NEHNA: The Orthodox of Antioch Speak Out
NEHNA is a new dynamic online platform for Arabic-speaking Christians from southeastern Turkey. This centuries-old community of Orthodox Christians is not very well known. Mostly centered in Antioch (Antakya) and its environs, this centuries-old Orthodox Christian community goes by different names: Antioch Orthodox, Greek Orthodox of Antakya, Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox, Arab Orthodox, and Arabic-speaking Eastern Orthodox. The NEHNA platform (‘Nehna’ means ‘we’ in Arabic) wants to change this and make this community more widely known. “We created this platform to research, explain, and document the forgotten culture and customs, the endangered language, and the mostly unwritten history of this community in order to increase knowledge and preserve it,” state NEHNA’s founders.
SyriacPress spoke to co-founder Ketrin Köprü to learn more about this laudable endeavor to put Turkey’s nearly forgotten Antiochian Christians back on the map. Ketrin Köprü was born in Antioch and has lived there until she went to university. Having lived in Istanbul for 12 years, the last 8 years she has been working for an international migration organization in the field of refugees and migration.
Many people might not have knowledge of the Arabic speaking Greek Orthodox people living in southeastern Turkey. Could you briefly give us some historical background about your community and how you would describe yourself?
The community is officially known as the Greek (Rum) Orthodox community. Arabic speaking is one of their distinctive characteristics today.
The Church is named Rum Orthodox and associated with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. Today, the community lives in the Antioch region, including the city proper, peripheral villages, and cities more northerly like İskenderun and southerly like Samandağ, as well as in Mersin. In the past century, there has also been emigration to Istanbul and other parts of the world, such as America and Europe.
When you talk to people, you will see that they use several ways and names to identify themselves: the Orthodox Greeks from Antakya, Greek Orthodox of Antakya, Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox, Arab Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox with Arabic language, Nasrani, Messiah.
As a recent article we published on NEHNA underlines, the region was populated with both native Arameans and Syriac speaking people. There are also Arab tribes in the region who have spread Rum Orthodoxy in the region. The community was named Rum Orthodox after a lengthy period of Hellenization in the region. Later, there was an Arabization of the region. However, several studies show that different ethnic groups, including the Arab tribes, inhabited the region. Therefore, we of NEHNA believe that any debate about ethnicity is invalid in this regard. At least that is what we conclude from academic research and scholars.
What kind of organization is NEHNA platform and when was it founded?
NEHNA was established on 15 October 2021, as an online platform by six people from Antioch or who have family ties there.
We wanted to be a platform for ideas, generating articles related to strong cultural identity markers (food, music, rituals, etc.) that we think we all possess. We also knew that the history of this community was not extensively written about and documented, so we are eager to produce articles related to the community’s past. We also want to be a voice on all the current issues that the community is trying to deal with. While some of these issues are unique to the community, some are shared with other non-Muslim populations of Turkey.
What have the reactions been to NEHNA so far? How is the platform being received?
We have received mostly positive reactions. Actually, we were all surprised by the quick and intense interest. We think we filled a gap in a sense, although we do not aim to represent the community as there are other organizations, primarily the Greek Orthodox foundations in the region. There are also other civic communities that publish on different platforms, but they are mostly located abroad and mainly focus on liturgical rituals. We aimed to have a broader framework, focusing on cultural and historical features of our community as well as providing an arena for different ideas on its current problems. This approach also attracted the interest of a wider audience.
There were also criticisms, in particular with regard to the name of the platform. We chose an Arabic name because it is a language that distinguishes this community from other communities. Most of the elderly still speak Arabic. Although the youth speaks it less and less every day, they still understand it. We were also criticized because we preferred to use “Antiochian” to describe the community. We mostly focused on the ancient name of the city and adopted the name that puts the Patriarchate at the center of all these communities that today also live in İskenderun, Mersin, Istanbul, and the diaspora.
What were the personal factors for you to join an organization like NEHNA?
As a journalist, I have worked in civil society in Istanbul for the last 12 years and have always felt the need to explain my identity, name, religion, language, history, culture, and traditions. While thinking about this, I met Anna, Mişel, and three other amazing people. Together, we co-founded NEHNA. I am very happy to be on a platform where I can get to know and promote my own culture and traditions.
NEHNA positions itself as a platform for the Greek Orthodox (religious affiliation), Arabic speaking (linguistic affiliation), Christian (cultural affiliation) community of Turkey and the diaspora. How would you best elaborate the current situation of your people in terms of these three factors?
Religiously, the people remain connected and closely associated with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. Compared to other cities, for example, the people of the community in Antioch and Mersin still regularly attend church and perform all their rituals.
