Sample Chapters: My Big Father

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My earliest memories of Kenan are from the summer of 1966 when I was visiting Turkey for the first time. I had just arrived in Istanbul, tired and dishevelled after hitchhiking across Europe. Overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling city, I landed on Kenan’s doorstep late one sticky evening, a total stranger, to be greeted with a welcoming smile and a warm invitation to stay the night. It emerged that the timing of my visit was highly inconvenient; Kenan was working hard for exams the following day. Having just completed university exams myself a few days earlier, I was all the more impressed by his calm acceptance of this sudden intrusion upon his studies. 

So began a friendship that continued for many years. After settling in Turkey with my family, visits to Kenan involved chatting over endless glasses of clear sweet tea, Kenan entertaining his guests from his apparently inexhaustible repertoire of Turkish jokes and stories. 

There are several reasons why I want to make the story of Kenan more widely available. First, it is impossible to talk about his life without telling something of the background and spiritual needs of Turkey and the Turks, a land and a people for which I hold a deep affection. 

Second, I think I am not alone in feeling rather overwhelmed by the current surfeit of ‘celebrity biographies’. While these make interesting reading, the lives of those they describe are often too remote from our own daily routine to be of more than passing relevance. Furthermore, the spirituality of many is so way beyond our own that we can readily become depressed rather than encouraged. The kingdom of God is about Jesus using very ordinary people to accomplish His purposes all over the world. Kenan was one of those who rejoiced to be such a foot-soldier in God’s army. 

Finally, Kenan had an infectious faith in his ‘Big Father’ – a great God who could and would act to provide for His children. It was the love of Kenan’s ‘Big Father’ that drove him out of the ghetto mentality of his minority Christian community to share that love with as many as possible of the millions of Muslims around him. This book was written in West Beirut at a time when the city was divided down the middle by a highly fortified so-called ‘Green Line’ that separated the mainly Muslim west of the city from the so-called Christian east. The message of Kenan came to me powerfully as I was writing – the love that could break down barriers of separation.  

For many people today, the world of Islam remains unknown and rather threatening. As it was for Kenan, so it is for us – only as we see God as Father in all his heavenly power and glory will we be taken beyond our little worlds to become truly available to meet the needs of others, and willing to share Christ with our Muslim friends. 

Since this book was first published in 1985, the Church in Turkey has continued to grow, slowly but steadily, in the midst of many challenges. Kenan’s labour during his short life on this earth was ‘not in vain’ in the Lord.



London, 31st March 1971 

A small woman with a brown, weathered face and greying hair lay swathed in white on the operating table. Looking down from above, it seemed as if her slight body had been caught in a giant spider’s web of shining tubes and brightly coloured electrode leads. The glare of theatre lights reflected off the jumble of instruments that surrounded her. The group of green-clad figures in surgical masks clustering round the table worked steadily and methodically, the silence broken only by the occasional terse command or the clatter of digital printout machines linked to a battery of monitoring screens. 

Moments earlier, as the grey-haired woman was lying on the trolley just before being anaesthetised, a doctor called Richard had held her hand and prayed with her. She spoke no English, but seemed to understand. As she was wheeled off, she smiled and made a one-way sign pointing to heaven. 

There was a pause in the operation. The chief surgeon carefully checked some clamps, and then reached down and lifted from the woman’s abdomen a single kidney. This was the smaller of the woman’s two kidneys. There was a murmur of approval from the group round the table. Far from being the mottled and blotchy organ so typical of older people, this kidney was red and shiny, the kidney of a girl, not of a woman who had given birth to ten children. Perhaps it was the clear air of her native village of Midyat, more than 2,000 miles away in south-eastern Turkey. Perhaps it was that active life of daily drawing water from the well, and of bringing up a lively family of seven of those children, three having died in infancy. Perhaps it was the largely vegetarian diet, because meat was rare in the Midyat of those days. Whatever the reasons, the surgeons at St Mary’s Hospital proclaimed it to be one of the healthiest donor kidneys they had seen in all the 180 transplants they had performed up to that time. 

