The Syrian Orthodox Church is condemning the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey for seizing 50 churches and monasteries in the southeast of the country. This is happening in the context of a hardening of the policies of the ruling AKP party and is weakening, even more, the already fragile position of a Christian minority deprived of all legal rights.
The ancient Syrian Orthodox Monastery of Mor Gabriel has been subjected to constant and unfair legal attacks since 2008. It has now fallen under the control of the all-powerful Diyanet, which governs Islamic Turkey (99.8% of the population).
The Mor Gabriel Monastery was founded in 397 by the ascetic Mor Shmu’el (Samuel) on the Tur Abdin plateau, “the mountain of the servants of God”, in southeastern Turkey.
This sacred site of Eastern Christianity is one of the 50 churches and monasteries that have been seized by the Diyanet, according to Kuryakos Ergün, the Chairman of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation.
“We are in the process of identifying the properties that have already been seized,” Ergün told the Turkish-Armenian newspaper, Argos. “We have so far filed lawsuits with regard to twenty property titles, and we’re going to do the same for thirty more.”
A legal marathon
This legal struggle goes back to 2008. In that year, an updating of the land registry requalified 250 hectares within the Monastery’s boundaries as “forests”, on the grounds that they were not “cultivated”.
What followed was a long series of lawsuits, each one lost because of false accusations: Christian proselytism, the supposed existence of a mosque under the monastery’s foundations – even though it was built well before the advent of Islam.
Now, it’s the administrative change of Mardin Province to a “metropolitan municipality” that is serving as the excuse for the seizing of property. The authorities set up a “Committee of Liquidation” in order to redistribute any property that no longer has a legal entity.
Initially transferred to the Treasury, the 50 churches and monasteries are now under the control of the Presidency of Religious Affairs.
The increasing harshness of the Islamic-Conservative authorities.
These developments are occurring in the context of an increasing hardening of the policies of the Islamic-Conservative President Erdogan and his AKP party, in power since 2002.
A law passed in 2002 supposedly opened the way for the recovery of about a hundred properties seized from minorities since the creation of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. This should have allowed the restitution of goods and properties confiscated by the State from non-Muslim minority foundations.
Since then, however, this has come to a dead end. Ever-decreasing Christian communities are increasingly oppressed by the State and by a society that is being re-Islamized.
In its 15 years in power, the AKP has thus ground away at the secular principles that were defended tooth and nail by the Kemalists, such as the prohibition of the veil in universities and government offices.
This year, just before Easter, the Turkish President even planned to pray with members of his Party and Islamic clerics at Saint-Sophia. This great Christian Basilica, built in 537, became a mosque under the Ottoman Empire’s rule. It was transformed into a museum by Ataturk in 1935.
Now, it is a symbol that is increasingly coveted by Erdogan’s Islamist government.
More recently, on Thursday 22 June, Mehmet Görmez, the President of the Diyanet, participated in a Muslim prayer service that was broadcast by State television.
Christians deprived of legal status
Most Christians in Turkey (0.1% of the population) do not have any legal status. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which gave rights to non-Muslim minorities, recognized only minority groups of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish origin.
Syrian Orthodox Christians (whose numbers have fallen from 70,000 in the 1970s to about 2,000 today) and Roman Catholics (between 10,000 and 15,000) are therefore excluded. They can only battle the courts to try to keep or to recover property confiscated from them by the State.
Similarly, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, has been fighting for the Greek-Orthodox Seminary of Halki to be re-opened, forty years after it was closed.
The collapse of Christianity’s presence in Turkey over the last century
At the beginning of the last century, Turkey itself was home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East: 20% of the population. Now, there are only 80,000 Christians (of all denominations).
The Armenian genocide of 1915 and departure of a huge number of Greek Orthodox Christians in the early 1920s largely account for the collapse of Christianity’s presence in Turkey.
Although the Christian minority in this country is not being subjected to the same degree of violence as in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, Christians and intellectuals have nonetheless been assassinated during the past few years.
Those killed include the Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro in 2006; the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, and the Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, Mgr Luigi Padovese, in 2010.
Needless to say, investigations into these deaths are going nowhere.