Dispute over Syriac monastery turns into international row

syriac-monastery1.jpgThe Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery
A long-standing land dispute between the Syriacs of Midyat, a district in the southeastern province of Mardin, and the local village heads has finally turned into a legal battle attracting international attention.
The disagreement has been closely monitored by the European Union for some time, and US President Barack Obama also got involved in the dispute after he received a letter from the German Syriac diaspora on the matter and assigned one of his aides to follow the developments, effectively making the small district’s land dispute a matter of international concern.

The opposing sides, the Syriacs and the local Muslim village heads, are battling over the land on which the Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery stands. Sources say Interior Minister BeÅŸir Atalay will visit Mardin on March 24 to mediate between the two sides.

The source of the conflict over the monastery, between the Syriacs and three villages in the region, started in 2008, when the Land Registry General Directorate redrew the boundaries of the land around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages. At the end of the re-demarcation, the General Directorate established that 244 out of the 1,227 hectares of land on which Mor Gabriel stands belong to the Treasury, while 285 hectares qualify as “woodland.” The Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation built walls around the land and the forested area years ago.
The three villages, on the other hand, would like to see the monastery’s five-kilometer wall brought down as they say their animals used to graze on the land. The village heads consequently applied to court, but observers say their action was manipulated by some to appear as a Muslim-Christian conflict. The Syriac priests also filed complaints against the villagers, saying that the monastery’s vast lands have been their property for centuries and have been illegally added to village land by the villagers.

The first session of the court proceedings was heard in Mardin on April 4. The EU sent a delegation to investigate the situation, and representives from the Swiss Embassy in Ankara attended the court session on April 4. Realizing the international dimension the issue has now taken on, the government has decided to re-examine all the historical land registry records of the area; however, the process will be lengthy, which makes it unlikely that the court, which adjourned until April 22, can make a ruling any time soon. Although the EU has a number of representatives following the case, they are avoiding making statements until the court issues a ruling.


AK Party Mardin deputy Cüneyt Yüksel says this will be the first time in history that a property title will be issued to a Syriac community.

The government also has plans to send a representative to the region at the ministerial level and issue title to the Syriacs for the Treasury land, as historically, they have not held title to it. This move aims to send out the message to foreign observers that the Turkish state has nothing against the Syriacs.

Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy from Mardin Cüneyt Yüksel says this will be the first time in history that title to property will be issued to a Syriac community. “This has now become a judicial issue. The judiciary in Turkey is independent. The court ruling will now decide who the 285 hectares of land belongs to. Each side will present the information and documents they have. The existence of the 1,600-year-old monastery is extremely important for Turkey. Our only aim is to make sure that this conflict is resolved peacefully. The ceremony at which we’ll turn over title to the land will be an opportunity for us to mediate between the two sides. We are not taking sides, but we will do whatever we can for the villagers and the Mor Gabriel Foundation to reconcile this issue.”

Syriac legacy
The Syriacs, whose numbers today are in the 20,000s, are a Christian group who speak Aramaic. However, they are also Turkey’s only Christian group who were not given minority status in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. This is why they weren’t able to continue their own religious education after the establishment of the republic; many of them had to migrate to Europe.

In addition to the land dispute, the villagers accuse the monastery of conducting missionary work in the area. There are groups in the area who are trying to manipulate the initial disagreement, which started out as a land dispute over grazing rights and has turned into a Muslim-Christian conflict. The monastery’s priests say, however, that the villagers, by claiming even the land on which their monastery stands, are trying to completely destroy the country’s Syriacs, whose numbers have already greatly decreased.

Speaking to Today’s Zaman about the conflict, the head of the Mor Gabriel Foundation, Kuryakos Ergün, said the villagers were being manipulated by some circles. Highlighting the fact that they had never had any disputes with the local villages over the centuries they have lived together, Ergün also said the demarcation in the area giving 244 hectares to the Treasury was also very unfair.

“We have been here for 1,600 years. There are tax records from the Ottoman era. We have paid taxes for this land, but there is no document showing that the land belongs to those villagers. Documents and tax statements from 1937 and 1938 clearly show that this land was within the boundaries of the monastery. We have always had a friendly relationship with the Muslims here; we want this problem to be solved peacefully. But if it doesn’t work, we’ll appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Currently, 35 Syriac students are being trained at the Mor Gabriel Monastery, which was restored in the 1920s. The monastery teaches Aramaic classes as well as general courses about Syriac beliefs. Mor Gabriel annually hosts 100,000 visitors from the Turkish-Syriac diaspora, most of whom live in Germany and Sweden. In the neighborhood of 50,000 Syriacs from Syria also visit the monastery annually.

Info note from Mardin deputy
The AK Party’s depurty from Mardin Yüksel, who recently prepared an information note for the European Parliament on the dispute, told Today’s Zaman that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also closely following any developments. “We are trying to convince the villagers to take back their case. This will certainly be resolved peacefully.”

Yüksel continued, “We should keep this from turning into an international crisis. The government and the state are not on the side of anyone in this fight — this should be clearly understood — which is why we want the sides to withdraw their complaints following the minister’s visit to Mardin.”

The information note Yüksel submitted to the European Parliament as well as to the US administration about the monastery states the following:

“There are four pending lawsuits regarding the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Midyat County of the city of Mardin.

The first pending lawsuit is a public case brought by the surrounding villages on the grounds that walls were built around the Monastery incorporating the forest area.

The second lawsuit has been brought by the people of the village where the Monastery is located against the surrounding two villages in order to determine the administrative borders of the village concerned.

The third lawsuit has been brought by the Monastery against the Treasury to object to the forest land registry.

The forth lawsuit has been brought by the Treasury lawyers of the Midyat Revenue Department against the Monastery Foundation at the Cadastre Court.

It has been determined that Mor Gabriel Monastery has violated 285,000 square meters of public area.

The legal proceedings concerning the four lawsuits continue. Nobody may interfere in the affairs of the Turkish independent court; therefore, waiting for the decision of the courts concerned will serve the best interests of all parties. The lawsuit is concerned with the problem of determining the ownership of the land located around the Monastery. Hence, allegations stating that the Monastery will be closed by the Turkish authorities or it will be turned into a museum are groundless and do not reflect the realities of this case. We sincerely regret the allegations stating that the lawsuits have been brought in order to put pressure on the Christian minorities and terminate the activities of the Monastery. All of these allegations are baseless.”

18 April 2009, Saturday