Demonstrations to Save Mor Gabriel
- Demonstrations to Save Orthodox Monastery of Mor Gabriel
By Geries Othman
Asia News (www.asianews.it/)
Muslim leaders are trying to destroy the Syriac orthodox monastery
and have sued for alleged proselytism.
ANKARA (AsiaNews) - Demonstrations are being held in many European
countries to save the monastery of Mor Gabriel, a spiritual center
for the Syriac Orthodox community in Turkey.
Founded in 397, it is the oldest functioning Christian monastery in
the world. It is located on the plateau of Tur Abdin, "The Mountain
of the Servants of God," on the Turkish border with Iraq. The see of
the metropolitan archbishop of Tur Abdin, Mor Timotheus Samuel
Aktas, with its three monks, 14 nuns, and 35 young people who live
and study there, it is a religious and cultural point of reference
for all Syriac Orthodox Christians, who still preserve ancient
Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Every year it welcomes more than ten
thousand tourists and pilgrims, many of them Syriacs of the diaspora
in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Now, however, the future of the monastery and the Christian minority
is threatened by a series of lawsuits against the monks and the
prestigious religious institution. In August of 2008, the leaders of
three Muslim villages around the monastery accused the community of
proselytism, for having students to whom they can hand down the
Christian faith and the Aramaic language. Their case has not yet
been accepted by the Turkish court. But the village leaders are also
asking that the monastery's land be appropriated and divided among
the villages; that a wall be knocked down that was built during the
1990's (when the monastery was on the front of the conflict between
the Turkish army and the Kurdish communist party (PKK)). According
to the Muslim leaders, there used to be a mosque on the land where
the monastery was built. "The accusation is absurd," says David
Gelen, leader of the Aramaic Foundation, "the monastery dates from
397 A.D., about 200 years before the prophet Mohammed and the
construction of any mosque whatsoever. And yet the court has
considered hearing the case."
Gelen says that he thinks a "campaign of intimidation" is underway
against the religious of the monastery. "Bishop, monks, and nuns,"
Gelen continues, "are always threatened in the most direct way
possible by the inhabitants of the village, and they do not dare
present themselves at trial or defend themselves in some way. So for
some time, the monks and nuns have not had the courage to leave the
confines of the property."
"In Turkey," Gelen explains, "freedom of religious expression is
guaranteed by the constitution; but those who are not recognized as
a minority do not exist, in practical terms. Now the Syriacs, unlike
the Greeks and Armenians, are not recognized as a religious
minority, although they have been living there for millennia. The
purpose of the threats and the lawsuit seems to be to repress this
minority and expel it from Turkey, as if it were a foreign
The Syriac community has high hopes in the European Union, which on
February 11 is supposed to address together with the Turkish
government the question of religious freedom and human rights for
the non-Muslim minorities present in the country. "We hope not only
that our rights will be recognized," David Gelen says, "but we are
convinced that for the Turkish state, the time has come to
recognize, accept, and protect the cultural multiplicity of the
country, instead of fighting it. Turkey must decide whether it wants
to preserve a 1,600-year-old culture, or annihilate the last remains
of a non-Muslim tradition. What is at stake is the multiculturalism
that has always characterized this nation, since the time of the
Since 1923, when the Turkish state was created, the Syriac Orthodox
have been dispersed in four countries: Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran.
Yasar Ravi, president of the Syriac Orthodox community of Antioch,
notes that the Treaty of Lausanne guaranteed certain essential
freedoms for this minority, but "things have gone differently."
Since that time, there has been a constant exodus of the community
toward central and northern Europe, especially Germany (where there
are 20,000 Syriacs) and Sweden (70-80,000). In the middle of the
1960's, there were still about 130,000 of them in Tur Abdin; today
there are just 3,000.
"We have no territory, we are scattered throughout the world, but we
are very united thanks to our linguistic, social, and cultural
identity," Yasar Ravi continues. "As history teaches us, religion
has always had a dominant role in civilization. Ours is without
doubt a very religious people, and we are proud of speaking the
language of Jesus: the language that, in terms of its diffusion, was
essentially the English of the Middle East."