Harassing the monastery of Mor Gabriel in Turkey

Paleojudaica has been monitoring a rather sad story from Turkey, of a dispute between a Syriac monastery in south-east Turkey, in the Tur-Abdin region, and its neighbours.  The monastery was founded in 397 AD, and so it is of considerable historical interest.

I’ve been aware of the situation for some time; but it can be difficult to know all the facts in such cases, and it’s never right to jump to conclusions.   Previous reporting left me with the impression that the Turkish officials were trying to be even-handed in a difficult case.

The story starts in 2008On 25th June 2009 Hurriyet Daily News reported:

A Syriac Christian monastery in the Eastern Province of Mardin lost its legal battle Wednesday to overturn a Forestry Department decision to claim part of its land, with community representatives vowing to file an appeal.

The boundaries around Mor Gabriel, located in the Midyat region, and its surrounding villages were redrawn last year as part of an effort to update the land registry. The foundation operating the monastery petitioned the court to have the new boundaries re-examined, saying that they take large plots of land on which the monastery has been paying tax since 1938 and turn them over to the villages. 

Villagers also applied to the court, asking for the monastery wall to be pulled down and accusing the foundation operating the monastery of taking land they need for their cattle.

On May 22, another court ruled in favor of Mor Gabriel over 110 hectares of land claimed by neighboring villages.But in Wednesday’s ruling, the Midyat court decided a 33.6-hectare parcel of land claimed by the monastery within and outside of the building’s walls belongs to the Treasury.

 The case has grumbled on since.  It is, of course, difficult to know the in’s and out’s of such cases; but surely the Turkish government could recognise that the potential tourist value of a monastery full of monks speaking the language of Jesus far outweighs a few acres of land?

Today’s Zaman now reports:

… the final verdict issued by the Supreme Court of Appeals on June 13 of this year, stating that the monastery, founded in A.D. 397 and often referred to as a “second Jerusalem,” does not have rights to the land on which it sits.

However, he added that all the information they have with regards to the verdict has come through the Turkish press.

“Nothing official has been sent to us by the court,” he said. “When we have the official court ruling in our hands, and if the news is true, then we will seek further legal remedies.”

The conflict surrounding Mor Gabriel began when land officials for the Turkish government redrew the boundaries around the monastery and surrounding villages in 2008 in order to update the national land registry as part of a cadastre modernization project in compliance with European Union instructions. The officials finished this work across nearly half the country in less than five years. In addition, several new laws have been passed that require the transfer of uncultivated land to the Treasury and, in some cases, that re-zone other land, such as forest land, transferring it to the jurisdiction of the Forestry Directorate.

In the wake of these new classifications, it has become difficult for former owners to use this land. The issue has also become a Muslim-Christian dispute, with the neighboring villages complaining to the court that the monastery’s monks have engaged in “anti-Turkish activities,” including converting children to Christianity.

The final verdict of the top court has been called scandalous by the Turkish press as the court “lost” several land title and financial/tax documents, undoubtedly demonstrating the ownership of the land by the monastery.

“I feel sad for the Turkish legal system,” Ergün said.

He feels that if the verdict is true, the decision is against the Arameans of Turkey. He added: “Everybody knows to whom the monastery has belonged for the last 1,600 years. But we will be put in a very difficult situation if the court says the land does not belong to the monastery.”

Meanwhile, a petition campaign has recently been started through a website called, in English, “We grew up together in this  country” (http://beraberbuyudukbuulkede.com/).

In Today’s Zaman for 12th July 2012, an EU commissioner is reported as expressing concern.

All this seems to simplify matters. 

  • If the local villagers are claiming the land on which a monastery, founded in 397 AD, stands, then plainly the claim is fraudulent and malevolent, and probably all the other claims are equally baseless.  In this case the court cases are simply harassment, and the Turkish state should prosecute the villagers for their attack on their neighbour, the monastery.
  • If a court has upheld a fraudulent claim of this kind, then the court is corrupt.  For there is no possible case that a monastery standing on lands granted 15 centuries ago can be squatting.  In that case the Turkish state needs to reform the court, and send the bent judges for trial.

This is, as I said, rather sad.  I would suggest that the Turkish president step in and bring an end to this story.  It does great discredit to the Turkish state.  Turkey’s interests are not served by a story like this one.  Let the monks get on with their praying.

I have always tended to feel that the Turks get a raw deal over Cyprus.  In that unhappy island, they are the victims of repeated, endless, harassment by Greek hotheads.  Indeed the presence of the Turkish army there is solely because of an attempt by Greece to annex the island.  Yet it is invariably the Turks who are blamed in the western media.  I suspect that much of our reporting of Turkish issues is unfair.

I’m not sure how I feel about getting the European Union involved.  The issue is really an internal Turkish one.  The risk of involving the EU is that the EU is seen to be pro-monastery and anti-Turk; that the monastery, therefore, is not seen as part of Turkey’s heritage, but as aliens who can be held hostage for concessions from the foreigner.  That would be disastrous.  Turkey should be proud of its heritage, and that, almost alone in the world, it has a small minority of people who speak Syriac.