A few paces down the corridor was another theatre. The hair of the man on the operating table was jet black with no hint of grey, but his face was sallow and pinched, his body wasted, and the group round this table was larger and seemed more tense. They had already been working for two hours, carefully closing off his wasted and diseased kidneys and preparing the crucial blood supply to be connected to a new kidney. 

The man’s name was Kenan Araz. The woman in the theatre next door was his mother. 

In a room not far away, a girl sat thinking and worrying and praying with a Christian nurse. She was Janet, Kenan’s sister. She had been fasting for twenty-four hours, but it was hard to concentrate on prayer. She kept thinking of cold, sharp scalpels, and then her mind would wander to her native Midyat, and she wondered whether her father was worrying too, and what her sisters Habibe, Leyla and Rashel were doing. In fact, they had been fasting too, a complete fast without food and water for the past three days – but today they were restless, wandering about the house, waiting for the telephone to ring. Strong warm winds from the Syrian deserts to the south blew across the rolling hills, bringing down the remains of the almond blossoms and rattling the window panes. 

A nurse carefully placed the kidney taken from Mrs Araz in a sterilised white dish and hurried to the adjoining theatre. For a few moments, part of her living body was suspended in space, life gladly and willingly flowing out from mother to son. Surrounded by the gleaming fruits of an advanced technological society were a mother, a son and a sister from an unknown family from a small obscure village in south-eastern Anatolia, in the middle of a rare operation, one of the first such to have been carried out on anyone from Turkey. The journey from the little village of Midyat to the operating tables of a famous London hospital had been very long indeed… 




Upper Mesopotamia, summer 1874

A cloud of dust and flies hung over the rough track as a pair of yoked oxen strained to pull a cart-load of heavy grey stone up the incline to Little Lake on the outskirts of Midyat. In fact, the lake in question only appeared in winter after the rains had begun and this summer, as every summer, there was only a shallow depression to mark the spot. But it was enough to give the area a name. The man prodding the struggling oxen up the slope was an ‘Assyrian’. Several days’ stubble masked a face burned deep brown by the sun, a long face with sloping forehead and arched bushy eyebrows set off by a distinctive curved nose and thick, well-set lips. Isaiah was on his way to build a house. It was going to be a house that would last, built with the same heavy grey stone that characterised the rest of Midyat, helping the village to blend with the dusty hills around. 

One day Kenan Araz would be brought up in the very same house. That time was still more than seventy years away, but his roots were here, buried deep in the village of Midyat. 

The house was being built for the Protestant missionaries to serve as a base for a new evangelical work in the area. If it were possible for those silent slabs of stone, which Isaiah was putting into place with such care, to speak of the joys, hopes, fears and tragedies they were to witness in the tumultuous century ahead, the stones would surely have cried out their story. 

By 1874, the missionaries had been visiting Midyat for more than ten years from their base in Mardin, fifty miles across the rolling hills to the west. From the beginning there had been hostility. Just as the Protestant missionaries had been stoned and spat upon in the streets of the much larger town of Mardin when they first moved there in 1858, so visits to the Syrian Orthodox (or Jacobite) village of Midyat had been marked by suspicion and antagonism. Descriptions of the village by travellers at that time are hardly flattering. In 1862 a missionary called Mr Walker, who was carrying out a tour of the area, remarked of Midyat: 

The population is entirely Jacobite; in character and conduct differing not a whit from the rude Koords around them; their relation to one another, even in the same village, being more in the way of blood-feuds than anything else. The leaders of the factions, although near relatives, dare not pass from their own quarter of the village to another without several attendants. Each desires to be acknowledged chief of the village; and each regards with deadly hatred whoever may secure this pre-eminence …2 

For years Dr Williams, the pioneer missionary in Mardin, had fought to obtain a foothold in this divided village. Though spiritually speaking the terrain hardly seemed promising, Midyat was the administrative centre of about 100 Christian Jacobite villages in the area, and the key to the mountains of the Jebel Noor beyond. On a clear day the peaks could be seen rising up from the Tigris in the east, icy and snowbound in winter, blue and hazy in summer. While the rocky valleys and high plains were traditionally the home of the mountain-dwelling Kurds, there were also many Kurdish-speaking Muslim villages intermingled with those of the Jacobites in the foothills below. Midyat was therefore seen as a stepping stone to a work among the Kurds. 

