This post has been updated.
I’ve been following the attempt by the 1600-year-old Syriac Orthodox Christian Mor Gabriel monastery to defend its land against the state, which wanted it for the Treasury, and against encroaching villagers who claimed it for their cattle. The villagers accused the Christians of being un-Turkish and anti-Islamic. (click here for round one of the battle in the courts).
The row began when Turkish government land officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to update a national land registry. The monks say the new boundaries turn over to the villages large plots of land the monastery has owned for centuries, and designate monastery land as public forest… A local prosecutor in August 2008 initiated a separate court case against the monastery after mayors of three villages complained the monks were engaged in “anti-Turkish activities” and alleged they were illegally converting children to the Christian faith. Monks say the mayors are instigating anti-Christian feelings by accusing Mor Gabriel of being against Islam.
The case was won by the monastery in one court, then overturned by another. Finally, they brought it before the State Supreme Court of Appeals, along with all their documents of ownership and proof that they had been paying tax on this property since 1937 when they were required to officially declare their properties. The court, however, denies that these documents exist, even though the monastery has submitted and resubmitted them. Click here for the full and tragic update. An excerpt:
…The ruling, by the Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara, allows for close to sixty percent of the land belong[ing] to the centuries-old Mor Gabriel monastery to be expropriated by the state, on the grounds that the property belongs to the treasury rather than to the monastery…
The treasury filed a “land registration” suit, and the court subsequently dismissed the case, arguing that the church had been in possession of the estates in question since archaic times, that it had declared its estates prior to the 1936 Proclamation and had been paying its taxes on a regular basis after 1937.
[T]he 20th Section of the Supreme Court of Appeals subsequently claimed the defendants had not presented any tax records pertaining to their real properties despite the earlier court statement that the church had been paying its taxes since 1937.
The Supreme Court of Appeals further argued the defendant parties had not presented any documents regarding their declaration to the Foundations Directorate General in 1936. The monastery responded by indicating they had already presented the relevant documents in 2009 and attached them to the file once more, but to no avail…
This is exactly the same Supreme Court of Appeals which deprived non-Muslim foundations of all their properties before. Seeing non-Muslim citizens as “indigenous foreigners,” a term once used by it, is embedded in its genes. However, the other part of the story needs quite a serious explanation. How can this government, after developing all these minority-friendly policies, be the architect of such a deeply embarrassing action against our handful of Aramean citizens and their ancient church?
What makes the court and treasury action against the monastery all the more dissapointing is that it actually comes in the midst of a slow revival of Assyrian life in southeastern Turkey — the ancient Christian community’s historic heartland — after decades of decline…
And here’s another wrinkle, yet another example of the government playing fast and loose with minority-owned land (excerpt below; click here for full article).
Controversy has risen over plots of land that Turkey’s Syriac community has claimed were offered to them for the establishment of their first church in Istanbul. Two alternative spaces also offered to the Syriac community by the Istanbul municipality belong to the Armenian and Greek foundations respectively, it has emerged.
One of the land plots offered is allegedly a historical cemetery belonging to the Armenian community and the only property belonging to the Surp Stephanos Church Foundation in Istanbul’s Yeşilköy district. The other piece of land belongs to the Greek Hagios Stephanos Foundation…
I have also heard reports that some of the property the Turkish state had confiscated from non-Muslim minorities in previous decades is being returned, but only partially, with the state keeping a large “cut” of whatever land or property is being returned.