Battle Over Christian Monastery Tests Turkey Tolerance of Minorities

Assyrian International News Agency
Battle Over a Christian Monastery Tests Turkey’s Tolerance of Minorities
3-7-2009 6:53:12

KARTMIN, TURKEY — Christians have lived in these parts since the dawn
of their faith. But they have had a rough couple of millennia, preyed
on by Persian, Arab, Mongol, Kurdish and Turkish armies. Each group
tramped through the rocky highlands that now comprise Turkey’s
southeastern border with Iraq and Syria.

The current menace is less bellicose but is deemed a threat
nonetheless. A group of state land surveyors and Muslim villagers are
intent on shrinking the boundaries of an ancient monastery by more
than half. The monastery, called Mor Gabriel, is revered by the Syriac
Orthodox Church.

Battling to hang on to the monastic lands, Bishop Timotheus Samuel
Aktas is fortifying his defenses. He’s hired two Turkish lawyers —
one Muslim, one Christian — and mobilized support from foreign
diplomats, clergy and politicians.

Also giving a helping hand, says the bishop, is Saint Gabriel, a
predecessor as abbot who died in the seventh century: "We still have
four of his fingers." Locked away for safekeeping, the sacred digits
are treasured as relics from the past — and a hex on enemies in the

The outcome of the land dispute is now in the hands of a Turkish
court. Seated below a bust of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s
secular founding father, a robed judge on Wednesday told the feuding
parties that he would issue a ruling after he visits the disputed
territory himself next month.

The trial comes at a critical stage in Turkey’s 22-year drive to join
the European Union. When it first came to power in 2002, the ruling AK
party, led by observant Muslims, pushed to accelerate legal and other
changes demanded by Europe for admittance into its largely Christian
club. But much of the momentum has since slowed. France has made clear
it doesn’t want Turkey in the EU no matter what, while Turkey has
seemed to have second thoughts.

A big obstacle is Turkey’s continuing tensions with its ethnic
minorities, notably the Kurds, who account for more than 15% of the
population and are battling for greater autonomy. Also fraught, but
more under the radar, is the situation confronting members of the
Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the world’s oldest and most beleaguered
Christian communities. The group’s fate is now seen as a test of
Turkey’s ability to accommodate groups at odds with "Turkishness," a
legal concept of national identity that has at times been used to
suppress minority groups.

The dispute over Mor Gabriel is being closely watched here and
abroad. The EU and several embassies in Ankara sent observers to a
court hearing in February, and a Swedish diplomat attended this week’s
session. Protection of minority rights is a condition for entry into
the EU.

Founded in 397, Mor Gabriel is one of the world’s oldest functioning
monasteries. Viewed by Syriacs as a "second Jerusalem," it sits atop a
hill overlooking now solidly Muslim lands. It has just three monks and
14 nuns. It also has 12,000 ancient corpses buried in a basement

The bishop’s local flock numbers only 3,000. Mor Gabriel’s influence,
however, reaches far beyond its fortress-like walls, inspiring and
binding a community of Christians scattered by persecution and
emigration. There are hundreds of thousands more Syriac Christians
across the frontier in Iraq and Syria and in Europe. They speak
Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

"The monastery is all we have left," says Attiya Tunc, who left for
Holland as a child and returned this February to find her family’s
village near here reduced to ruins and overrun with sheep, since most
of the villagers abandoned it. Ms. Tunc says she came in response to
telephone call from Bishop Aktas appealing to former residents to come
back and show their support in the land battle.

Historical Claims

Turkish officials say they have no desire to uproot Christianity. They
point to new roads and other services provided to small settlements of
Syriac Christians who have returned in recent years from abroad.

Mustafa Yilmaz, the state’s senior administrator in the area, says
Turkey wants to clarify blurred property boundaries as part of a
national land survey, something long demanded by the EU. He says the
monastery could lose around 100 acres of land currently enclosed
within a high wall, meaning a loss of about 60% of its core
property. Some of that could be reclassified as a state-owned forest,
with the rest claimed by the Treasury on the grounds that it’s not
being used as intended for farming or other purposes.

Mr. Yilmaz says none of this would affect the monastery’s operations
as the land targeted isn’t being used by monks or nuns, and he notes
that the court could yet side in part with the monastery. He says the
government has no desire to hurt a monastery he describes as a "very
special place" that, among other things, helps boost the region’s
economy by bringing in throngs of pilgrims and tourists.

Christian activists, says Mr. Yilmaz, have "blown up" a mundane muddle
into a religious issue. "Look, everyone wants to have more land," he

Syriac Christians see a more sinister purpose. They say the Turkish
state and Muslim villagers want to grab Christian land and force the
non-Muslims to leave. "There is no place for Christians here" until
Turkey changes in fundamental ways, says Ms. Tunc.

The dispute has spurred some Muslims in neighboring villages to launch
complaints against the monastery. Mahmut Duz, a Muslim who lives near
Mor Gabriel, lodged a protest last year to the state prosecutor in
Midyat, a nearby town. Mr. Duz alleged that the bishop and his monks
are "engaged in illegal religious and reactionary missionary

Mr. Duz urged Turkish authorities to remember Mehmed the Conqueror, a
15th-century Ottoman ruler who routed Christian forces and conquered
the city now called Istanbul for Islam. He said Turkish officials
should recall a vow by the Conqueror to " ‘cut off the head of anybody
who cuts down even a branch from my forest.’ " Bishops and priests,
Mr. Duz told the prosecutor, can keep their heads, but "you must stop
the occupation and plunder" of Muslim land by the monastery.

No one at the monastery has been prosecuted for the crimes alleged by
Mr. Duz and other villagers. The monastery says these claims are
ludicrous. It says it tutors 35 Syriac Christian school boys in
Aramaic and religion but conducts no missionary activities.

