Mission: Ararat 2015
Reports and photos by Gary Fallesen
Founding president, Climbing For Christ
Saturday, June 13
The sun is eclipsed by a minaret in Istanbul. Pray for the Son to shine in Turkey.
We said our “goodbyes” to our Turkish friends – Adem, Behzat and Osman – and flew across Turkey from Van to Istanbul. They are looking forward to our next visit. In the meantime, they have no idea how much we’ll be praying for them.
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:36 (ESV)
Friday, June 12
The call to prayer interrupted our dinner and we ate silently, listening to the noise echoing through the streets outside in Van (pronounced “Wan”), one of the largest cities in eastern Turkey with a population of more than 500,000 people. We returned here today as we begin to travel westward and back to our homes over the next few days. For the past two weeks we have moved farther and farther east, exploring new areas of Turkey and reacquainting ourselves with others as we continue to reach out to Kurdish people.
Several individuals in the streets of Van welcomed us to Kurdistan. But we have been working for some time in this cultural state – a place that hasn’t been drawn on a map, where the Kurdish are in the majority and possibly gaining a foothold politically. We feel a spiritual burden for the Kurdish people.
In Turkey, there are said to be only about 1,400 Christians among the 14-million-plus Kurds. We came hoping to change that number, if only by 1. But as we turned from Mount Ararat to start toward home today, we did not have that assurance.
As a team member said tonight, after tea in a sidewalk café we have frequented the past three years (again meeting our Kurdish friend Turgut, who works there): “It seems like an anti-climactic end to the trip.”
Approaching Akdamar Island by boat. The Akdamar Armenian Church of the Holy Cross – with stone reliefs of HIStoric scenes from the Bible decorating the exterior – stands here.
We returned today to Akdamar Island on Lake Van to visit the 10th century Armenian church that the Turkish government has made a museum. It was yet another reminder that the early church that began in this land has been turned into a historical monument with Islam the dominant faith (by about 99.8 to 0.2 percent).
But in our journeys we have seen a church that knows a Living God and we have shared the love of Christ with more and more people. As long as we are breathing, we have hope. We serve a persistent and patient God. We must reflect the same characteristics. Victory among the Kurdish people will come.
“But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” – Ecclesiastes 9:4 (ESV)
Thursday, June 11
Jess, left, and Elaine follow Charlotte and Adem into a camp on the lower slopes of Mount Ararat.
We hiked up to a camp for a semi-nomadic family located above the small village of Elle at about 7,300 feet on Mount Ararat. This was a family we had not met before.
The Kurdish families here have always been honored to be visited by us and we are humbled by the way they welcome us with çay (tea – pronounced “chai”) and the offer of food. These open tent doors allow us to establish relationships and then, when we return, they are overjoyed to see that we have remembered them.
This is God ordained, of course. The Lord has sent us here and put these beautiful people in our path. When the opportunity is right we share this with our Kurdish friends and take the next step in a long-term teaching process – all the while praying that the Spirit works in their hearts.
Wednesday, June 10
We spent the day doing our annual sightseeing of the area with the two young women whose family we have ministered to the past three summers. We visited the 123-year-old meteor crater a stone’s throw from the Iranian border, the Noah’s Ark museum not far from Mount Ararat, the 18th-century Ishak Pasha Palace in Doğubayazıt, and a Turkish carpet co-op. When we stopped for lunch, the older sister prayed before we ate. I could sense the spiritual battle as this 18-year-old was coached through her Muslim prayer.
Islam has a spiritual stronghold on the region, even if most are only nominally followers of the religion. Pray against the darkness that has trapped our Kurdish friends.
Tuesday, June 9
The blind man, whom we have visited each of the past three years, knew we’d be coming. He had a dream about it. In the dream, I knocked on his door and held photos in my hand.
We were earlier than he expected, having arrived at the beginning of August in 2013 and in late June in 2014. But we did show up with photos in hand; photos of his family from last year.
Through Behzat’s Kurdish translation I told him I had come because Jesus had sent me. He said he knew that. I also told him that I believed he would have more dreams about Jesus. He said he understood, and he asked us to pray for him.
My prayer was that he would have more dreams about Christ and through them realize Jesus is the One True God. May dreams become a reality.
