Posted 21 January 2005 - 03:03 PM
From the National Geographic, June 1978:
I had come here on a spring afternoon in the company of an Armenian priest from Istanbul, a quiet man of middle age. For him it was an act of faith, and a sadness. His people had been gone six decades.
We watched Kurdish children play in the dirt road. Other people, he said, taken over many Armenian villages – Kurds here, Turks elsewhere. His face was impassive: Land is to be used, people must live.
Leaving the stricken church, he touched hand to heart. Such churches were common in Turkey, he murmured, prey to the elements and vandals, ruins of a civilization. There were two in the nearby city of Malatya. We would soon be going to Malatya.
Another sorrow lay deep. I felt it though I am an odar – foreigner, in the Armenian language. The priest gripped my arm.
“Armenians are still being driven from remote villages,” he said grimly. “It is the old hatred. Sometimes a young girl is abducted, or a husband killed. They cannot bear to stay on their land after that. They make their way to the patriarchate in Istanbul. We give them shelter and find them homes.”
I looked out to the distant Euphrates, not wanting to hear such agony. The river was a glinting ribbon on its timeless run to Mesopotamia. The priest spoke again.
“Once Armenians were heavily concentrated in eastern Turkey. Only a few remain. In all the interior, only three churches are working. Malatya has none. But some of my flock are there, and much time has passed since my last visit. Tonight we will meet in a house.” He smiled for the first time. “You shall see the joy of Armenians renewing their faith.”
A few hours later, after darkness fell, the city’s few Armenian families filled a small living room to overflowing. The priest and his deacon, richly robbed, led them in prayer and song in the dim glow of a ceiling light, while incense smoldered.
It was, I thought, as if a band of early Christians had gathered furtively in a cave to worship. Children were baptized, Communion given. One aged, failing woman, scarf on head, knelt with tears of happiness falling. Earlier she had despaired.
I sat with her afterward. “We are sheep without the shepherd,” she said. “At last the shepherd came – and he forgave me.”
She had broken the pre-Communion fast. Faint with hunger, she had eaten a handful of raisins. In torment she had approached the priest, confessed, and been absolved. I saw no greater joy that night.
The old fear was present too. As we left a girl stopped me. “Do not forget us,” she pleaded softly. “We are alone here. We are always afraid that something will happen to cause trouble.”