One of the oldest churches in the world has been evacuated after coming under fire and being damaged in clashes between the Turkish police and the Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK, The Telegraph reports.
The third century St Mary’s Assyrian Church in Sur, the old district of the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, has been at the centre of fighting which has worsened since the end of a ceasefire last summer.
The priest, Father Yusuf Akbulut, said he had ordered his congregation to leave and taken his own children to safety, but had tried to stay put in his lodgings in the church compound.
But after rocket-propelled grenades had hit the building and broken its doors, he had been forced to flee carrying a white flag.
“We were being shelled by tanks and rocket launchers and we felt like the house was going to collapse on us,” he told The Telegraph. “Our water was cut, the electricity was cut. Then we called the police.
“They told us it was a dangerous area and they could not get there. ‘You should try to save yourselves,’ they said. So my wife and I took white flags and escaped from the area.”
For much of its 1,800-year history, St Mary’s was a part of the extraordinary patchwork of religions and sects that made up the heart of the Ottoman Empire.
Until 100 years ago Diyarbakir was a mixture of Kurdish Sunni Muslims, Turks, Armenians – who were largely Orthodox Christians – and Assyrians, mostly members of the Syriac Orthodox church.
During the First World War, the Ottoman authorities turned on its Christian minorities, with hundreds of thousands killed in the Armenian genocide.
However, Assyrians were also killed and driven out in large numbers. Fr Akbulut last year described to The Telegraph how he had been arrested as late as 2000 for referring publicly to the killings of his community.
There are now around 25,000 Assyrians still living in Turkey, but just 40 in Diyarbakir, the epicentre of the genocide.
“The Assyrians have always suffered a great deal and they have always been the oppressed community,” Fr Akbulut said. “Due to what is going on in Sur, everybody is trying to save their possessions and they are leaving for other places.
“Some go to leave with their relatives, some to other places, some rent houses. Everybody is leaving for somewhere else.”
More than 40,000 people are estimated to have died in a three decade-long war between the Turkish authorities and the leftist PKK, who are demanding more autonomy for the Kurds.