“We will definitely file an application with the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR]. But for this, we have to complete the legal procedure in Turkey. We have to apply [individually] to the Constitutional Court [to overturn the decision] first. When the legal process in Turkey is complete, we will seek our rights in the ECtHR,” said İsa Doğdu, deputy chairman of the Foundation of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, when speaking to Sunday’s Zaman.
In mid-November, the Supreme Court of Appeals threw out a petition by the Mor Gabriel Monastery to re-examine a decision handed down by its 20th Chamber, which had ruled that the monastery was occupying state land even though it has been paying taxes on that land for decades. The court noted that monastery officials had not proven that the land belongs to the monastery.
The Mor Gabriel Monastery is located on the Tur Abdin plateau near Midyat in the province of Mardin in southeastern Turkey. It was founded in 397, and it is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. 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. 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.
In 2008, the Treasury filed a complaint in a local court in Mardin, arguing that the monastery was occupying state land and that the land be given to the Treasury. However, the court said that the monastery was the owner of the land and that it has been paying its taxes for many years. The Treasury appealed the ruling, and the 20th Chamber of the Supreme Court granted substantial parts of Mor Gabriel to the Treasury. According to the court verdict, land inside and adjacent to the monastery belongs to the state. The monastery also appealed the decision, asking the Supreme Court of Appeals to review the court ruling. However, the court refused to do so. In its reasoned decision, the court argued that the land on which the monastery sits was occupied by the monastery and that occupation does not grant the right to the monastery to claim ownership of the land. The court also said experts and witnesses heard by the court during the Mor Gabriel Monastery case did not confirm that the land belongs to the monastery.
Nazmi Necipoğlu, a member of the General Council of the Supreme Court of Appeals, said the monastery does not have a title deed certificate to prove that it is the real owner of the monastery land, which is the main reason behind the court ruling. “The monastery is using the land without a title deed certificate,” he said, and added that an official may receive the title deed certificate for the monastery land if he applies personally.
According to Doğdu, the Supreme Court of Appeals decision came as no surprise to the Arameans in Turkey, but it still saddened them.
Kuryakos Ergün, chairman of the Foundation of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, said publicly last week that officials of the monastery are hoping to meet with the president and prime minister to discuss the controversy surrounding the land. Ergün also voiced concern that the Supreme Court of Appeals decision may lead to future loss of property for the monastery and the Aramean community.
Arameans have lived for about 5,000 years in Mardin, Batman and Şırnak, and some emmigrated in the 1980s due to instability caused by terrorism in Turkey’s East and Southeast. With the reduction of terrorist activities in the region, some Aremean families started to return to their homeland in the 2000s.
Sunday’s Zaman also talked to representatives of the Aramean community about the Supreme Court of Appeals decision against the Mor Gabriel Monastery. Şabo Boyacı, editor of the suryaniler.com website, said the decision deeply saddened the community.
“The Mor Gabriel Monastery is a very important place of worship for Arameans. We consider the court decision politically-motivated. There is no such lawsuit against other minority groups in Turkey. All evidence favored us, but we lost the suit,” Boyacı complained, and stated that the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling is an attempt to silence the Aramean diaspora. “Now we have to file an individual application in the Constitutional Court. We estimate that we will lose around one or two years in the court. Then we will apply to the ECtHR,” Boyacı added.
Boyacı also recalled that a petition campaign has recently been started through a website called, in English, “Do not touch Mor Gabriel” (www.morgabrieledokunma.com). So far, 7,282 politicians, academics and intellectuals have signed the petition to back Arameans in their case. “We have received the support of people from various circles and backgrounds. This makes us happy,” he said.
The campaign reads, “The Mor Gabriel Monastery is our inheritance from Aramean history. It has witnessed fraternal life as well as suffering for thousands of years. Blood, tears and pain burst out of the lands of Mesopotamia. We want these lands to be bedecked by flowers of peace. The Aramean people are not invaders. They should be allowed to live in their homeland without fear and under humane conditions. We have launched a signature campaign for the color of Arameans not to become extinct on these land, and we are expecting you to support us in our cause.”
Another member of Turkey’s Aramean community, Özcan Geçer, who researches Aramean culture, said he is hopeful that the Constitutional Court will “correct the mistake” of the Supreme Court of Appeals, but if not, Arameans will continue to seek their rights within the boundaries of the law through other channels, such as the ECtHR. Geçer also said the Aramean community is heartbroken by the court ruling, which says that Arameans are occupiers on the monastery land though the community existed in the region for thousands of years and has paid taxes on the land.
Geçer also said the court decision against the monastery is actually a “covert message to Arameans living abroad not to return to Turkey.” “Arameans living abroad are now concerned that they will not be able to protect their properties or claim ownership of their lands if they come back to Turkey. The concern prevents them from returning to Turkey,” he said, and added that Arameans cannot make sense of a court decision that comes at a time when the government is urging them to return to Turkey.