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Defending the Faith
Battle Over a Christian Monastery Tests Turkey’s Tolerance of Minorities

ICC Note: This is an encouraging piece in the Wall Street Journal, documenting well the struggle an ancient Christian monastery is engaged in to keep its land.

03/07/09 KARTMIN, TURKEY (Wall Street Journal) – 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 present.

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 crypt.

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 says.

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 activities.”

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 archdeacon.

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 away.” … [Go To Full Story]