Syriac Christians take an even longer view than Mr. Duz. They deride
local Muslims as newcomers, saying Mor Gabriel was built two centuries
before Islam was founded. "Mohammed did not exist. The Ottoman Empire
did not exist. Turkey did not exist," says Issa Garis, the monastery’s

A Long List of Raids

Syriac Christians have indeed been living — and often suffering —
here for a very long time. Mor Gabriel’s history is a "long list of
raids, wars, droughts, famines, plagues and persecutions," says
British scholar Andrew Palmer. "Time and again, they’ve had to start
again from nothing."

In the eighth century, plague swept through the area and took the
lives of many of Mor Gabriel’s monks. Survivors dug up the body of
Saint Gabriel, the monastery’s seventh-century abbot, and propped him
up in church to pray for help. The plague, according to tradition,

When disease later ravaged a Christian center to the north, Saint
Gabriel’s right hand was cut off and sent there to help. One of the
fingers was then removed and dispatched to avert another crisis
elsewhere. The finger is now missing.

As Islam extended its reach, the monastery shut down repeatedly, but
always reopened. It was attacked by Kurds, Turks and then Kurds
again. In the 14th century, Mongol invaders seized the monastery and
killed 40 monks and 400 other Christians hiding in a cave. Perhaps the
biggest blow of all came in the modern era, when Turkey’s slaughter of
Christian Armenians during World War I led to massacres of Syriac
Christians, too. The patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church later
decamped to Syria.

Ms. Tunc, the woman now living in Holland, grew up with stories of
massacred relatives. Her father "told us never to trust Turks or
Kurds," and ordered her to master Dutch ways "because we could never
go back."

Her family and many others left Turkey in the 1980s during a brutal
conflict between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas. Syriac
Christians, viewed with suspicion by both sides, frequently got caught
in the crossfire.

The exodus drained towns and villages of Christians, including Midyat,
the town where the court is reviewing the land dispute. Midyat used to
be almost entirely Christian but now has just 120 non-Muslim families
out of a population of 60,000. The town has seven churches, but just
one preacher.

Running a Tight Ship

As Christians fled, Bishop Aktas took charge of Mor Gabriel. He’d
earlier studied in New York but found the U.S. too permissive. "I
didn’t like America. It is not for monks like me," he says.

By some accounts, he ran a very tight ship. Aydin Aslan, a student
there from 1978 until 1983, says discipline was extremely strict, each
day devoted to study and prayer. "It was like a prison," recalls
Mr. Aslan, who emigrated to Belgium.

Alarmed by a spate of thefts and determined to keep Muslim neighbors
from encroaching, Bishop Aktas started building a high wall around his
land. When Muslims from the village of Kartmin planted crops and
grazed livestock near a well on monastic property, monks and school
boys filled the well with stones to keep them away.

Muslim resentment grew against the monastery, which was being
bolstered thanks to funds from abroad. Following a drop-off in
fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish guerrillas after
2000, Syriac Christian émigrés seized on the relative calm. They
poured money in to rebuild old churches, expand the monastery compound
and build summer homes.

A few decided to move back for good. Jacob Demir returned from
Switzerland with his family to a new villa on the outskirts of
Midyat. "They thought we would go to Europe and melt away," says
Mr. Demir. Instead, he says, exile only made him more aware and
assertive of his Syriac identity. (His older children are less
enthusiastic: A daughter stayed behind in Europe and a son who came
back to Turkey left when he discovered how low local salaries are.)

The return to Turkey of relatively prosperous Christians helped the
economy and provided jobs in construction. But it also needled some
Muslims, especially when returnees began to claim abandoned property
occupied by Muslims.

Turmoil in neighboring Iraq added to the unease. After the 2003
U.S. invasion, hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians in Iraq fled
mainly to Syria and Jordan as security collapsed and Muslims turned on
their neighbors. Iraq’s most prominent Syriac Christian, Saddam
Hussein’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz, was arrested by the
U.S. Acquitted this week in the first of three cases against him, he
remains in jail on other charges relating to the massacre of Iraqi
Kurds in the 1980s.

As uncertainty mounted about the future of the Syriac church,
officials in Midyat were ordered to survey all land in their area not
yet officially registered. Surveyors, armed with old maps and aerial
photographs, began fanning out through villages trying to work out who
owned what.

Last summer, officials informed the monastery that big chunks of
territory it considered its own were actually state-owned forest
land. The monastery wall was declared illegal. Surveyors also redrew
village borders, expanding the territory of three Muslim villages with
which the monastery had long feuded.

The monastery went to court to challenge the decisions. Three village
chiefs filed a complaint against the monastery with the Midyat
prosecutor. Bishop Aktas, they complained, had destroyed "an
atmosphere of peace and tolerance" and should be investigated.

The monastery’s émigré lobby swung into action. Late last year and
again in January, Syriac activists organized street demonstrations in
Sweden and Germany. Yilmaz Kerimo, a Syriac Christian member of the
Swedish parliament, protested to Turkey’s Ministry of Interior,
demanding an end to "unlawful acts and brutalities" at odds with
Turkey’s desire to join the EU.

Ismail Erkal, the village head here in Kartmin, one of the three
settlements involved in the dispute, blames Bishop Aktas for stirring
tempers. "This bishop is a difficult person," says Mr. Erkal. Standing
on the roof of his mud-and-brick house. Looking out towards the
monastery, he points to swathes of monastic land which he says should
belong to Kartmin. His village used to have a church but, with no
Christians left, it is now a stable. Next door is a new mosque.

Mr. Erkel says Islam "does not allow oppression," and denies any plan
to get the last Christians in the area to leave.

Bishop Aktas says the message is clear: "They want to make us all go

By Andrew Higgins

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