November 17, 2016

Assyria: Lawsuits Filed by Turkish Government Threaten Existence of World’s Oldest Orthodox Monastery

Photo Courtesy of Maarten@Flickr

Assyrians in Turkey fear for the property rights of the world’s oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery, the Mor Gabriel Monastery in the country’s Mardin province. The monastery is of enormous importance for Assyrians and, to this day, serves as an educational facility. A lawsuit filed by the Turkish government claims ownership of the monastery and demands it to be returned to the Turkish state, while a  second lawsuit demands the construction of a wall around the building to be declared illegal and those responsible for its construction to be arrested. Mr Tuma Celik, the Turkey representative of the European Syriac Union (ESU), deems these demands by the Turkish government systematic harassment of the Assyrian community in Turkey and part of a clear strategy which has as its aim to obliterate Assyrian culture in Turkey.

Below is an article posted by AINA:

The European Commission has recently issued its 2016 Turkey Progress Report, which contains serious criticism of the country's increasingly grave human rights record.

One of the issues that the report has brought to light is the problem that Assyrians (or Syriacs) in Turkey face as a religious minority, such as property rights for the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world: Mor Gabriel (the monastery of St. Gabriel), located in Mardin province, in southeastern Turkey.

One would expect Turkey, a NATO member and a candidate for EU membership, to preserve both the monastery and the tiny Assyrian community in the country. Nonetheless, the Turkish government has been involved in a dispute with the historic monastery and has threatened its existence.

"The lawsuits against the monastery were filed in 2008," said Tuma Celik, the Turkey representative of the European Syriac Union (ESU) and the editor-in-chief of the Assyrian monthly newspaper, Sabro.

One lawsuit demands that the monastery tear down the wall built around it to protect it 30 years ago; the lawsuit is claiming that the wall was built without permission. It is also demanding the imprisonment of those responsible for its construction.

Other lawsuits filed by the Under-Secretariat of Turkey's Treasury, and the Ministry of Forestry, claim that some of the land on which the monastery was built belong to the Turkish state and demand its return. Another lawsuit filed by the residents of the neighboring villages claims that the monastery is inside the borders of their villages.

"When we take into account all of these demands we see that the Turkish state is trying to harass Assyrians," Celik said.

"The lands that are the subject of the lawsuits have no economic value. But Assyrians often visit there because the monastery is sacred to them. The Turkish state attacks this sacred site to abuse Assyrians and indirectly convey this message: 'You will either live as I want you to live or you will leave these lands.' The state does so because Assyrians have been taking steps to return to their ancestral lands in Turkey since the 2000s."

Celik added that 30 parcels of land were seized from the monastery based on court rulings.

"In 2013, President Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, promised in televised comments that he would return the lands that were unjustly seized from the monastery. Ever since, 12 parcels of land have been given back to the monastery but 18 are still in the hands of those who have seized them."

David Vergili, a member of the European Syriac Union (ESU), said that the monastery won the local lawsuits, but the Turkish Supreme Court overturned the rulings: "Then, the monastery went to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)." The trial at the ECHR is still ongoing.

"For Syriacs, the trial is political," added Vergili. "The fact that the monastery has enormous importance for Syriacs and that it still educates students has always kept the Turkish state on alert."

The EC report echoed the problems addressed by Celik and Vergili.

"Court cases on property restitution continued, including on ownership of the land on which the Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel monastery is built. Syriacs and Yazidis still faced difficulties to register property," stated the report, which stressed that other religious minorities are also exposed to similar discrimination.

"Latin Catholic churches still have neither a legal personality nor foundation status, making it impossible for them to register property or seek restitution. Problems were reported for Greek nationals in inheriting and registering property... The second church in Istanbul has not been opened yet despite requests by the Syriac Orthodox community."

The current population of Turkey is 99.2 % Muslim, according to the country's official figures. However, Anatolia, the region in which most of Turkey is located, used to have a Christian majority, with sizable Jewish and Yazidi communities, before the Turkish-Islamic invasion in the 11th century.

The Assyrian people, or Syriacs, are an indigenous Christian people in the region and one of the world's oldest civilizations. Some of the Assyrians are known as Chaldeans and others as Arameans. Today, their native lands are within Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

Assyrians speak Aramaic, whose massive historic and religious importance the author Ross Perlin explains as follows:

Nearly three millennia of continuous records exist for Aramaic; only Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek have an equally long written legacy. For many religions, Aramaic has had sacred or near-sacred status. It is the presumed mother tongue of Jesus, who is reported in the Gospel of Matthew to have said on the cross: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") It came to be used in the Jewish Talmud, in the Eastern Christian churches (where it is known as Syriac), and as the ritual and everyday language of the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious minority in Iran and Iraq.

It is not only the Islamic State (ISIS) that is exterminating the Assyrians. Turkey has also been a historic persecutor of the community.

The persecutions -- including the 1915 Ottoman genocide of Assyrians -- as well as subsequent and widespread discrimination against Assyrians, have led the community's size to dwindle. The remaining Assyrians in the country are estimated to number around 25,000 today. And even this tiny minority and its remaining religious sites are still subjected to bigotry, threats and discrimination.