No Religious Freedom in Turkey: Christian Monastery dispossessed

Dayro d-Mor Gabriel (The Monastery of St. Gabriel), founded in 397, is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. It is located on the Tur Abdin plateau near Midyat in the Mardin Province in Southeastern Turkey, the motherland of the Syriac people. It is also the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Tur Abdin. Syriac Christians, who speak Aramaic, the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, view this Monastery as a “second Jerusalem,” which sits atop a hill overlooking now solidly Muslim lands. It has just three monks and 14 nuns. It also has 12,000 ancient corpses buried in a basement crypt.

Entrance to the Monastery Mor Gabriel

While sending the West signals of willingness to improve the status of Christians in Turkey, a Turkish court annulled recently a previous judgement that the property rights belong to the Cloister and have alienated most of the property of the Cloister to the State. Bishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas says Turkey’s claim to Mor Gabriel’s land is an attempt to rid the country of Syriac Christians entirely. Turkish officials deny that their purpose is to uproot Christianity, but Syriac Christians  say the Turkish state and Muslim villagers want to grab Christian land and force the non-Muslims to leave.

The dispute over Mor Gabriel has been closely watched abroad. The EU and several embassies in Ankara sent observers to a court hearing in February 2009. Protection of minority rights is a condition for entry into the EU. On 9th. February 2011, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Zollitsch and the President of the Evangelical Church in Germany Nikolaus Schneider let known in a jointed press release, that they are “dismayed” by this decision.

Mor Gabriel

But the roots of the conflict go back much further: during 1914 to 1920, close to three million Christians of Syriac, Armenian or Greek Orthodox denomination were murdered by the Young Turks regime. Many exiled. A new exodus began in the 1980s during a brutal conflict between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas. Syriac Christians, viewed with suspicion by both sides, frequently got caught in the crossfire. Midyat, the town where the court is reviewing the land dispute, used to be almost entirely Christian but now has just 120 non-Muslim families out of a population of 60,000. In the most recent decades, some Syriac families returned, this trend was viewed by the Muslims with suspicion and dismay. For this reason, the Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA) asked Erdogan “to ensure through your public statements that the Aramaean people who wish to return to their ancestral lands have a guarantee that their property rights are protected by the Turkish government and all relevant government bodies.”

The conflict around Mor Gabriel began when Turkish government land officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to update the national land registry as part of a cadastre modernization project in compliance with EU instructions. In less than five years, Turkey finished the cadastre work for almost half the country. In addition, some new laws were issued that required the transfer of uncultivated land to the Treasury, and in some cases rezoned other land, such as forest land, moving it into the jurisdiction of the Forestry Directorate. In the wake of the new classification, it became difficult for former owners to use the land. The issue has also become a Muslim-Christian dispute, with the neighbouring villages’ petition to the court featuring complaints that the monastery’s monks have engaged in “anti-Turkish activities”; that they are illegally converting children to Christianity; that the Mor Gabriel Community Foundation settles wherever it chooses without the requisite permits; and that it has acted in violation of the Unity of Education Law.

On the other hand, Aramaeans complain that they lack sufficient teachers for their children’s instruction in even basic Aramaic literacy. In addition, they are not recognized as a religious minority, unlike the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities, despite their being mentioned as such in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the founding agreement of the Turkish Republic. Messo of the SUA underlines that if Aramaeans were recognized in accordance with the Lausanne Treaty, “their basic protection and development in Turkish society, including the Aramaic language, and religious, cultural and property rights” would be ensured. He also emphasises that the court cases against Mor Gabriel were a wake-up call for the community: “After the lawsuits, we realized that we are facing similar problems, similar land disputes, so we decided to co-operate to resolve our problems.” (cf.: Qantara)

If a religious community is neither allowed to live according to its ancient Rule , to own properties, or to utilise its own land, where is the promised religious freedom? Turkey seems still to be far away from being a modern democratic state with a civil society, and it will be a long way to go should it still intend to become a member of the EU.

For a well researched report on backgrounds see an article by Andrew Higgins in the Wall Street Journal (click Here).

The Hompage of Mor Gabriel:

This entry was posted in Interreligious relationship, World Affairs and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to No Religious Freedom in Turkey: Christian Monastery dispossessed

  1. rebrites says:

    “No Religious Freedom in Turkey: Christian Monastery dispossessed”…

    Rather a hysterical overstatement, judging from the much more measured article that follows. Granted, Turkey does have a long way to go before becoming European in its wide-openness. But the fact that it does host Jewish, Zoroastrian, Bahaí, and several other faith groups, as well as various brands of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, means it is a long way from denying religious freedom — Turkey is a beacon of tolerance compared to most of their Middle Eastern brethren.

    And nowhere in the story does it say the monastics are dispossessed. Looks like someone is trying to grab some land the monastery considers its own. No details given on where, or how much, or what´s on it. “Dispossession” calls up images of monks and nuns being tossed out and their monastery seized. Not the case, not that I can see from reading the stories.

    Perhaps your headline writer needs to cut back on the caffeine?

  2. toadspittle says:

    No Religious Freedom in Turkey: Christian Monastery dispossessed

    Toad is sure there is plenty of religious freedom in Turkey. Best to be a Muslim, these days, though.

    Toad has noticed that, throughout history, when one religion becomes overwhelmingly powerful in a country it immediately oppresses all the others.