The whole area was a patchwork of language, race and religion. There were Sunni Muslims, Alevi Muslims whose religion was similar to the Shiites of Iran, and the Yezidis, who believed in a fallen angel, forgiven by God and set to govern the earth in God’s place. Then there was a host of Christian Orthodox and Catholic Churches jostling for power and influence. The Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire had coexisted with their Muslim conquerors for centuries, living as separate millets (or nations) and exempt from military service on payment of a special tax. Though second-class citizens, many in fact held powerful positions in the empire, particularly in those areas where Christians formed a large proportion of the population. 

Mardin in the 1870s was just such a centre. An imposing town on the northern boundary of Mesopotamia, built high up on a hill 1,600ft above the vivid greens of the great plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Mardin’s half-Christian and half-Muslim population faithfully reflected the religious potpourri of the villages that surrounded it. 

The ancient monastery of Deyr-ul-Zafaran just a few miles from the city walls, and the even older monastery of Deyr-ul-Umur (Mar-Gabriel) near Midyat (founded in AD397) were the ecclesiastical centres of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the area, otherwise known as the Jacobite Church. The patriarch of the whole community, an impressive old man in black with a long flowing white beard, was based at Deyr-ul-Zafaran, and the Jacobites formed one of the largest Christian communities in Mardin. The Church traces its roots back to early Christianity in Antioch, but received its identity during the struggles to correctly define the human and divine natures of Christ during the Church councils of the fifth century. 

By the 1870s in Mardin there was also a sizeable community of Syrian Catholics, with their own patriarch, formed by the efforts of Rome a century earlier to reunite the Syrian Orthodox with the Roman Catholic Churches, an effort that resulted in much division and bitterness. Add to this the Christian communities of Nestorians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenian Catholics and Gregorian Armenians living in the area, and it is small wonder that any Muslim onlooker should be confused as to where or even whether true Christianity could be found in this profusion of labels! 

The first Protestant missionaries coming to live in Mardin in 1858 faced a baffling array of languages. Arabic was the general language of the area, but Turkish was the language of administration. There were two dialects of Kurdish, two of ancient Syriac, three of modern Syriac, and Armenian. The Jacobites celebrated their liturgy in ancient Syriac, an eastern dialect of Aramaic and very close to the language spoken by Jesus. The ‘Assyrians’ (called the Suryani by the Turks) were not really a separate race at all, but those belonging to the various Churches in which the term ‘Syrian’ or ‘Assyrian’ was used. They spoke Syriac, Arabic or Kurdish, and many would know all three languages. 

If the Muslim Turks found the various church labels confusing, some of the in-fighting between the many groups did even more to turn people away from the radical gospel of love preached by Jesus. Unlike other Turkish cities at that time, Mardin was not divided into distinct Muslim and Christian areas, so whatever happened in one community was immediately common knowledge in the other. 

Jacobites who had seceded to Rome still worshipped in the same churches, but at different times. Sometimes fights would break out if the first group did not finish on time. Once these became so bad that the local pasha (or governor) heard of it and threw all the priests of the town indiscriminately into prison. The problem was finally solved by an extraordinary solution. A decree was obtained from Constantinople that every church should be divided in the middle by a wall, and that each party should take half. So for a time it was possible to attend services on one side of the wall, and hear the opposing group worshipping the same God on the other side. 

The sterile stones of Mardin 

It was into the midst of this complex mosaic of religious tension and intrigue that the Protestant missionaries came. Some from Mardin’s traditional churches were men of deep sensitivity, disgusted by the in-fighting around them, and they were quickly attracted to a message in which Christ was preached as one who came to break down dividing walls. 

