Shaky Foundations

Written by : Nicholas Birch
Turkey’s Syriac Christians are squeezed, despite Ankara’s open arms
The re-establishment of the Syriac Christian community in Southeast Turkey is being undermined by state encroachment on their land.

A Syriac priest climbs the stairs at the Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel monastery, in the southeastern Turkish town of Midyat.
“You know how things work around here: they give with one hand and they take away with the other,” says a small, wiry man in a plastic mac—Bedrus Türker—as he stands looking out over his village from the roof of the old church.

Beyond the west end is the house he built in 2006 after two decades spent living in Germany, a big, square two-storey building in the local limestone, part of a terrace of twelve houses. To the east, men in suits wade through a field of long, dry grass and thistles as a handful of conscript soldiers look on. “Watch out for snakes,” Türker shouts down, then lowers his voice. “The one at the front is the surveyor. The one behind him must be the court official. That’s our lawyer at the back.”

New buildings and busy officials: the scene sums up the predicament facing Turkey’s Syriac Christians in their homeland, in the mountains of southeast Turkey, just north of the borders with Syria and Iraq.

Massacred alongside the Armenians in 1915 and caught in the middle of a brutal war fought between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state after 1984, the number of people from this community that speaks a dialect of Aramaic has dwindled from an estimated two hundred thousand a century ago to less than four thousand at the turn of this millennium. Then, as the Kurdish war tailed off, Ankara pushed through European Union-endorsed reforms and politicians toned down traditionally unfriendly rhetoric on Christian minorities, the embattled community had shown signs of a limited renaissance.

Türker’s family was one of half a dozen Syriac families to return to their abandoned villages. The houses were in ruins and the church had been used as a refuge for soldiers, but that did not discourage them. “I felt I had a duty,” says Türker, whose surname means “Turkish man”—it was chosen for his great-grandfather by bureaucrats in the 1930s. “This is my home.”

Today—in Ankara at least—Turkey’s Syriac perestroika still seems to be alive and well. In 2011, for the first time in the history of the Republic, a Syriac deputy was elected a member of Parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Official rhetoric remains friendly. “The Turkish state . . . does not accept any form of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or language,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu told the Syriac community in exile in Germany last year. “The Turkish state is ready to serve you . . . Turkey is not your former home, it is still your home and it will always be your home.”

One day this summer in southeast Turkey’s regional capital, Diyarbak?r, scores of Syriac Christians from Istanbul and Europe looked on while the local mayor and Christian dignitaries renamed a street in the old town after a late-Byzantine Syriac saint.

In small, remote communities like Türker’s, though—hidden among the dwarf oaks that cover the limestone massif here—the story is as bleak as the landscape. Heading back towards the little café another returning villager has built, Türker ducks into the church, a surprisingly large, austere building whose foundations he says date back at least a thousand years. The lintel over the door sags slightly. The white-washed interior walls are covered in soldiers’ graffiti. There is rubble and dust on the floor.

“A few years back, Ankara slapped a preservation order on it, and now we’re not allowed to touch it,” he says, echoing criticisms in the Council of Europe’s annual reports on Turkey’s EU accession progress indicating that non-Muslim property was falling into disrepair because the state refused to permit even minor refurbishment.

And then there is the business of the surveyors. Türker’s fellow villagers tot up the number of on-going land disputes on their hands, then give up. “At least eight of them,” one of them says. “Paying the lawyers, waiting for the experts to pitch up, it’s eating up our money and our lives.”

The wave of litigation began after 2000 when Turkey, funded by the World Bank, began updating its land records to bring them in line with European norms. Village after village, residents were asked to show evidence of ownership. Across southeastern Turkey, where hundreds of villages were emptied during the Kurdish war and land deeds were always in short supply, the process often turned into a land grab. The Syriac villages of Tur Abdin have been hit harder than most. “The cadastral re-registration has led to huge expropriations amongst the Syriacs,” writes Markus Tozman, the author of a thesis about land issues in Tur Abdin. “Villages losing up to four million square meters are no rarity.” One village has forty cases pending.

Sometimes it is the inhabitants of neighboring villages who lay a claim to the land. Sometimes it is the state itself. “They claim that land to the east of the church is forest” that cannot be privately owned under Turkish law, Türker says. “But that’s absurd. If you empty a village of its inhabitants for 15 years, of course the fields will fill with trees.”

Since 2008, the tweaking of the land registry has begun to affect the most visible part of the region’s Christian heritage, the Syriac monastic foundations, which are some of the oldest in the world. On 16 November, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals ordered Mor Gabriel, a monastery that dates back to 397 CE, to hand over twenty-eight hectares of what it described as forested land to the Treasury. Four months earlier, the same court confiscated twenty-four more hectares from the monastery.

Turkish observers call both cases a travesty. In the earlier case, the Supreme Court of Appeals said users of unregistered land were forbidden by law from claiming more than 10 hectares, ignoring a clause that states “unless [there is] proof of tax records prior to December 1981.”

Twice, Mor Gabriel’s lawyers had provided proof of tax payments going back to 1937, and twice a local court had ruled in the monastery’s favor on the basis of that proof. On both occasions when the Treasury appealed, though, the higher court claimed the tax records had been “lost” in the system. The more recent case began in 2008, when the headmen of three neighboring villages informed local prosecutors that the monastery had occupied forested land.

“You are the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, who said, ‘I will cut off the head of anybody who cuts down even a branch of my forest,’” the headmen wrote in their deposition. “While we are not asking you to cut off the heads of these bishops and priests, you must stop the occupation and plunder.”

The Treasury picked the case up. In its judgment this month, the same appeals court—again ignoring tax records going back eighty years—ruled against the monastery on the basis that the witnesses it had brought forward were not old enough to testify that it owned the land in the 1930s.

“It’s scandalous,” says Baskin Oran, Emeritus Professor at the prestigious Faculty of Political Science in Ankara and an expert on minority rights in Turkey. “The government can’t even hide behind its usual argument about respecting the independence of the courts this time, because the plaintiff is the Treasury.” He is reminded of a notorious 1974 ruling by the very same court that described non-Muslim religious organizations like Mor Gabriel as “foreign” and limited their rights to acquire and own land. “I thought the process of accumulating capital by stealing non-Muslim property had more or less stopped,” he says. “Apparently not.”

If Turkey’s highest court fails to overrule the Court of Appeals, Mor Gabriel has made it clear it intends to take its case to the European Court of Human Rights. Back in his village just north of the monastery, Bedrus Türker is laconic. “You don’t exactly feel welcome, but I didn’t come here with any illusions that it would be easy.”