In Istanbul, where there are several Greek Orthodox Churches, the situation is a little bit different. The liturgy is in Greek and the rituals differ to a large extent. Furthermore, the Antiochian Orthodox who moved to Istanbul in 1980s for education or work do not feel belonging to the Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul. Besides, Istanbul is very big, so it is a very different situation than in it is in Antioch. The church is not located around the corner. In the diaspora, in certain cities especially in Germany, the community preserves its own character as they mostly gather in the church.
In terms of linguistic affiliation, I have to say we are losing our language. The youth does not speak Arabic as it used to do. In Turkey, young people switched to Turkish. In Germany, they prefer speaking German. This is mostly due to the decreasing proportion among the general population.
I guess the cultural affiliation is the strongest among all of these factors that this community continues to preserve, both in Turkey and in diaspora. We love to cook our traditional dishes wherever we are in the world. We try to practice our culture and traditions as well. Even those with less religious affinity continue to practice the cultural elements of religious rituals and appreciate hearing and speaking a few words of Arabic.
Considering how indigenous Christian peoples (such as Greeks, Syriacs, and Armenians) have been treated politically, religiously, and culturally in Turkey over the past century, how would you describe the treatment of the Antiochian Greek Orthodox by the Turkish state on each of these three points? How is the current situation of Greek Orthodox living in Turkey?
Antiochian Greek Orthodox are on the same grounds as all other ethno-religious minorities. In recent years, they have less limitations on the freedom of worship, but they continue to experience similar problems of everyday discrimination and sometimes hate speech.
However, Antiochian Orthodox have additional problems due to their late entry into Turkey in 1939. The declaration of 1936, which forms the basis for the confiscations of non-Muslim property, was also applied to Antiochian Foundations which were not part of the system in 1936. This is considered as one of the problems yet to be resolved. I believe that most of the problems we face, similar to the other non-Muslim minorities, can be solved by granting all minorities with legal personality and equal citizenship, both in law and in practice.
You publish news items, in-depth articles, and research papers on your platform. What subjects do you focus on mainly? Is there maybe also a political message that you want to convey (to the Turkish authorities)?
Yes, we have different focuses. We want to underline our cultural characteristics and publish a variety of articles on our food, music, language, religious rituals, etc.
We also publish articles about the origin of the community and identity that will address sensitive subjects such as the historical and political disputes and the impact of discriminatory practices on the region while focusing on the current issues and problems. In addition, we publish interviews with civil leaders of church foundations as we aim to legalize regulations allowing non-Muslim communities to hold elections. We also highlight the other communities that exist in Antioch and have published articles on Arab Alevis and Armenians — and hopefully about Catholics in the future.
We do not have a specific political orientation with a unique political message. We are open to everyone who wants to contribute to our heritage as long as they keep away from discrimination and hate speech.
Are there other official cultural or political institutions or organizations that represent the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey and work for the continuation of their existence?
In Turkey, most of the non-Muslim communities are represented by the religious institutions or foundations that have been formed around their respective Churches. The Greek Orthodox community in Turkey is very broad. The Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul is represented by their foundations, with a central foundation called Rumvader. Antiochian Greek Orthodox communities are also represented by their Church foundations in the region.
As far as we know, there are no official cultural foundations apart from those who are Church related. There are several civil initiatives that try to bring forward certain elements of our community. We are one of them.
Who does NEHNA work with? Do you have partner organizations or organizations you feel close to? What kind of financial and moral support do you get or would you need in the future to be able to keep your platform going?
We are not yet collaborating with other organizations. As I mentioned before, we are a civil online platform. But because of the intense interest and positive feedback we received from both our own community and the population in general in Turkey and abroad, we started thinking about transforming into a civil society organization to pursue our common goals.
What is the level of your relations with Syriac institutions and organizations?
We have no official relationship with Syriac institutions yet, but we received many positive reactions from the Syriacs in diaspora. They had a huge interest in us and we were interviewed several times by their media outlets. We are happy to receive such a warm welcome and look forward to future collaborations.
There is a large Greek Orthodox population in Syria and Lebanon. What do you know about their situation and status?
Most of our team members have relatives and friends in Syria and Lebanon, although the majority in Syria left the country during the ongoing war. One of our goals is to collaborate with the Greek Orthodox in Syria and Lebanon in the future in a way that would be mutually beneficial at all levels.
What can you tell us about the Antiochian Greek Orthodox diaspora? How large and/or scattered is it and what are the difficulties they face in the diaspora?
Antiochian Greek Orthodox live in different parts of the world. Emigration started even before the Turkish Republic was established. An early migration trend was to Latin America. Today, probably the largest community lives in Germany.
We do not think they currently have any major problems like persecution, religious discrimination, or political oppression. However, as new generations become more attached to the new conditions, culture, and language, they begin to lose their heritage.