MIDYAT, Turkey -- The lone priest tending a remote monastery in southeastern Turkey gave uninvited visitors food and water when they darkened his door in 2018. The men were Kurdish militants, authorities said, and for his act of charity, Sefer Bilecen now faces charges of terrorism.
The case against Bilecen, 44, has rattled the tiny community of 5,000 or fewer Christians still living in their ancient homeland near the borders with Syria and Iraq. Most of their brethren have left since the 1950s, fleeing poverty and a long-running conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish fighters. At the height of the insurgency in the 1990s, dozens of Syriac Christians were assassinated by unknown gunmen.
When a fragile peace was restored, Syriacs, who are also called Assyrians, began returning in the mid-2000s to reclaim ancestral lands and centuries-old churches. Thousands more make annual pilgrimages to family homes and holy sites. Churches in the main town of Midyat and nearby villages stood mostly empty as the coronavirus pandemic kept the faithful away when the Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter today.
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