Alison Stendahl - Turkey Since I last wrote, much has happened in this region of the world. The summer news focused on the month long war between Israel and Lebanon. Innocent victims on both sides of the conflict suffered. I had just been in Beirut the end of May for the meeting of our partner, the Near East School of Theology. Little did I know then that the NEST would shortly become a sanctuary once again for the displaced and a distribution center for relief aid.
Since I last wrote, much has happened in this region of the world. The summer news focused on the month long war between Israel and Lebanon. Innocent victims on both sides of the conflict suffered. I had just been in Beirut the end of May for the meeting of our partner, the Near East School of Theology. Little did I know then that the NEST would shortly become a sanctuary once again for the displaced and a distribution center for relief aid.
The President of the Near East School of Theology, Mary Mikhael, was outside of Lebanon when the conflict erupted. Unlike the hundreds of people trying to escape Lebanon, she faced hazards to re-enter Lebanon and to get home. How can one be separated from those she cares about and from a country that she loves at a time when solidarity and mutual prayer were needed the most? Lebanon has been trying to rebuild since the end of the Lebanese civil war. Progress in such a case is slow due to the utter destruction of the economy, the infrastructure and trust between communities of people. But they were rebuilding. Lebanon took a giant step forward when it informed Syria in no uncertain terms that they wanted to proceed without outside interference. For years tension has existed with Israel. Israel wants security. Israel's neighbors want justice. Which comes first?
Much of the Middle East at one time was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was the dividing up of land at the end of the First World War into nation states that initiated much of the confusion of today. Westerners do not really comprehend the relationship of these nation states. For a westerner, an Iraqi is an Iraqi, a Syrian should be a Syrian, a Lebanese should be a Lebanese, etc. But that has not always been the reality on the ground. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, communities existed as subgroups, as clans, as tribes, as ethnic groups, as religion linked ethnic groups. As long as they were loyal to the empire, they were able to have a high degree of autonomy. These groups did not exist in nicely parceled out rectangular geographic regions but shared group ties throughout the region. This was more or less the story until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the repercussions and oppression that resulted. Populations who could move to where they felt safe moved. Turkey lost most of its Christian population during these years. Up until the last 40 years or so the Christian population of the Middle East was concentrated in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, and Egypt. With the growing militancy of Islam and the growing anger over their perceived lack of justice by the West and by Israel, Christian communities are often paying the price. Today Turkey has small Jewish and Christian populations. Many of the ancestors of today's Jewish population along with their Arab neighbors fled to the Ottoman Empire following the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Turkey up until recently has had normal relations with Israel. Israelis had found Turkey one of the few countries in the region where they felt comfortable coming for vacation.
The war in Iraq and now this summer's invasion of Lebanon by Israeli forces have swung Turkey further from the West and from Israel. Public opinion in Turkey is changing, anti-Israeli and anti-Western feelings are growing. Alliances are realigning and the United States seems unaware of the reactions of President Bush's words such as "fascist Islam" on the population of the region. Anger and defiance are growing. Unfortunately the Christians and Jews in this country will be held "accountable" for the actions of the West and of Israel. Loyalty in the Middle East is not exclusively nor in several cases primarily based on nation states. It is based on ethnicity and religion.
The innocent who get caught up in these conflicts are the ones who truly suffer. As we prepare for the beginning of a new school year in Turkey, the children of Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine are dealing with post-traumatic syndrome and the destruction of schools. Keep the children and the teachers in your prayers. As we prepare for a new school year, I talk with the parents of students who have left us for this year to go on exchange programs to the USA. They were so excited and filled with hope. Yet many students on such programs are having trouble finding home placements in the USA because they are Muslim and from the Middle East. How can barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding caused by the lack of justice and security be broken down if not through the children of today? Keep the people of America who are filled with fear and hatred in your prayers, for these Muslim children are part of the future. As our drama student group cancels plans to go to Israel for a drama festival and as Israeli student groups probably will decide not to come to Turkey for our Model United Nations program due to fear and security concerns, let us pray.
In Beirut the end of May, Mary Mikhael and I were talking about "hope". How can we have hope when things look so hopeless? How can a terminally ill person and her loved ones have hope when there is no hope for a cure? Yet the doctors keep saying, "You must keep the patient 'hoping'." How can a people have hope when the horizon reveals nothing but dark clouds? I asked Mary how she had hope during the Lebanese civil war when people were huddled in basements with a militia group holding guns. She looked at me and said, "But as Christians, we must have hope. We have no other way." When I called Mary in August she told me that she was praying for the people of Lebanon and for their enemies in Israel who caused so much damage to her slowly recovering country.
As Christians we have faith, hope and love.
Peace / Selam / Shalom
Alison Stendahl serves as a missionary with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.