimes made their loyalties suspect on both sides, AP reported. That and a lack of jobs have pushed many of them to emigrate, reducing the number of Christians in the region to an estimated 4,000 at most. One man who returned after leaving 20 years ago with his family told AP that around 75 families lived in the village of Haberli in southeastern Turkey 30 years ago. Now, about 20 families remain.

Human rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of villages throughout the region to deprive the Kurdish rebels of local support.

According to tradition, Assyrians began adopting Christianity in the first century AD, 600 years before Arab Muslims conquered the region.