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Beliefs Endure as Believers Move On

Here in the southeast, official policy meant people who spoke Kurdish and called themselves Kurds were, officially, "Mountain Turks." Their eventual insistence on maintaining their ethnic Kurdish identity helped spark a separatist war that killed 30,000 people, most of them Kurdish civilians, during the 1990s.

The conflict took a toll on other minorities as well.

Children in Midyat raise hands to indicate if they believe genies visit local houses. The belief is one of the last cultural remnants of the Yazidis, most of whom have left the town.

"We tried to be out of it," said Isa Dogdu, an Assyrian standing in the doorway of a church that dates from the 7th century. As a religious minority, however, the Assyrians felt pressure both from the Kurdish guerrillas and from Turkish Hezbollah, radical Islamic guerrillas whom the government secretly armed as a proxy force. When government officials showed up at the church, said Dogdu, a religious instructor, they asked why young people in its annex were not being taught in Turkish. Assyrians, who in the 1st century formed the world's first Christian community, still learn a version of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

Persecution, Dogdu said, "was not done very openly, but sometimes it was deliberate. For instance, there were some murders of prominent persons. If you murder a prominent person, other people have fear."

Today, about 500 Assyrians live in Midyat. Sunday services rotate among the four churches that remain in the medieval splendor of the old city. In recent months, small groups of Assyrians have begun returning from abroad to build homes, mostly in isolated villages. But Dogdu's weary smile suggested the downward trend would not be easily reversed.

"When you have a majority population and it goes down to less than 1 percent, what do you think?" he said.

The exodus of the Yazidis was more stark. By official count, Turkey had 22,632 members of the sect in 1985. Fifteen years later, their numbers had dropped to 423. In the area around Midyat, the exodus was even more dramatic.

"In the last 20 years, everybody moved," said Mostafa Demir, 22, whose family left Midyat in 1990. "Nobody was really telling them to leave, but the relations were not that warm."

Centuries ago, Muslims slaughtered Yazidis by the thousands as devil worshipers. Yazidis, whose faith draws on several sources, including Zoroastrianism, believe the fallen angel who became Satan later repented, returning to grace after extinguishing the fires of Hell. Yazidis envision him as a peacock, a main symbol of their religion.

In modern Midyat, Demir said, their persecution was more apt to appear as mockery. Demir recalled merchants at the town market drawing a circle in the dirt around Yazidi customers. Yazidis, whose theology does not allow them to break a circle, would stand there indefinitely.

But things grew worse when the Kurdish rebellion erupted. Many Yazidis, who claim to speak the purest Kurdish, identified with the rebels. That made them targets of Turkish troops and Hezbollah, who "pushed the Yazidis out of here to get their lands," said Fars Bakir, an elderly Yazidi who lives in a mud-daubed house in a hamlet called Cilesiz, or "Without Suffering," in a lush valley bordering Syria.

As a condition for joining the European Union, Turkey recently passed new legal protections for minorities. But Bakir, who fled to Germany for several years, said he and his wife came home primarily because of homesickness, not faith in new laws.

Turkey differs with the European Union on the definition of minority, insisting on its definition of nationhood grounded in Turkishness. Baskin Oran, a University of Ankara political scientist active in minority human rights, discounted the new laws as "a revolution from above. It's more or less easy to change laws. But it is much more difficult to change the mentality of the people."

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