In search of Leonard, my martyred ancestor
31 December 2018
https://www.bbc.com

Eastern Turkey had a large and thriving community of Christians a little over 100 years ago, but since then most have been dispersed or killed. The BBC’s Eli Melki went to look for traces of a relative, who was martyred at the age of 33

One evening in June, I sat in the sunset among the Roman ruins of Zirzawan hill, in south-east Turkey. This is where it’s said the remains of one of my ancestors are buried in a mass grave. Leonard Melki was about 33 years old at the beginning of World War One, and his fate was determined by his Christian faith

At that time, between a fifth and a quarter of the inhabitants of eastern Turkey – then part of the Ottoman Empire – belonged to an array of Eastern denominations of the Christian Church, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Church, the Church of the East (Nestorians) and the Chaldean Church

Leonard Melki’s beatification began in 2005
All except the Armenians worshipped in Syriac – a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ

They lived among the empire’s Muslim majority and, while many prospered, at some times and in some places they were subject to outright persecution; in World War One, it went far, far beyond that

Leonard, my great-grandfather’s cousin, was born a member of one of the Eastern churches – the Maronites – but later became a Capuchin friar, and in his mid-20s he was sent to run the order’s school in the city of Mardin, close to what is now the border between Turkey and Syria

At this point Christians represented between 35% and 40% of Mardin’s inhabitants. The Capuchin monastery, where Leonard taught boys the rudiments of the Christian faith, stood alongside a Franciscan monastery in a prominent position in the city centre

To find out more about Leonard, I spoke to his great-nephew, Fares Melki, who has set up a website dedicated to Leonard and other missionaries from Baabdat, the small town near Beirut where we were both born. As we sat under our family oak tree, he told me that Leonard was born Yusuf (Joseph in Arabic) in about 1881, one of 11 children. As a boy he would have tilled the land around where we were sitting
 Fares showed me some yellowed letters and photographs Leonard sent to relatives and to his superiors. They reveal a young man dedicated to his faith, attached to his sister Tamar, and eager – despite problems with his health – to embark on a mission 1,000km from his picturesque and prosperous home in Mount Lebanon

In one letter, written in 1912, he wrote about young Muslim men from Mardin being sent to fight in the Balkan Wars

Poor souls, I pity them. They are marching like sheep to the slaughter, poorly trained and equipped, but displaying an admirable courage despite of it all. Lacking everything – even bread – they end up by devastating everything and terrorising people wherever they set foot. May God put an end to all this misery, and grant peace and tranquillity to the land

But not long afterwards, World War One did the opposite, and the nationalist Young Turks then in control of the Ottoman Empire began to fear a possible alliance between the local Christian populations and Russia, which had quickly gone on the offensive

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