Government Church Seizures Threaten Continued Existence of Christians in Turkey

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MARDIN, TURKEY – DECEMBER 22: A priest is seen inside of Assyrian Protestant Church located in Mardin province of Turkey on December 22, 2016. Mardin hosts people from different religions and cultures for centuries with historical structures and background. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
by Edwin Mora11 Jul 20173
Turkey’s Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the world’s most ancient communities of Christians and considered the oldest indigenous minority in Turkey, reportedly fears extinction under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hardline Islamist rule.

Their fear is rooted in “a legal battle over the ownership of dozens of churches, monasteries and other property in southeastern Turkey” that the Erdogan regime has confiscated from the Syriac Orthodox Church, according to Al Monitor.

The Erdogan administration, known for its hardline Islamic tactics, has confiscated fifty properties from the Syriacs, including ancient churches and monasteries, and has declared them state property, reported Al Monitor last week, citing church and Christian community leaders.

“An appeal by the fifth-century Mor Gabriel, one of the oldest working monasteries in the world, against the confiscation was rejected in May by a government commission charged with liquidating the assets,” notes Al Monitor.

Although a local liquidation committee recently canceled its decision to allocate the Syriac churches and monasteries to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a powerful state institution that oversees Muslim places of worship, the Turkish government remains the owner of the property seized from the Syriacs, who are often referred to as Assyrians.

“On July 3, the liquidation committee said the allocation decision was canceled but the properties were still registered with the [state] Treasury,” reports Hurriyet Daily News, citing the Do?an News Agency.

The titles of the properties had for years been officially listed in the national land registry as belonging to villages inhabited by Syriac Christians, explained Erol Dora, one of a few Syriac Christian lawmakers in the Turkish parliament.

Nevertheless, those lands were incorporated into the established municipality of the city of Mardin in 2012, dissolving the legal ownership of the Syriacs along with their ability to own property in the future, declared Dora.

Mardin is the capital of a province of the same name.

Kuryakos Ergün, the head of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation that is leading the legal battle to regain ownership of the seized properties, indicated that “the case was still unsolved for them until ownership of the properties is transferred to the foundation, and vowed that the foundation’s legal fight would continue until then.”

The Turkish government’s land seizures have many Syriac Christians deeply concerned about their very existence in the place they and their ancestors have called home since 3,500 B.C.

Besides the fifty properties confiscated from the Syriacs, the Erdogan regime has removed Christian government officials from office and incarcerated others.

It has also resorted to deporting Christians from Turkey.

Fox News reports that several leaders of prominent Assyrian organizations have condemned the Erdogan regime’s seizure of Syriac religious properties

In a joint statement, the heads of the three most prominent groups — Assyrian Universal Alliance USA, American Mesopotamian Organization USA and Restore Nineveh Now Foundation USA — urged the U.S. government, the United Nations, and international human rights groups to demand that Erdogan “stop this policy of religious and ethnic intolerance and immediately return the monasteries and churches to their rightful owners.”

In its 2017 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) claims the Erdogan regime has improved the country’s treatment of Christians, saying it has “taken some positive steps to improve religious freedom conditions in Turkey.”

“The government has returned properties expropriated from religious minority communities, provided dual citizenship to Greek Orthodox Metropolitans so they can participate in their church’s Holy Synod, and revised school curricula,” it also reports.

USCIRF alleges that “no religious community—including the majority Sunni Muslim community—has full legal status, and all are subject to state controls limiting their rights to maintain places of worship, train clergy, and offer religious education.”

However, Muslims are not complaining about having their mosques confiscated by the government.

The Erdogan regime has even allowed Quran recitations during Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan at the secular Hagia Sophia Museum, which was initially built as a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica that served as the prominent church of Eastern Christianity for more than 900 years.

Islamists linked to Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party have demanded that the ruling government reconvert the ancient building as a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque soon after the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. It ultimately became a secular museum under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s.

The Erdogan administration has restricted freedom of the press, expression, and religion since it came to power.