Praying that blindness to God will be taken away. (Photo by Elaine Fallesen)
We revisited many other old Kurdish friends and made a few new friends along the way as we moved from village to village at the foot of Mount Ararat.
Elaine had more opportunities to review Gospel bracelet lessons from last year with children who still had their bracelets or at the very least remembered much of what the beads symbolize. She and Charlotte and Jessica gave out gifts: sunscreen, hair ties, sunglasses, toys, candy and, of course, hugs.
One mother, troubled by a rash on her neck that has been undiagnosable in eastern Turkey, asked for our help. She told Behzat she would do anything to be healed. He told her, “You know Jesus sent them?” She said she knew because of our time in her family’s tent on the mountain last summer.
Pray for more eyes to truly see and ears to hear as we attempt to deepen relationships in a place where there is no Christian presence.
“…lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:10b (ESV)
Monday, June 8
A shepherd boy leads his flock in Topcatan.
We moved up from Topcatan to the highest village on Mount Ararat to visit the homes of the horsemen who work on the mountain. We are overnighting with one of the horsemen and his family in Cevirme at about 6,500 feet.
None of the horsemen have had much work on Ararat yet this year because of late snow. Base Camp has not been established. Behzat and our cook Arif took Charlotte and Jessica up towards Base Camp while Adem, Elaine and I visited homes.
Much of the talk – as it has been for days – centered on Sunday’s elections. The Kurdish party, which needed 10 percent of the vote to secure representation in parliament for the first time, received 13 percent of the vote and had 79 or 80 representatives elected. There is a great deal of happiness in eastern Turkey. Unfortunately, it has also been a major distraction to any sort of evangelism we might do.
Pray for the elected and, more importantly, the elect. God, have Your way with these people and this land.
Sunday, June 7
Elaine teaches about Jesus while making Gospel bracelets with sisters Zebeade, 21, and Zahide, 12.
We visited five of the families we have spent time with on Mount Ararat during the past two mission trips and moved in for the night with one of those families. We stayed in their home last year as well.
It was encouraging to see how many still had the Gospel bracelets Elaine made with them during Mission: Ararat 2014. Most remembered the story of God’s creation, the fall, Jesus coming to die for our sins, and us becoming a new creation in Him. Elaine also had an opportunity to make new bracelets with one of the families who had not heard before.
We prayed for healing for two men: one father who recently had a heart attack and now must sell his 230 sheep and the other a 21-year-old confined to a wheelchair after falling from a horse on the mountain.
We shared smiles and warm hugs, drank countless cups of team, and delivered gifts and the love of Jesus as we joyfully renewed acquaintances with Kurdish friends.
Saturday, June 6
Snowy Mount Ararat.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” – Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)
One of the life verses of this ministry – HIS ministry – was applied again today after we arrived in Doğubayazıt, the last city (population 74,300) before Mount Ararat and the Iranian border. We learned that snowfall has continued long past its season and made the mountain uninviting to everyone. There are no climbers on the mountain and, more importantly, the semi-nomadic Kurdish families we have spent the past two summers witnessing to are still in their winter homes in villages at the base of Ararat. I met with our guides and we decided on a “Plan B” – or, prayerfully, God’s plan.
We will spend our days in the villages visiting Kurdish homes rather than hiking to and from camps on the mountain. Charlotte and Jessica had planned on making an attempt at the summit, but that wasn’t part of God’s plan, either. As God has told us, time and time again, we exist for the people, not the peak; the mission, not the mountain; service to others, not summiting for ourselves. May we glorify His name as we attempt to deliver the Good News of Jesus in an area where no Christians live – yet.
Friday, June 5
Our monastery guide, himself a graduate of the school here, showing us how and where St. Gabriel is buried.
Legend has it St. Gabriel, the founder of Mor Gabriel Monastery, stood while he prayed. He was so devout in this action that he was buried in the upright position. His tomb remains in what is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, dating to 397. It is located on the Tur Abdin plateau near Midyet in southeastern Turkey.
At its height, the monastery housed more than 1,000 students. Today there are about 40.
The door leading from the chapel at Mor Gabriel Monastery.
