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Europe Keeps Eye on Assyrian Monastery Ownership

12/16/08 Turkey (Assyrian International News Agency) – A 1,600-year-old monastery is at the center of a land dispute between a religious group of Assyrians and three nearby villages in Midyat in southeastern Anatolia. The case is one of many being followed closely by the European Union as it monitors the situation for religious groups in Turkey.

While local officials from the villages claimed their land was deliberately occupied, the head of the Deyrulumur Monastery Foundation, Kuryakos Ergün, said the Assyrians were not occupiers.

“Neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Turkish Republic existed at the time of this monastery. We are not occupiers, we have been on this land for centuries,” he was quoted as saying by daily Radikal.

The local officials, however, do not agree. İsmail Erkan, Süleyman Düz and İsa Dilek from the surrounding villages said monastery officials built walls around the 100-hectare forest of oak trees located within the borders of Yayvantepe, Eğlence and Çandarlı villages. The officials applied to the prosecutors’ office, arguing that the frontiers of a place of worship were not that broad anywhere in the world.

Düz even went further to say in the petition: “You are the sons of Fatih the Conqueror who once said ‘I’ll cut off the head of the one who cuts a branch from my forest.’ Don’t cut off the head of a bishop but you must prevent his occupation and plunder.”

Ongoing cases

Two cases filed against the monastery are still ongoing. A second hearing for one of the cases will be held Dec. 19. Ergün told Radikal the atmosphere in the region was tense due to land surveying proceedings and the monastery was in favor of finding a compromise.

“We don’t want to have any problems with our neighbors,” Ergün said, adding that the walls around the forest were built to host visitors. “But the goal of the opposing party is not confined to seizing the land.”

He said the monastery was holding a central position and valuable for the Assyrians. “This monastery has been paying tax for these lands since 1938. There is no occupation É The immigration from Turkey to Europe has begun to flow the opposite direction. Some are not pleased with this. This monastery was founded before Islam.” Ergün said if the legal ways were exhausted in Turkey, they would apply to the European Court of Human Rights.

The EU and especially Germany, to where an estimated 100,000 Assyrians migrated from Turkey, are pressing the country to improve their religious freedoms. In 2004 the EU Commission pointed out the problems encountered by the Assyrians in Turkey.

German Ambassador to Turkey Eckart Cuntz went to Midyat early this month for meetings with local officials as well as representatives from the Assyrian community.

“It is important to make sure that anybody can practice his religion freely,” said a diplomatic source to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

Ergün said two Swedish deputies headed by Yılmaz Kerimo of Assyrian origin from the Social Democratic Party would visit the region soon.