To those more accustomed to syncretism and politely expressed bland theological opinions, it is difficult to grasp the intensity of religious feeling, loyalty and often plain fear that drove people of past generations to vicious religious disputes at one end of the spectrum and extremes of self-immolation at the other. One factor that did unite the churches of the area was that strong stream of Greek and essentially anti-biblical thought which declares that the aim of true religion is to subdue the body in order to free the soul for communion with God. 

In the ancient monasteries near Mardin there was ample opportunity for the subduing of the body. Services that might last many hours took place at all times, day and night. Near the chapel of the Mar-Gabriel (Deyr-ul-Umur) monastery,3 underground caves were used for times of Lenten prayer and fasting, and sometimes monks would be walled into these places for weeks on end. Vertical slots just big enough to take one person were cut in the rock walls of the cave so that a monk could pray on his feet without danger of falling over because of fatigue or falling asleep. Under the floor of the cave and running its full length, a further narrow space had been carved out. Here a monk could lie prostrate in the suffocating darkness to further his spiritual exercises. 

One young monk called Baulus Bursam used to wear a belt with nails in it, the ends pointing inwards. He spent much time in one of these underground caves in the monastery at Midyat. He used to set up a rope such that, when sleep threatened to overcome him, he could fling himself across it so that he could keep awake to pray. As a result of Bibles being introduced into the monastery, Baulus came to a living faith in Christ by reading the Scriptures for himself. Like Martin Luther centuries before, he suddenly saw that all his works were useless to bring him into the presence of a holy God. Coming into new freedom in Christ, his very first act was to throw away his nail-studded belt, but the scars remained with him for the rest of his life. In later years, until his martyrdom in 1896, Baulus would show the scars to contrast the deadness of a religion of empty works with the full and complete salvation that is in Christ. 

Complexities of religion and language were not the only challenges to face the first missionaries who came to the Mardin area. Though the town itself was relatively healthy owing to its height above the plains, the whole area was subject to frequent drought, and for months all the spare time and energy of the new believers would be used in relief efforts. In 1864 the small but growing church was decimated when seventeen members had to move to other areas to find work. In the same year typhoid claimed many lives, and in 1866 in Mardin there were 400 deaths from cholera. At another time all the crops and vineyards of the surrounding region, up to 10,000 square miles in area, were devastated by a plague of locusts. As if famine, drought and disease were not enough to make life arduous, plundering bands of Kurdish tribesmen would frequently descend from the mountains, robbing and burning surrounding villages, and carrying off a large number of livestock. 

Somehow the physical hardship was reflected in the spiritual hardness of the people. Dr Williams was the sole missionary in the town in those early years and contrasted the ‘stony, sterile stones’4 of Mardin with the spiritual renewal that was coming to many other areas of Turkey at that time. In the neighbouring towns of Gaziantep and Marash the gospel had broken into the large Armenian communities with astonishing results. 

Expansion and opposition 

Back in the 1840s an Armenian priest called Bedros had been banished by his bishop from Constantinople to Jerusalem because of his evangelical views. In the event he never got nearer to Jerusalem than Beirut, and from there travelled back to Anatolia where he began a new work in Gaziantep among the town’s Armenians. Within two years 200 families had professed Christ. It was a time when dire threats were being made from the Armenian patriarch’s pulpit in Constantinople against all Protestants. These culminated in a bull of excommunication issued on 25th January 1846, by which an evangelical priest called Vertanes, who had been boldly preaching the gospel from his own pulpit, was banished forever from the Gregorian Church. The bull is worth reading because it captures something of the intense and virulent opposition to the evangelical movement at that time from the established religious hierarchy, the evangelical movement at its inception still being part and parcel of the ancient Gregorian Church. 

