The Marta Shimoni Church in Turkey’s village of Mehr was attacked and desecrated by unknown persons this week. This is the same village where the elderly parents of a Chaldean Catholic priest were kidnapped last year. The mother, Simoni Diril, was later found deceased. Her husband, Hormoz Diril, remains missing.
Video footage obtained by ICC shows that the destruction was primarily against the Christian items and relics inside the church. Crosses, pictures of Jesus, and rosaries were strewn across the path leading away from the mountain church’s entrance.
Marta Shimoni is a cave church built into the mountains and thus cannot be destroyed in the same way as other churches. The village of Mehr was primarily Chaldean Christian before surrounding conflict forced its evacuation in the early the 1990s.
Eleven years ago, the Diril couple had returned to the village, despite the dangers, in an attempt to rebuild the Christian presence. They were the first to return, and often celebrated mass at Marta Shimoni. The church, who is named after a local Christian martyred for her faith, stands as a historic reminder of the village’s Christian past.
Last January, suspected Kurdish militants kidnapped elderly Turkish Christians Hurmüz Diril and his wife, Şimuni Diril, from the same village. On March 20, Şimuni’s son found her dead and dismembered in a river. Hurmüz’s fate remains unknown, and the government has not found the killers.
The pair’s son, Fr. Adday Ramzi Diril, serves as a Catholic priest, ministering to thousands of Iraqi refugees who live in Turkey.
Lawyer for the Diril family, Orhan Kemal Cengiz shared with ICC, “I have delivered more than a dozen petitions to the prosecutor so far, to urge him to look at the matter from different angles, as well as calling him to deliver his indictment as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I could not have any positive result yet. I believe there is a strong correlation between the lack of indictment in this case and the recent attack against the chapel in the village in which the Diril couple went missing. The prosecutor’s refusal to introduce an indictment against the perpetrators emboldens the perpetrators and the people behind them.”
He continues, “I will urge the prosecutor to make a thorough investigation into the last attack on the church as well as to look into possible links between this attack and the kidnapping of the Diril couple. It is obvious, if the impunity in the case of the abduction and killing of the Diril couple continues, more attacks would follow.”
The disappearance of the Diril couple was mentioned both in the 2021 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the more recently released 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom from the US Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
An immediate family member of the Diril couple shared with ICC, “First of all, I strongly condemn this heinous attack on our church. This attack does not fit into humanity or any belief. It is obvious that the people who did this are very uncomfortable with our presence on our lands and with our beliefs.”
“This assault of our presence in the village is an indication that somebody is disturbed, and they do not want us here. What worries us the most is that it is a continuation of the persecution of my parents in January last year. We even suspect it was linked to the murder and disappearance of my parents.”
Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager said, “We are concerned about this desecration against Marta Shimoni and how this is part of a continued pattern of intimidation and threats against the Christian presence in Mehr. Over a year has passed since the kidnapping of the Diril couple and murder of Simoni. There has been no justice. And now their church is attacked. These cases are intertwined. If there is no accountability for these crimes, how can Christians with confidence return home to Mehr?”
ICC had earlier said that the couple’s abduction was carried out by PKK members, also known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist group.
The village was evacuated in 1989 and 1992 because of conflict between the PKK and the Turkish Army.
Turkey has a long history of Christian persecution, and its government still refuses to admit that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide of Christian Armenians in 1915.
Turkey is 99% Muslim, according to its own statistics. Although its constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government uses regulations that demand the registration of religious groups to make it more difficult to practice non-Islamic faiths. Hatred toward Christians and Jews in the country often leads to discrimination, stigmatisation and attacks.
Last July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the Hagia Sophia, an ancient Christian cathedral, from a museum into a mosque, undoing its transformation in 1934 from a mosque to a cathedral.