The monastery’s primary purpose, like so many churches in this part of the country, is to keep Syriac Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth. It provides education and ordains indigenous monks, and has been known to provide protection for the Christian population during times of persecution. There are reputed to be about 5,000 Syriac Orthodox in southeastern Turkey, including the young man who guided us around the property.
Pray for those who have life in Christ to be emboldened to breathe it into others – and not just seek to survive, but thrive.
As one of our Muslim traveling companions observed today, Christians “always seem to be happy.” He asked why that was so. “God forgive me,” he added, “but Muslims always look angry.” We told him our joy comes from having the love and peace of Jesus in our hearts. “I know,” he said with a smile.
Thursday, June 4
An Armenian church, rebuilt by a wealthy Armenian living in Turkey, stands outside Mardin. Sadly, the church meets only one day a year.
We went from the high of finding an evangelic church on Wednesday to the low of being turned away from a Catholic church in another city today. Such is life on the road on our travels through Turkey’s Kurdish southeast toward our end goal of Mount Ararat.
As we again visited mostly relics – churches that stand more as museums than houses of worship for our great God in this 99.8-percent Muslim country – we knocked on the door of a Catholic church. We couldn’t come in, we were told, because a “women’s-only” event was going on. The women were praying to the Virgin Mary.
Our guides are constantly confused by the differences they see in Christians: from the love of Jesus they see in us to the rules, traditions and barriers found in what few so-called churches remain in Turkey. We are hard pressed to explain.
Pray for the church to act like the body of Christ, which is the only way we’ll be able to reclaim land where the early church did some of its greatest work.
Wednesday, June 3
I believe God divinely opened a door for us this afternoon, and it was the back door to an ancient church. The pastor had shown us around his church, where the language of Jesus (Aramaic) is still spoken, and asked: “What do you do?” When I told him my “occupation,” he looked suspicious. But after our tour, as we drank cold drinks out of the hot sun, he lingered nearby. Then he showed us the way to the only evangelic church in the city by leading us out an exit not used by tourists.
As we stepped into the narrow, cobblestone street, a brother was walking past. The pastor introduced us as fellow Christians and we were welcomed into the nearby evangelic church. After a brief visit we were invited back for an evening worship and fellowship with about two dozen brothers and sisters – several of whom were Kurdish. This special time of worship only occurs on the first Wednesday of every month so our timing was, well, divine.
We connected with several people after sharing briefly where we were going and what we do when we get there. Perhaps this was an answer to our mission prayer for a “break through.” If nothing else it was the first time in four expeditions to Turkey that we have worshiped in a church – and for that we give praise and thanks.
Kurdish dengbêj singers performing a traditional form of storytelling – for which many (including our guide Behzat’s grandfather) were imprisoned not too many years ago.
We are in Turkish Kurdistan, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, where the people are hoping for a (longshot) Kurdish victory in the June 7 national elections and speak proudly of the role the Kurds have played in battling ISIS across the border in Syria. The evangelic church we visited is working to build a hospital in Kobani, a city besieged by ISIS and successfully defended by Kurds with assistance from U.S. and Arab coalition bombing. One Kurd went out of his way to thank us publicly for that assistance.
The culture, the politics, the religion and the overarching spiritual warfare in this country make the work of the church hard and slow. But with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). The little evangelic church we visited has grown from a house church to a contemporary house of worship amid some museums and orthodoxy. Prayerfully they were as encouraged by our visit as we were to be led to them.
Tuesday, June 2
Statues more than 2,100 years old litter the ground near the summit of Mount Nemrut.
We toured through time today: From the recently built Ataturk Dam (named after the father of modern-day Turkey) to the ancient Roman Cendere Bridge (also known as the Severan Bridge) to the pantheon of Armenian gods near the summit of remote Mount Nemrut (7,001 feet/2,134 meters).
The dam was constructed in the 1980s and flooded hundreds of villages, including the one where our guide and friend Behzat lived as a child. Ironically, two of his uncles now work at the dam. Also underwater are many churches that once were alive.
The sunken churches, first-century bridge, and the weathered statues atop Mount Nemrut stand as symbols of Turkey today – consumed by their own history and oblivious to HIS story.
In the first century BC, King Antiochus built a monument to himself – piling up hundreds of vertical feet of scree upon which statues of Antiochus, lions, eagles, and various Armenian, Greek and Iranian gods stand nearly 30 feet high. It is laughable in its imagery, and tragic in its reality. Stone cold death. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV).
