Christian monastery in Turkey fights to keep land
- Wed Jan 21, 2009 8:02pm EST
By Ibon Villelabeitia
MIDYAT, Turkey (Reuters) - In a remote village near the Turkish-
Syrian border, a land dispute with neighboring villages is
threatening the future of one of the world's oldest functioning
Critics say the dispute, which has become a rallying cry for
Christian church groups across Europe, is a new chapter in the long
history of religious persecution of the small Christian community by
the Turkish state.
Tucked amid rugged hills where minarets rise in the distance, a small
group of monks chants in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ,
inside the fifth-century Mor Gabriel monastery. It is a relic of an
era when hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians lived and
worshipped in Turkey.
"This is our land. We have been here for more than 1,600 years," said
Kuryakos Ergun, head of the Mor Gabriel Foundation, surveying the
barren land and villages from the monastery's rooftop. "We have our
maps and our records to prove it. This is not about land. It's about
The dispute, on which a court is due to rule on February 11, is
testing freedom of religion and human rights for non-Muslim
minorities in this overwhelmingly Muslim country that aspires to
join the European Union.
The row began when Turkish government land officials redrew the
boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to
update a national land registry.
The monks say the new boundaries turn over to the villages large
plots of land the monastery has owned for centuries, and designate
monastery land as public forest. Christian groups believe officials
want to ultimately stamp out the Syriac Orthodox monastery.
Their allegations come as the EU has said the ruling AK Party
government, which has Islamist roots, needs to do more to promote
religious freedom alongside its liberal economic and political
"This case relates to the political criteria Turkey has to meet to
become a member of the European Union," said Helena Storm, First
Secretary of the Sweden embassy in Ankara, who has traveled to the
monastery to follow court hearings.
"It is important that freedom of religion and property rights for
minorities are respected in Turkey," she said.
Local government officials reached by Reuters in the town of Midyat
and in the provincial capital of Mardin declined comment on the case,
noting it was going through the court.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to press ahead with
difficult EU reforms, including rights of minorities.
In the name of Turkey's strict secular laws, authorities have over
decades expropriated millions of dollars worth of property belonging
to Christians. Syriacs, Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians --
remnants of the Muslim-led but multi-faith Ottoman Empire -- are
viewed by many as foreigners.
Syriacs are one of Turkey's oldest communities, descendants of a
branch of Middle Eastern Christianity. These Christians, united by a
language derived from Aramaic, are split into several Orthodox and
There were 250,000 Syriacs when Ataturk founded Turkey after World
War I from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Today they number 20,000. Syriacs migrated throughout the 20th
century to Europe, fleeing first persecution by the new secular
republic, and later to escape violence between Kurdish separatist
rebels and the Turkish military in the southeast.
A local prosecutor in August 2008 initiated a separate court case
against the monastery after mayors of three villages complained the
monks were engaged in "anti-Turkish activities" and alleged they were
illegally converting children to the Christian faith.
Monks say the mayors are instigating anti-Christian feelings by
accusing Mor Gabriel of being against Islam. Villagers in neighboring
Candarli, a settlement of 12 humble houses with no paved roads, said
they had nothing against Christians and accused the monastery of
taking land they need for cattle.
"There is a continued campaign to destroy the backbone of the Syriac
people and close down the monastery," said Daniel Gabriel, director
of the human rights division of the Syriac Universal Alliance, a
leading Syriac group based in Sweden.
"These proceedings cannot take place without the sanction of the
Turkish government. If the government wanted to protect the Syriac
Christian community they would stop this case," he said.
Many churches and monasteries in southeast Turkey -- known to Syriac
Christians as Turabdin or "the mountain of worshippers" -- are now
abandoned and in ruins.
"You need people to have a church. Without the community, the church
is only a building," said Saliba Ozmen, the metropolitan or bishop of
the nearby city of Mardin.
INVASIONS AND RAIDS
The Conference of European Churches, a fellowship of 126 Orthodox,
Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches from European
countries, has said it is "deeply concerned about the threat to the
survival of the monastery." The group has raised the issue with the
EU and Turkish officials.
Considered the "second Jerusalem" by Syriacs, Mor Gabriel was built
in 397 AD near the border of today's Syria and Iraq.
The ochre-colored limestone building has seen invasions by Romans,
Byzantines, Crusaders and Islamic armies, and the monastery was once
raided by the Mongol leader Tamerlane.
After falling into disuse, Mor Gabriel was revived in the 1920s and
today it teaches the Syriac faith and Aramaic language to a group of
35 boys, who live and study at the monastery.
By law, Syriacs must attend state schools where teaching is in
Turkish, but they can be taught about their own language and religion
outside school hours.
Three black-clad monks, 14 nuns and a bishop live within the walls,
preserving the ancient Syriac liturgy and tending to the orchards and
gardens. They worship in a chapel with Byzantine mosaics. In its
heyday, Mor Gabriel housed 2,000 monks and nuns.
Mor Gabriel receives more than 100,000 visitors a year, many of them
from the Syriac diaspora in Germany and Sweden.
A trickle of Syriac families have returned in the last few years from
the diaspora, encouraged by a drop in violence and Turkey's easing of
language and cultural restrictions on its minorities as part of
Syriac church leader Ozmen said there are powerful conservative
forces opposed to change in Turkey, but he is optimistic. He pointed
to this month's launch of a once-banned Kurdish language channel on
"Multiculturalism has been part of Turkey since the Ottoman times,"
he said. "It is our best guarantee for the future."
(Editing by Sara Ledwith and Tom Heneghan)