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.
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.
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: http://www.morgabriel.org/