Turkey Earthquake Tragedy Is a Reminder of What’s Important

Considerable help arrived, and rapidly—but not everyone could be saved.

Earthquake aftermath, Diyarbakır, Turkey

Earthquake aftermath, Diyarbakır, Turkey
(credit: Mahmut Bozarslan, VOA)

The final number of dead in the Turkey/Syria earthquake exceeds 50,000. At moments like these, putting a human face on the monumental losses can provide us with needed perspective.

As clergy, the best thing we’ve learned one can do when someone is mourning is just to sit with them as they grieve, listening as they try to come to grips with their loss and share memories of loved ones.

The friend we were speaking with on WhatsApp days after the horrible earthquake had 23 members of her family lost or killed.

Those deaths were confirmed by silence. The cell phones rang but weren’t answered, until they stopped ringing altogether. Their homes had been reduced to dust. Despite the rapid, substantial global humanitarian response—from countries like Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—it just wasn’t possible to help everyone quickly enough.

And, honestly, we couldn’t begin to comprehend her pain.

She, a Muslim friend who was mourning her own sudden, overwhelming tragedy, turned the conversation to us. She said: “But there is some good news I wanted you to know … the church survived, and so did the Torah scrolls—someone saved them from the destroyed synagogue.” She was seeking to uplift us, a Reverend and a Rabbi. She wanted to make sure we knew—as a Christian and as a Jew—that a miracle had happened. Somehow, despite nearly everything being destroyed, God had left for all of us—the children of Abraham—a few signs to remind us that faith in God perseveres, that its embrace is more powerful than earthquakes. But, the greatest miracle for us was the strength of our friend, that she, in the midst of overwhelming grief, tried to lift our spirits—despite the devastation that enveloped her and millions of innocent Turks and Syrians. This generosity of spirit was also a reflection of where her family was from in Turkey: Antakya.

Antakya is a special place. In Turkey, they call it “Antakya” but more than a billion Christians around the world generally just call it “Antioch.” So do Jews. It’s a unique place for Christians, especially because the New Testament says that it was in Antioch that the word “Christian” was first used. Christianity is, after all, not a Western religion. It is a Middle Eastern religion. Antioch is why millions of Christian pilgrims travel to Turkey, often adding an extra week onto pilgrimages after visiting Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee. In the way Christians and Jews look to the northwest of Saudi Arabia as the place where Moses crossed the Red Sea, Christians look to Antioch as a place of profound, spiritual significance.

Antioch, in need of generosity now, was also known for its generosity, recorded in the Christian New Testament. The leaders of the early Christians there, Paul and Barnabas, took up a collection from Antioch’s Christians to send to Jews in Jerusalem who were struggling through a terrible famine 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, in 2023, more than 500 Israeli medical personnel (almost all Jews), traveled to Antioch to try and save the lives of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. They saved at least 19 people buried beneath the rubble and, along with other field hospitals, treated many of the wounded.

Antioch also appears in the Talmud. Then there’s the “tree of Moses,” which also survived the earthquake and its aftershocks. The locals say that the tree, miraculously sprouted from the remnants of Moses’s Biblical staff, is 3,000 years old.

However, it isn’t enough just to think about the past and the present. We also must consider the future of Antakya now. The time will come to rebuild Antakya and what must sprout from its remnants is a rededication of the spirit of religious freedom and coexistence between the children of Abraham, which has defined Antioch for centuries.

Perhaps, even the Antiochian Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, long exiled to Lebanon since the Ottoman era, should be invited to return?

However, the preservation of Antioch’s pluralist culture will not happen on its own. Turkey should take inspiration from the Emirates, who days ago opened an Abrahamic Family House complex meant to preserve the unique identities and practices of each faith while clearly demonstrating a commitment to coexistence. It will take strategic, deliberate decision-making to keep Antakya diverse. It will require resisting calls for Islamization of the Christian and Jewish areas. It will take resolve to keep bands of ISIS terrorists already regrouping in Syria from crossing the suddenly porous border of Turkey and spreading their man-made terrorist disaster.

Tragedies, like this earthquake, have a way of bringing us all together. Our politics, ethnicities, languages, and religions suddenly give way to deploying what we share most of all: our humanity.We all instinctively celebrate the joyful cry of a two-month-old baby miraculously saved from the rubble after 130 hours or of the story of an elderly couple who took shelter in a mosque which also, miraculously survived.

We celebrate every life saved. In tragedy, we are reminded of what’s important but also of what’s possible if we just have the courage to act. In tragedy, God reminds us that he has endowed us to look after the earth he has gifted to humankind and to simply help one another with no strings attached.This is what we also see in the rubble of Antakya: we see the best of all of us running to help. May it inspire each of us to keep doing it long after the dust has settled—beginning with Antakya.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rev. Johnnie Moore is the president of The Congress of Christian Leaders. Rabbi Cooper is the current vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Rev. Moore was twice appointed to the Commission. These opinions are entirely their own; this op-ed was reprinted with permission of the authors.

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2023 earthquake Turkey syria