    (Yes, atheists do the same.)

    Catholicism’s turn will, no doubt, come again. We must just be patient. And sharpen our axes.

  3. manus2 says:


    And as “we” sharpen our axes, just remind me again of whose side you’re on? I’m getting distinctly nervous.

  4. golden chersonnese says:

    Proboscis monkeys of the family of colobins reckon that Toads have tried to score a cheap point.

    The teresas’ point surely has its basis in the acceptance of the modern phenemenon of multi-religious societies in which the adherents of all minimally sane religious traditions and philosophies are supposed to be given the capacity to believe and hand down their traditions. Teresas were obviously not arguing for a uni-confessional state.

    Toads would well be reminded.

    teresa, it’s not only the Syrians who have had their property confiscated in Turkey, but the Byzantines, who are still not able to gain possession of their seminary in Hailki, closed by the government since 1971.

  5. golden chersonnese says:

    teresa, they say in elections it’s a matter in the end of how many groups, each representing 1% or so of voters, you can get on your side by convincing them, however precariously, that you might give them what they want.

    Probably too with this Turkish government, who have in this way managed to draw away support of some more liberal muslims from the more secular pro-European parties by making vague and ambiguous pro-EU noises without really seeming to mean them. But they they got their one percents.

    Here is probably a better account of religious freedom for non-muslims in Turkey.'s-request,-Ankara-continues-to-waver-on-Religious-Freedom-15859.html

  6. The Raven says:


    Even as we write on this blog, reports keep coming in of the destruction of the Armenian heritage in South-Eastern Turkey (churches pulled down, monuments dynamited, even the graveyards are levelled), like they are trying to expunge the memory of the people that got “disappeared” in the Armenian genocide: this is happening right now.

    Even in the West, in Istanbul, unbearable pressure is being put on the remaining Orthodox community: under Turkish law only a Turkish citizen can become Patriarch; and since they have closed the Orthodox seminaries there are no Turkish citizens training to be priests in Turkey (and those that go to Greece or to Athos find it very hard to return to the country). And that’s not to mention the sequestration of Catholic property that has been an open wound between the Vatican and Ankara over the last century.

    A less publicised event that took place in the fifty years following the treaty of Lausanne was the attempt to “get rid” of the Syriac Christians: accounts abound of attacks on the Syriac community, intense sieges and retreats to fortified churches. What Teresa has described is, unfortunately, just part of an ongoing pattern, hidden from Western eyes by the ongoing conflict with the Kurds in Eastern Turkey.

  7. rebrites says:

    Heavens, Turkey must have changed massively since the three years I lived there.

    My family was flagrantly Christian, and we attended chapel services, Masses, and Divine Liturgy at the big DOM cathedral downtown, or at the Church of St. Polycarp, (both in metro Izmir) or at the little St. Mary´s House near Ephesus. The Catholic Bishop of Asia Minor lived down the street — a sweet, lonesome man from Philadelphia USA who had us youngsters call him “Uncle John.”
    The only persecution we knew of Christians was the occasional flight of Scandinavian Evangelical missionaries, who traveled out in the eastern provinces illegally prosthelytizing. It was dinned into us all that being Christian (or Jewish or Buddhist) is not illegal in Turkey, long as you didn´t preach the Gospel to Muslims. Field trips of Turkish children toured the cathedral, and our choir sang to packed houses (many of them local Muslims) when we presented Handel´s “Messiah” one Christmas season.
    But then again, those were long-ago days. NATO was a strong presence, and Turkey was all about “looking westward.” Our building janitor had a photo of John F. Kennedy enshrined in his house!

    I knew parts of Turkey had taken a sharp rightward swing in recent years, part of the “Islamic revolution,” etc. But tearing down churches? Wow. Not the kind, tolerant, and longsuffering Turks I know and love.

  8. toadspittle says:

    Toad of the cheap points suspects that Turkey has indeed changed since Reb’s youthful sojourn. Who seriously doubts that Islam is getting more agressive by the day?
    Bin Laden, as well as being one of the most hated men in the world, is also one of the most popular. In Turkey as well, with armies of disaffected, unemployed, young people, no doubt.
    Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, Toad by no means approves of Islamic fundamentalism (or any other kind, for that matter.)

    As to religious bullying, Toad saw what happened in Northern Ireland, and has studied at length what happened in Franco’s Spain. Now Israel is starting it, it seems.
    History is chock-a-block with such stuff.
    (Apropos of Northern Ireland, Toad is reading a biography of Montaigne, and was grimly amused to learn that the religious wars and frequent Protestant/Catholic massacres of his time were commonly known as ‘The Troubles.’)

  9. berenike says:

    Traditional monastic life was based on rope-making and basket-weaving, as I recall – gardens were looked on a bit suspiciously, as being comfort for softies.

  10. Gertrude says:

    Indeed Teresa. The Cistercians, one of the oldest Order’s in the Church, always viewed land with firstly, water (i.e.spring or river), agricultural possibilities (to be, as you rightly say, self-sufficient) and proximity to settlements (lest they should need extra labour, and where in fact ‘benefactors in kind’ to many mediaeval communities. Also to trade surplus.) The ‘physik’ gardens where their source for medicines, and in these times the monasteries (at least in England) where local folk could receive primitive (by todays standards) homeopathic remedies for their ills.
    Providing these conditions where met, they would then set about building their abbey’s.

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