Before the bull was read, the patriarchal church in Constantinople was darkened by extinguishing the candles, and the great curtain was drawn in front of the main altar. The bull was then solemnly read out. The hapless Vertanes was described as ‘a contemptible wretch’ who, ‘following his carnal lusts’, had forsaken the Church. He was said to be a ‘traitor and murderer of Christ, a child of the devil, and an offspring of Antichrist, worse than an infidel or a heathen’ teaching ‘the impieties and seductions of modern sectaries’ (that is, Protestants). ‘Wherefore we expel him and forbid him as a devil, and a child of the devil, to enter into the company of Believers’.5 

It is clear that the Church dignitaries of mid-nineteenth-century Constantinople were not yet familiar with the language of modern Church diplomacy, and the bull was repeated the following Sunday, garnished with some further choice anathemas, only this time couched in words that effectively extended the excommunication to all those of Protestant belief in the Ottoman Empire. 

The anathemas were carried out with great vigour, although the more violent acts were restrained by the direct intervention of Sir Stratford Canning, the British ambassador to the sultan. It was this patriarchal bull that led directly to the founding of the first Protestant church of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul on 1st July 1846. 

The bull of excommunication was read in the churches of Gaziantep, but Bedros refused to be silenced, and an evangelical church was soon established there the following year. Though Bedros himself died from cholera two years later, his labour was not in vain, and the Gaziantep church grew rapidly. From the beginning it was a church with great missionary vision for the surrounding area. The members established their own local missionary society, and teams of young people went out to the surrounding towns and villages witnessing and distributing literature. Often they would go to Marash, but eleven times they were driven away with hails of stones. The church at Gaziantep also had a vision for a kind of missionary work which might today be more commonly known as ‘tent-making’: 

A novel experiment was made, early in the year 1849, to accomplish the object in view without subjecting themselves to the charge of being mere idlers, and ‘busybodies in other men’s matters’. Five individuals who had trades went forth to different towns, with their tools in one hand, and the sword of the Spirit in the other. Wherever they went they worked at their trade, while at the same time they laboured for the spiritual good of the people.6 

In this way evangelical churches were planted in many of the surrounding towns and villages, and it was through a combination of such ‘tent-making’ and the continued outreach of evangelistic teams that the gospel first came to Marash. As in Gaziantep, the seed, once taken, underwent extraordinarily rapid growth. In 1855 an evangelical Armenian church was established with sixteen members. Within six years there were sometimes more than 1,000 at the Sunday morning service, with 1,500 more coming for the afternoon communion service. A local ‘Soul Loving Missionary Society’ had been established and was supporting five full-time workers. During those early days of expansion and revival there was little hint of the gruesome horrors that lay ahead for the believers of Marash. 

Breakthrough at Mardin 

But at Mardin things were different; everything seemed to go so slowly. Dr Williams plodded on. His wife died and was buried in the tiny cemetery near the mission compound, but he kept going. The breakthrough came in 1867 when a week of prayer was organised. The new believers had never shown much interest in prayer, but this week there was a sudden change of heart. Every morning at sunrise and every evening at sundown they met for prayer. The first meeting was held in pouring rain and thirty people came, the numbers building up as the week went on. Old wounds were healed, wrong relationships were put right, and the people began to pray ‘as if they had done nothing else all their lives’.7 

As a direct result of this week of prayer the church was officially organised soon afterwards. The believers decided to appoint a full-time pastor and began to support him at the princely rate of four Turkish pounds a month. Nor was this all. Through prayer they caught a vision for the thousands of Kurds in the area who were almost totally unevangelised (even as they remain today), so they chose one of their own to be a missionary student who would later be sent out to work among these neglected people. He delighted in the name of Oosee Sit and was ‘a great six feet, brawny fellow, with unwashed clothes [he was a tanner], long dishevelled hair, large open features, eyes black as coal, that shine like stars, but so simple in his trust, so tender in his love of Jesus, so earnest in his efforts to do good’.8 Sadly, no record remains of what happened to Oosee; the last mention of him was as he waited for ‘the melting of the Taurus snows and the winding up of his business to go and study, that he may preach the Jesus he loves’.9 

A few months after the church was established, fierce persecution broke out against the new Protestant community. On the pretext that they had not paid the correct taxes (a charge later shown to be false), many of the Protestants were beaten and thrown into prison. Large sums of money were extracted from each household, equivalent to about a year’s wages. Yet no one went back on their new faith, and the trials united the believers as never before. 

