It’s nearly Easter and, this time, I will be spending it in the Pennines. We are forecast snow. How British can you get? Not much more I suspect. But three years ago I spent a very different Easter in a very different place.
I was doing research for my Çetin İkmen book ‘River of the Dead’. I wanted to set at least part of the action in a city I had long wanted to visit, Mardin, which is in the south eastern part of Turkey. On a rock high above the Mesopotamian Plain, Mardin is a fabled city of vast honey-coloured mansions, of obscure and fantastical pre-Islamic beliefs and of many ancient churches most of which belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Syrian Orthodox or Suriani as they are known locally, have lived in and around Mardin ever since the early centuries of the modern era. They are a proud, kind and very hospitable people who gladly shared their Easter Liturgy with me.
In common with a lot of festive Orthodox services the Liturgy was a theatrical as well as a religious experience and was, even for someone like me, very moving. Only the blessing of the Republic and the President was in Turkish, the rest of the proceedings were conducted in Aramaic, the language, we are told, of Jesus Christ. Even the Turkish police who stood outside guarding the church (Mardin is in an area where several terrorist groups operate, including Hezbollah) had smiles on their faces when we all piled out afterwards to eat, drink tea and be merry with the priests and the monks in the church garden. At only 45km from the border with Syria itself, this part of Turkey is heavily influenced by Arab culture and the Suriani women celebrated their belief in the risen Christ by ululating their joy in a way that I certainly had never heard anywhere else in Turkey.
So why mention Easter 2007 now? Because Mardin has been in the news this week and because of religion – this time Islam. A two day conference involving clerical delegates from Islamic countries from all over the world has just closed at the Artuklu University in Mardin. The conference had been convened in order to discuss what it known as the ‘Mardin Fatwa’. This was a fatwa given in the 14th century by the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya against the Mongol rulers who then governed Mardin. It called for force of arms to be taken by Muslims against them. It is a fatwa that some including al Qaeda, have used to justify acts of terrorism. The aim of the conference was to look at the fatwa again and see what relevance it might have for people in the 21st century.
At the end of the two day conference the clerics declared what they have called the ‘New Mardin Declaration’. After much study, debate and discussion this it was decided boiled down to the opinion that the Mardin fatwa did not give anyone the right to kill or maim in the name of Islam. The Mardin fatwa was relevant in the 14th century but the realities of the 21st century are different. The clerics declared that Islam ‘unequivocally forbids indiscriminate killing and murder’ and that the actions of terrorist groups are ‘not jihad but arbitrary murder’.
Mardin is a beautiful, fascinating and very diverse place and I am glad that such a progressive move has been made there. Religious people tell me that when faiths do have to look at themselves and sometimes reappraise what they do, it can be complicated and painful. That it is happening at all, I find very hopeful. With Easter specifically in mind however, I wonder how long it will take for the Vatican to debate the place of celibacy in its currently embattled and also in some cases, discredited, priesthood? Paedophile priests have become a scandal and steps will have to be taken at some point to look at that and at the whole issue of celibacy in the church. I hope it is soon. I fear that it too, will be painful.