Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mor Gabriel Case Raises Questions About Syriac Minority

A dispute over the land rights of a Syriac Christian monastery, Mor Gabriel, has spurned a series of controversial law suits, yielding differing rulings over the monastery's rights to the land surrounding it. The case of Mor Gabriel's land rights is not simple, and involves a redrawing of the monastery's boundaries as part of a larger 2008 effort to update the national land registry --- part of a cadastre modernization project in compliance with EU instructions. The monastery is located in the Midyat district of Mardin province, a heavily Kurdish area that was once home to a diverse population of Kurds, Syriacs, Armenians, and Turks. Turkish authorities and the three villages in opposition to Mor Gabriel's redrawing -- Çandarli, Yayvantepe and Eglence -- claim that the new boundaries correctly adjust lands that were wrongly apportioned to Mor Gabriel 15 years ago. The case is significant in that it highlights tensions between Syriacs, their largely Kurdish neighbors, and the Turkish state.

Syriac Christians have long been disciminated against by the Turkish state. Not recognized as a minority under the Treaty of Lausanne, which granted minority rights to Greek and Armenian Christians, the Syriacs are afforded little protection as a group. Largely as a function of the dispute, villagers surrounding Mor Gabriel have complained that the monks are proselytizing to their children, referring to them as "missionaries" and stirring up a good bit of bad feeling. Though members of the Kurdish DTP have tried to reach out to the Syriac community in recent years, the Mor Gabriel case reflects extant tensions between the two groups -- the Kurds having their own disputes with the state.

The most recent ruling came from a Midyat court on May 22 and found in favor of the villagers. The monastery won its challenge to the redrawing in January, and plans to appeal the most recent ruling to the Supreme Court of Appeals. If the Supreme Court of Appeals rules affirms the Midyat court's decision, the monastery has said it will take its case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Some background from Today's Zaman:
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 Catholic denominations.

There were 250,000 Syriacs when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 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 terrorists 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 Çandarlı, 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, it 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 Özmen, the metropolitan, or bishop, of the nearby city of Mardin.

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 A.D. 397 near the border of today’s Syria and Iraq.

The ocher-colored limestone building has seen invasions by Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Muslim 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 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.
The land rights case made its way into the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's annual report on Turkey, and could well make its way into the EU progress report.

As some Syriacs have returned to their lands following the bloody war between the Turkish military and PKK insurgents in the 1990s, such disputes have become fairly commonplace. Being a monastery, however, the Mor Gabriel case raises specific questions about religious minorities in Turkey. The monastery has paid taxes to the Turkish state since 1938.

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