Land grab in Turkey’s southeast threatens return of minorities

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A Syriac Christian monk walks to attend a service at the ancient monastery of Mor Gabriel, near the town of Midyat, in southeast Turkey, Jan. 13, 2009. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Dressed in a black robe and embroidered cap, Father Yoqin leaned over the rampart of Mor Augin and lowered a hose to a municipal fire truck waiting to pump the weekly water supply up to the mountain monastery. Abandoned for decades, Mor Augin was reopened a couple of years ago as a sign of the Syriac church’s determination to keep the faith alive in its homeland in southeastern Turkey, despite the dwindling numbers of Christians in the region.
On a clear day, Father Yoqin can see across the Turkish border and Kurdish-held territory in Syria all the way into Iraq, where Mount Sinjar rises from Ninevah province in the distance. But the Syriac monk does not need to look that far to see his people endangered. A glance down to the plains rolling out below the mountain will suffice: Most of the monastery’s own lands there — hundreds of acres — have been seized by Kurdish tribes that are armed and determined to hang on to them.

This is not an isolated case, according to Serhat Karasin, a lawyer in Diyarbakir. Recent land grabs targeting Christians and Yazidis in southeastern Turkey number in the thousands, by his estimate.

Karasin, who has represented the monastery in its long-running attempts to recuperate its properties, has just returned from talks with district officials, the provincial governorate and the Interior Ministry in Ankara on behalf of the Yazidi village of Efse, not far from Mor Augin, whose former inhabitants are being prevented from returning to their hamlet by the armed forces of a neighboring Kurdish tribe.

“They have threatened the Yazidis that they will suffer the same fate as those of Sinjar,” if they persist in trying to return, Karasin told Al-Monitor, adding that he had pleaded for the urgent intervention of the state. The authorities had shown themselves sympathetic, but not actually done anything yet, he said.

Hardly a Christian village in Tur Abdin, the ancient heartland of the Syriac church between the Tigris and the Syrian border, has been left unaffected by the turmoil over landownership that was triggered by the modernization of Turkish land registry records in the 1990s and 2000s, Yuhanna Aktas, president of the Syriac Unity Association in Midyat, told Al-Monitor. The Yazidis had fared even worse, he said. The Turkish state’s land registration works were undertaken at a time when most Christians and Yazidis, as well as many Kurds, were living in European exile, having fled persecution, poverty and the Kurdish war in which they were crushed between the fronts, he explained. With the land registration, many lost their land to the treasury, which is entitled to confiscate land when it has lain fallow for 20 years, or to the forestry, which can seize all forested land.

“The law does not ask why people left their land, or why they had to leave,” said Rudi Sumer, a Syriac lawyer in Midyat, who possesses stacks of such cases. As a result, the treasury seized the lands of refugees who had been expelled from their villages by the military because they had not tilled it, and the forestry confiscated vineyards the army had burned down because of the low oak scrub that sprang up on them during their owners’ absence. While these formally legal expropriations have affected the entire population of this war-torn region, a third form of land grab has specifically targeted the non-Muslim minorities. In many cases, their land was appropriated by Kurdish tribes that either registered it to their names or simply seized it by force.

“They bore false witness for each other,” Ibrahim Ogur, a young Syriac working on a construction site in the village of Mzizah, told Al-Monitor about a local case of land grab in which a Kurdish villager laid claim to the land of a Christian. “None of them would testify on behalf of my father,” he said. The house he is rebuilding is meant for his cousin, who is considering moving back from Germany to Tur Abdin, Ogur said. “If these land problems are solved, then many Christians will return home,” he said.

Paradoxically, the land grab dispute is a sign that the situation in Tur Abdin has improved over the last few years and that Syriacs have indeed begun to return to the region, Erol Dora, a deputy from Mardin and the first Syriac in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, said in an interview with Al-Monitor in Ankara. “People once fled and left the land, now they are returning, and the land is regaining value,” he said.

At the same time, the conflict is the single biggest obstacle to a wider return of Syriacs and Yazidis to the region, Dora said, agreeing with most experts interviewed by Al-Monitor. Across Europe, thousands of Syriacs are waiting and watching how this issue is resolved, Syriac diaspora associations say. Out of some 250,000 Syriacs currently living in Europe, an estimated 25,000 are affected by the expropriations in Tur Abdin, Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs), said in an email.

With lawsuits dragging on for years inconclusively, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the Kurdish party that commands a large following in the region and to which Dora belongs, has stepped in to mediate between Syriac landowners and Kurdish claimants in several cases, including that of Mor Augin. But although the Kurdish tribe occupying monastery lands is aligned with the HDP and despite the personal interventions of HDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtas and of Ahmet Turk, a respected Kurdish feudal chief, negotiations proved fruitless and were eventually abandoned. “You have to remember that landownership is something for which Kurds kill each other, too,” Dora said, acknowledging that the party held little sway here.

Nor does the state’s writ go a long way in Turkey’s “Wild East.” Though the Jandarma, the paramilitary police force, may turn up in response to an emergency call, conflicts in remote mountain villages are generally left to be sorted out without intervention. “There is no rule of law in the region, there is only the rule of force,” Dora said.

Added to that comes the deep distrust the minorities feel for the Turkish state and its institutions. “Why is no one calling me about this?” asked Oguzhan Bingol, the district governor of Midyat, brandishing his smartphone under the Turkish flag in his office. Bingol posted his cell phone number on the district’s Web page and encouraged citizens to call him with their complaints, he said. But on this issue his phone is silent.

Like so much else in southeastern Turkey, the resolution of the land grab issue is tied up with the peace process there, according to Karasin. To that effect, he and a commission of legal experts have submitted a draft proposal to the government, calling for a compensation scheme to be included into the scope of the settlement of the Kurdish conflict. The commission proposes that the state steps in to mediate conflicts and to compensate the victims of expropriations with treasury land — deliberately not with money, Karasin explained, but with land, to prevent another exodus from the region.

“The individual legal process cannot redress this fundamental wrong that has been done,” Karasin said. “The state must take responsibility.”

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