Ancient Syriac monastery under threat
Syriacs argue the court’s decision highlights their position as second-class citizens.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 18/07/12
Perched on rocky hillside on the outskirts of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, the Mor Gabriel Monastery has been a cultural and religious centre of the ancient Syriac people for more than 1600 years. But in a controversial decision that will likely bring the case to the Constitutional Court and European Court of Human Rights, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled the land belonging to the monastery is occupying state lands and should be given to the Treasury.
"Declaring that the Treasury is the rightful owner of these lands, this final verdict issued by the Supreme Court of Appeals has no reasonable grounds given historical and legal facts," Tuma Celik, the representative of Turkey within the European Syriac Union, told SES Türkiye.
The conflict over the monastery began in 2008 when three village heads near the monastery filed a complaint claiming the land belonged to their villages and the monastery was engaged in "anti-Turkish activities" and proselytizing. The complaint came as Turkish authorities were redrawing the boundaries around the monastery and surrounding villages to update the national land registry in line with the EU harmonisation process. Adding to the case, several new laws have been adopted that require the transfer of uncultivated land to the Treasury.
The Treasury responded by filing a complaint against the monastery, but a lower court dismissed the case after finding the monastery had registered the property with the Foundations Directorate General in 1936 and has been paying taxes since 1937.
In response the Treasury appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which found the monastery had not presented documents to the Foundations Directorate General in 1936 and provided no proof of paying taxes since 1937. The monastery claims all documents were provided in 2009 and were ignored in the court's final decision.
The EU has sharply criticised Turkey over the case against Mor Gabriel and the status of the Syriac people.
For Turkey's 25,000 strong Syriac community and human rights defenders, the Treasury's actions and the court's decision highlight a selective use of evidence and hypocrisy against non-Muslim communities.
Kuryakos Ergun, the head of Mor Gabriel Monastery, said the court's decision was "unfortunate" as the monastery is considered the second most important holy place for the Syriac people after Jerusalem.
"We are the citizens of this country. We didn't come to these territories by immigrating from somewhere. We born here and we are living here for millennia. But such verdicts imply that we are second-class citizens," he told SES Türkiye.
Unlike Jews, Armenians and Greeks, the Syriacs are not considered an official minority under the Lausanne treaty, prompting some to call them the "forgotten minority."
Since World War I, there has been a steady population decline in the Syriac population in Turkey as a result of state policies, discrimination, economic factors and the conflict with the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the past several years some families in the diaspora have started to return.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a prominent Turkish lawyer and human rights activist, told SES Türkiye some citizens have a hidden agenda to continuously bring an organised action against non-Muslims.
According to Cengiz, the decision is the reflection of a state reflex that views non-Muslim citizens as "indigenous foreigners," a term once used by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
"We should ask ourselves how it would be possible to improvement our policies regarding minority rights when proceeding in such embarrassing actions against a handful of Syriac citizens and their ancient church," he said.
Some 300 individuals, composed of writers, academics and artists, have joined in a petition campaign entitled "Turkey is the Syriacs' Homeland and the Mor Gabriel Monastery is not an Occupier," to protest the decision to nationalise its lands.
"According to us, the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals reveals the hypocrisy of the state toward Syriacs. While on one hand there are calls to the Syriac people who live outside Turkey to return, on the other hand, Syriacs are declared occupiers," the petition states.
One of the co-sponsors of the petition, Cengiz Aktar from Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said that the Syriacs are the most destitute non-Muslim communities of Turkey because they lack the special rights granted to official minorities.
"Very much ignored, the Syriacs need to reappear on Turkey's radar, on its conscience record and more importantly on Turkey's legal framework which would grant the same rights to all, be they Muslim or non-Muslim," Aktar told SES Türkiye.
The Syriac community now plans to appeal the case to the Constitutional Court. Barring a positive outcome, Syriac representatives will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.