Dr Williams died on 14th February 1871, worn out at the age of fifty-three by his long labours in the area. The church at Mardin was not destined to grow like those at Gaziantep and Marash, but a solid work had been started from which ripples went out for hundreds of miles around, and the church continued for fifty years until it was swallowed up by the convulsions of the First World War. 

Dr Williams was replaced by a younger man, Alpheus Andrus. With the church in the hands of a local pastor, Andrus was freer to organise outreach into surrounding areas. With a special concern for the Kurds, he was soon engaged in a translation of the New Testament into Kurdish. It was this same love for the Kurds that pushed him out again and again to the village of Midyat, the key to the Kurds and the Jebel Noor beyond. 

Advances in Midyat 

And so we return to Isaiah the Assyrian, pulling heavy grey stones up the slope outside Midyat. Isaiah was building a house for the missionaries, to serve specifically as a base in winter when travel from Mardin was frequently hindered by mud or snow. For years the missionaries had hired a room for meetings from Isaiah’s father, and for some time now the room had been used as a school. Through this contact Isaiah had come to Christ. He was then the only known local believer from Midyat, the fruit of many years of prayer and concern for that area, the result of more than forty years of missionary outreach as the gospel had spread out from Constantinople, through Anatolia, in gradually widening circles. 

So the grey stone house that gradually arose at Little Lake on the outskirts of Midyat symbolised the laying down of lives, the battles in prayer, and the sweat and tears of many decades of hard missionary labour. Just as the heavy stones of the house could only be heaved into their correct positions with great effort, so each living stone of the emerging evangelical Church of the Ottoman Empire cost much before it could come into place in God’s building. 

It does not come as a surprise to read that the building of the house met with intense opposition. Indeed, progress was only possible because the local Kurdish agha (or ‘chief’) from the nearby mountains had been put in prison in Mardin. Unfortunately, the foundations proved too weak for the massive stone slabs, and when the house was nearly finished and its lower part occupied, they gave way, destroying part of the wall and causing the arches to fall. By the time repairs began, the agha was out of prison and, feeling his local control of the population threatened, organised a determined opposition to the completion of the building. The rumour soon went round that it was a church rather than a house that was being built, and it took four years of battling with government bureaucracy and challenging the authority of successive aghas before it was finally completed. 

The local population was impressed by this triumph of the ‘Protestants’ despite the heavy odds against them. Deciding that there must be considerable power behind them, the inhabitants soon came asking for instruction and for teachers for the out-lying villages. 

It was not long before the Kurdish aghas in the surrounding mountains were at war with each other again and, for safety’s sake, the helpers at Midyat had to retreat to Mardin for a while. It was only after troops were sent in that some semblance of order was established in the area, and some of the more renegade aghas were either executed or banished forever from the region. A missionary called Miss Sears wrote from Midyat on 17th February 1881,10 remarking that the head of one of the rebel chiefs, called Hajoo, was being displayed there on a tall pole for the interested crowds on that Sunday afternoon, and contrasted this ‘barbarous entertainment’ with the ‘quiet assembling of the Protestant congregation’ – for a small church had already sprung into being since the new house had been completed. 

The house that one day was to be the home of Kenan Araz was used for thirty-six years as a centre of evangelical life and witness for the whole area round Midyat. Isaiah himself never lived to see the strange series of events that would one day take place beneath the arches he had toiled to build and then rebuild. But already in the 1870s the Ottoman Empire was steadily moving closer to an abyss that would prove final and fatal, and the strange and terrifying events that would one day take place in Midyat were to form but a tiny part of the death throes of an empire. 



  • Dr Bruce Farnham

    The author lived in Turkey for many years during which time Kenan became a good friend.

  • My Big Father

    Dr Bruce Farnham

    Kenan Araz knew that coming to Christ would carry a cost. Belonging to a culturally Christian minority in Turkey, the faithful witness of persecuted believers had been part of the very foundation stones of his childhood home. But when he discovered the infinitely kind and compassionate God of the Bible – his ‘Big Father’ – nothing could stop him from sharing the wonderful news...