Turkey’s Syriac community and the threat of ‘nationalization’

A Syriac priest climbs the stairs at the Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel monastery, in Turkish southeastern town of Midyat, 30 May 2004. (AFP)

By Sonia Farid

The ownership of around 50 churches, monasteries, and cemeteries that belonged to the Syriac Orthodox Church for more than 1,500 years was transferred to the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Dinayet), hence turned into public facilities.
The Syriac properties, which total hundreds of thousands of square meters, were annexed by the directorate following the decision by the government committee assigned the liquidation of assets whose ownership deeds expired. The decision sent shock waves across members of the Syriac community who started fearing that this could be the first step towards the extinction of their heritage.
Kuryakos Ergun, chairman of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation, said that an appeal filed against the confiscation, which included the fifth-century monastery, was rejected and highlighted the danger of losing this monastery, one of the world’s oldest operational monasteries, and other Syriac houses of worship.
“Our churches and monasteries are what root Syriacs in these lands; our existence relies on them. They are our history and what sustains our culture,” he said. “While the country should be protecting this heritage, we instead see our culture is at risk.” Ergun added that the fifth-century Mor Meliki monastery is also among the confiscated properties. “This monastery is set beside a spring revered by pilgrims for its healing powers and was tended by two Syriac families.”
Both monasteries are located in the Tur Abdin region in southwest Turkey between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and which is known to be the historic center of Syriac heritage and the heart of its monastic history. The name of the region is Syriac for “mountain of the servants of God” and the region is home to more than 80 monasteries.
Robert Nicholson, the executive director of the Philos Project, which addresses the problems of Christians in the Middle East, attributed the confiscation of Syriac properties to new policies adopted by Erdogan’s government to control minorities in the restive southwest. “In the case of the Syriac Christians, Erdogan is using legal pretexts to seize and redistribute lands and churches that have been owned by Christians for over a millennium,” he said.
Nicholson noted that Christians were generally not persecuted by Turkish authorities and did not face discriminatory practices under Erdogan, yet he argued that this seems to be changing. “But Turkish politics are changing, and it’s still unclear how minority groups like the Syriacs will fare in the end.”
Turkish journalist Uygar Gültekin explained that the whole process started when the province of Mardin, the eastern part of which is located in Tur Abdin, was officially turned into a metropolitan municipality, which allowed the government to form a Transfer, Liquidation, and Redistribution Committee to look into the status of properties located in the province. The committee placed the properties at the disposal of the Treasury, which then transferred them to Religious Affairs.

The Treaty of Lausanne

Gültekin noted that the decision to confiscate the Syriac properties is in violation of the Treaty of Lausanne, which was also mentioned in the appeal filed by the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation. “According to Article 42/3 of the Lausanne Treaty the Turkish Government undertakes to grant full protection to the churches, synagogues, cemeteries, and other religious establishments of the above-mentioned minorities (non-Muslims).
All facilities and authorization will be granted to the pious foundations, and to the religious and charitable institutions of the said minorities at present existing in Turkey, and the Turkish Government will not refuse, for the formation of new religious and charitable institutions, any of the necessary facilities which are granted to other private institutions of that nature,” Gültekin wrote.
According to the same treaty, Gültekin added, the Turkish government is not to issue any laws or take any procedures that overrule this principle: “Evidently this erroneous ownership status is in explicit violation of the Lausanne Treaty which is the founding Treaty of the Republic of Turkey.”
Habib Efram, president of the Syriac League in Lebanon, said that news of confiscating Syriac properties in Turkey went unnoticed as was the case with other violations to which the Syriacs in the Middle East were subjected.
“The world has been watching since the massacres committed against our ancestors in 1915 and which were neither acknowledged nor punished,” he said in reference to the mass killings of Syriacs by the Ottoman Empire during World War One and which happened alongside the Armenian genocide. “In addition to what is happening in Turkey, our legacy is being eliminated in Nineveh and Palmyra,” he added.
According to minorities’ expert Suleiman Yusuf, transferring the ownership of the Syriac properties to the Directorate of Religious Affairs means that they will be treated as Islamic endowments, which makes the future of all activities taking place in them uncertain.
“Millions of people perform pilgrimage every year to the monasteries that are now confiscated. Dozens of nuns and monks also live in those monasteries in addition to students who learn there,” he wrote. “Now all those will be under the control of the Mufti which means they can be turned to mosques or Islamic centers any time.”

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