Turkey’s Arameans press for rights to Mor Gabriel despite setbacks
The Mor Gabriel Monastery, or the Monastery of St. Gabriel, the oldest surviving Aramean (Syriac) Orthodox monastery in the world, is located in southeastern Turkey. (Photo: AA)
Despite the Treasury’s legal struggle to seize some of the lands of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, located on the Tur Abdin plateau near Midyat in the province of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, Turkey’s Arameans (Syriacs) have been determined to fight back.
“We have no words left to say. All documents speak for themselves,” said Kuryakos Ergün, chairman of the Foundation of the Mor Gabriel Monastery.
Ergün was speaking in relation to the final verdict issued by the Supreme Court of Appeals on June 13 of this year, stating that the monastery, founded in A.D. 397 and often referred to as a “second Jerusalem,” does not have rights to the land on which it sits.
However, he added that all the information they have with regards to the verdict has come through the Turkish press.
“Nothing official has been sent to us by the court,” he said. “When we have the official court ruling in our hands, and if the news is true, then we will seek further legal remedies.”
The conflict surrounding Mor Gabriel began when land officials for the Turkish government redrew the boundaries around the monastery and surrounding villages in 2008 in order to update the national land registry as part of a cadastre modernization project in compliance with European Union instructions. The officials finished this work across nearly half the country in less than five years. In addition, several new laws have been passed that require the transfer of uncultivated land to the Treasury and, in some cases, that re-zone other land, such as forest land, transferring it to the jurisdiction of the Forestry Directorate.
In the wake of these new classifications, it has become difficult for former owners to use this land. The issue has also become a Muslim-Christian dispute, with the neighboring villages complaining to the court that the monastery’s monks have engaged in “anti-Turkish activities,” including converting children to Christianity.
The final verdict of the top court has been called scandalous by the Turkish press as the court “lost” several land title and financial/tax documents, undoubtedly demonstrating the ownership of the land by the monastery.
“I feel sad for the Turkish legal system,” Ergün said.
He feels that if the verdict is true, the decision is against the Arameans of Turkey. He added: “Everybody knows to whom the monastery has belonged for the last 1,600 years. But we will be put in a very difficult situation if the court says the land does not belong to the monastery.”
Meanwhile, a petition campaign has recently been started through a website called, in English, “We grew up together in this country” (http://beraberbuyudukbuulkede.com/).
So far, 300 academics and intellectuals have signed the petition to back Turkey’s Arameans in their case.
They state on the website that Arameans have been attacked several times in Turkey, with the most recent attack coming from the villagers in the area when they applied to the Treasury to claim the land on which the monastery is built. The website says in Turkish: “Despite the local court’s ruling twice in favor of the monastery, these decisions were overruled by the 20th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals on June 13, 2012. With this decision, Mor Gabriel Monastery is considered to be an occupier of the land it owns and pays taxes for. According to us, the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals reveals the hypocrisy of the state toward Arameans. While on one hand there are calls to the Aramean people who live outside Turkey to return, on the other hand, Arameans are declared occupiers.”
While Arameans originate out of Turkey, there are only 3,500 left in Mardin despite numbers of around half a million in Europe.