Christianity struggling to return to eastern Turkey

Turkey is home to one of the oldest Christian populations in the world, the Suriyani, who fled during recent conflict. In the last few years they’ve been returning, but problems with their resettlement are apparent.

For 1,600 years the bell at Mor Gabriel in southeastern Turkey has tolled, calling people to prayer. Everything about the Syriac Orthodox monastery here is ancient.

The ceremonies are conducted in Aramaic, a language spoken at the time of Christ. Known as the second Jerusalem, the monastery is not only considered important for Syriac Christians, but the wider Christian faith. But a ruling by Turkey’s highest court in favor of the Turkish state over the ownership of monastery land has cast a shadow over its future.

Kuriye Kos is the head of the Mor Gabriel foundation that runs the monastery. “After all these court cases anything can happen,” he told DW. “We have other lands, and there we could also face the same thing. We have been living here for thousands of years.”

Christians still coming home

The controversy comes as Christians had started returning to the area, helping to rejuvenate the region including the main town of Midyat. The overwhelming majority fled to Europe and the US during the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the conflict between the state and Kurdish rebel group PKK.

A Syriac priest conducts a service inside Mor Gabriel monastery (Photo: DW Copyright) A priest conducts a service in Aramaic at Mor Gabriel monastery

Local lawyer Rudi Sumer says returning Christians who have moved back into their homes are facing legal challenges from locals who dispute their ownership. 

“As returning Suriyanis started to work to get their land registered and legalize the ownership of their real estate, they started to have problems with the surrounding villages, who are trying to claim the land and property for themselves,” Sumer said.

In the last few years, the Syriac village of Kafko has been brought back to life after it was abandoned by its inhabitants, who found refuge in Switzerland and Germany. The village is very much a test case for the hundreds of thousands of Suriyani considering a return. Israil Demir and his family returned to Kafko seven years ago, but with the growing legal cases and tensions he isn’t sure he would make the same decision today.

“We feel threatened not only legally but also physically,” Demir explained. “We know people who’ve been attacked. All these problems are now affecting peoples’ decisions to come back, it has almost brought it to a halt.”

Unclear ownership

In the Mor Gabriel monastery court case, documents proving ownership of the land were lost. The judges even ended up requesting 120-year-old witnesses to take the stand in order to establish land ownership.

Since then, the state has opened six more cases in the last four years. The state prosecutor has also launched an investigation into whether the monastery is built on a mosque, despite the fact that it was apparently founded 170 years before the birth of Muhammad. The start of the legal cases has also been followed by a series of demands on land owned by the monastery by neighboring villages. The cases are supported by local lawmakers of the Islamic-rooted ruling AK party.

A tree stands in front of the ancient buildings of the Mor Gabriel monastery in Turkey (c) dpa - Bildfunk Local farmers say they need the land surrounding the monastery for their animals

The nearby village of Yayvantepe suffers from extreme poverty. Ismail Erkal, the village leader, says they need monastery land for their animals to graze and warns the dispute is getting ugly. “Our relationship is over. Neither we visit the monastery nor do people from the monastery come to visit us,” Erkal said. “We will never accept injustice. If we cannot prevent it by ourselves we will get the state involved.”

Turkish President Abdullah Gul has promised to look into the ongoing controversy in the region. In the past, turmoil like this has seen ancient Christian populations in the area collapse.

Until now, Turkey had been going against that trend. But with the growing legal uncertainties over both the monastery and other land rights issues, the future of Turkey’s Syriac Christians may be in doubt.