Pray for the Living God to breathe a new (and eternal) hope into this place.
Monday, June 1
The 12-year-old boy standing on the Turkish side of the border pointed beyond the fence into Syria, mentioned ISIS, and drew his finger slowly – and graphically – across his neck. ISIS is evil incarnate and it has succeeded in making its impression on the world through brutal beheadings. One can only wonder how scarred the hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey must be.
We passed the “accommodation facility” – a tent city housing Syrians displaced by war only a few miles away – on our travels to and from the HIStoric village of Harran, a place where our father Abraham once lived when he was called Abram and this area was known as Haran (see Genesis 11:27-31). It was humbling to walk where the great patriarch once was – just as we have followed in the mission footsteps of the apostle Paul and perhaps Noah on and around the mountain Ararat in expeditions to Turkey in 2010, 2013, 2014 and now 2015.
Our time is focused on growing already existing relationships with those on our travels and finding open doors to make new friends – with lost souls and with persecuted believers. A Kurdish political rally (June 7 is Turkey’s national election) kept brothers from the secret church from meeting with us tonight. Pray for all that is going on in Turkey: the election, Syria’s refugee population, Kurdish Christians fearful of being found out, and a largely Muslim population living in a land rich in HIS story.
A Syrian refugee camp, above, not far from where father Abraham once walked in Haran (modern-day Harran).
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)
Sunday, May 31
The team left Istanbul before dawn and flew to Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey, about 35 miles from the Syrian border. We were greeted here by our guides and driver – three friends from past Ararat expeditions.
We toured the city, where the population has swelled with an influx of Syrian refugees. We visited sites such as the reputed cave where Abraham was born (and kept alive by a nursing gazelle) and the “Pool of the Sacred Fish.” According to Islamic and Jewish tradition – but not found in the Bible – this pool was where Nimrod intended to throw Abraham into the fire. But God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Legend says if you see a white fish it will open the door to the heavens.
We did not see any white fish, but we know the Way to heaven. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
We met some believers in the secret church here. They, like a majority of the population, are Kurdish. They seemed very fearful, and we hoped simply to encourage them. Pray for strength and boldness for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Halil-ur-Rahman mosque, built in Sanliurfa in 1211, where the Mevlid-I Halil Cave and Pool of Sacred Fish are found. Muslims revere these locations.
Saturday, May 30
The team united by evening in Istanbul after some flight delays and changes for Charlotte. Otherwise, travel was uneventful. We overnight in Istanbul before flying very early Sunday morning to southeastern Turkey to begin touring new areas. Continuing to pray for breakthroughs.
Friday, May 29
Elaine and I connected with Jessica Jones in Toronto for our flight to Istanbul, where we'll be united with Charlotte Crain, who is flying from the Left Coast. We are all scheduled to arrive in Turkey Saturday morning.
While praying for us today spiritual coordinator Jordan Rowley felt the Lord giving him the phrase “break through!” We are asking for breakthroughs among our Turkish and Kurdish friends in the days ahead. Please join us in this prayer. Pray on!
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11 (ESV)
The shepherd who knows all 280 of his sheep. (Photo by Gary Fallesen, Mission: Ararat 2014)
On our second day on Mount Ararat in 2014, as my wife Elaine and I descended from Base Camp at 10,000 feet toward one of the Kurdish camps we were going to visit, we stopped to talk to a shepherd named Fahrit.
Elaine asked him how many sheep he had. “280,” he answered.
If he lost one would he know it? “Yes.”
Would he leave the other 279 to go and find it? Of course he would.
On another day we observed a young shepherd boy on a hillside about a mile in the distance, talking and singing to his herd. We could hear him loud and clear. He did that, our guide explained, so that his sheep would know his voice.
There’s a big field in Eastern Turkey just waiting to be harvested for God’s glory, waiting to hear about the Good Shepherd, waiting to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. May our Mission: Ararat 2015 team have beautiful feet on the mountain and in our travels among the Kurdish people living in the southeast and eastern parts of a country that is 99.8-percent Muslim. Only about 1,400 of the 14 million-plus Kurdish people living in Turkey profess to be Christian – that’s 0.01 percent!