Translated from Turkish for AINA by Abdulmesih BarAbraham. June 29, 2012.
(AINA) -- The final decision of the (Turkish) Supreme Court of Cassation in the legal case of St. Gabriel, ordering it to transfer the lands which the monastery has owned for 14 centuries to the State Treasury marks a major legal scandal. Cynically, it was the same institution which in 1974 ruled against the minority foundations in Turkey and has played an important role in intensifying minority problems. The latest ruling, in which the State is designated as the 'land owner' and the 'other' (being St.Gabriel) as the 'occupier' proves that not much has changed in Turkey's policy towards minorities. The court decision sheds light on an important parameter of the process that has been labeled as "democratization."
The confiscation of properties, trusts and estates of non-Muslim minorities by the government or by third parties is one of the darkest pages in the history of the (Turkish) Republic. Even though the Law of Foundations has been subject to various revisions within the framework of EU reforms over the last ten years, due to the nationalistic understanding that aims to preserve the existing status quo, the problems of minority foundations have not received a profound and lasting solution. This is very much related to the hegemonic perception that has been formed historically towards minorities in Turkey. Minorities, as a group in Turkey, have been regarded not only as infidel (Turkish gavur) for many years, but also as groups that foster secret ambitions, who "have stolen the wealth that belonged to us," or as "hostile" and "unreliable" element within the Turkish nation formation. The deep traces of such institutionalized discourses can be read in the reflexes of the judicial and political authorities in the context of the legal trials of Hrant Dink, St. Gabriel and Publishing House.
Many people have written about the St. Gabriel case and the trial has been well documented (full coverage). But what is striking in this case is that the legal procedure started and concluded to the disadvantage of the monastery during a process which has been hailed as transition towards "democratization" by many people. Turkish elites have preached continously that "many things have changed in Turkey, and matters are no longer as they were." However, the case of the monastery is just another example which proves the opposite.
Unfortunately, while many in Turkey did not know much about Assyrians (known as Süryani in Turkey), they got to learn about them thanks to the St. Gabriel trial. Despite being a non-Muslim minority according to the definition of the Lousanne Treaty, the Assyrians have not received any legal status throughout the history of the Republic. Policies of denial and assimilation have resulted in the loss of cultural identity, excluding them from political participation for decades while institutionalizing their third class status. With the beginning of the EU accession process in Turkey, they started to be remembered and rediscovered afresh as an exotic culture. Within the framework of the rediscovery phenomenon, Assyrians have been converted to a 'touristic object' on one hand, while on the other hand the state presented them as an example of its generous "tolerance."
The challenges brought to St. Gabriel during the judicial process need to be understood in close relation to the unfair and discriminatory practices Assyrians are facing in Turkey. Beside the fundamental problems of identity and legal status, in recent years efforts have been made to systematically label them with the description of the others and to display them as an elemet of threat. Their monasteries are presented as "missionary centers." In history textbooks, approved by the Ministry of Education and used in 10th grade high school classes, Assyrians are portrayed as "traitors" during World War I (AINA 10-2-2011). Furthermore, Dogan Bekin, a writer of the National Newspaper (Milli Gazete), recently categorized Assyrians as an "Israeli-type group" which has ambitions to establish a country through land acquisition.
Isn't it quite strange that even before the ink of Dogan Bekin's article could dry, the Supreme Court of Cassation signed a decision in that same spirit? In order to understand whether these types of explanations and decisions reflect a state-oriented principal policy towards Assyrians, we need to look at the stance of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. It is a fact that under the leadership of the populist AK Party in Turkey some steps were taken on many issues regarding "democratization" and that the military wardship disappeared, which had existed for decades. However, it is also a fact that there has been no progress in terms of reducing alienation of non-Muslim minorities, particularly in the dominant approach of suspicion towards them. The attitude of the government and the Turkish judiciary system in the context of the lawsuits filed againts the monastery of St. Gabriel are the most important testimony for this.
The recent developments in the case of St. Gabriel remind us directly of the case of Hrant Dink, who was killed in 2006. Interestingly, in both cases the Turkish government took shelter under the pretext of "We cannot intervene in the judiciary" and "the judiciary makes its own independent decisions," hence sidelining the issues based on blatant unwillingness to solve the problem.
As pointed out by Professor Baskin Oran, who closely follows the case of St. Gabriel, the party representing the state treasury against the monastery is under the control of the government and is composed of appointed bureaucrats. If the Turkish government wanted to demonstrate a good faith approach, the problems that St. Gabriel monastery has been facing could easily be resolved. But the stance pursued by the Turkish executive powers with regards to this case reveals the existence of deep politics. While the Assyrians on the one hand are being punished with this case, on the other hand homage to a post-modern Turkish supremacy culture is dictated to them.
The punishment part of the job is related to the increasingly institutionalized genocide (Seyfo in Assyrian) recognition activities Assyrians in the Diaspora in recent years. This obviously creates discontent among Turkish ruling elites, a relationship many Assyrian activists have been pointing to. Through this case, the message is conveyed to the Assyrians is "Look, we are becoming a democracy, writing a new constitution. But you as a minority, however, you have to know your boundaries. Stop dealing with issues such as the genocide!"
If the Turkish government is willing to solve the historically shaped problems of minorities in a sincere manner, it needs to start taking positive steps in the aforementioned key cases and should regard improvements in how minorities are perceived as essential work of peace, reconciliation and democratization. Otherwise, everyone has the right to question whether anything has really changed in Turkey.
A videotour through the Syriac monastery Mor Gabriel in Miydat, Turkey.
Founded in 397, Mor Gabriel is the most vital Syriac Orthodox monastery in Turkey, with around fifteen nuns and two monks occupying separate wings, as well as a fluctuating number of local lay workers and guests from overseas. It is also the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Tur Abdin.
Mor Gabriel is the oldest Assyrian Orthodox monastery in the world. (Menekse Tokyay/SES Türkiye)
Turkey to return Mor Gabriel to Assyrians The decision by the government ends a five-year dispute over the historic religious site. by Zeynep Cermen for SES Türkiye in İstanbul -- October 11, 2013.
The Assembly of Foundations' agreement to return the lands of the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Assyrian Orthodox community ends five years of dispute.
"The bottom line is that it is very important for Assyrians to hear from the prime minister saying, 'We will mend the grievances of Assyrian people,'" Kuryakos Ergun, the head of Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation, told SES Türkiye. "That means Turkey accepts its unfair treatment."
Also known as Deyrulumur, the structure is the oldest standing Assyrian Orthodox monastery in the world. Built in 397 AC, it is in the Midyat district in the southeastern province of Mardin. Although the Assyrian community in Mardin has significantly diminished, the monastery is considered the "second Jerusalem" for Assyrians around the world.
In 2008, residents from Yayvantepe, Candarli and Eglence villages sued the monastery for occupying their fields. In 2011, the Turkish Supreme Court granted a substantial part of the monastery's 276 acres to the Turkish Treasury, ruling the land was state property.
The dispute has received international attention. Assyrians, upset with the Supreme Court's decision, threatened to take the issue to the European Courts of Human Rights.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said the land would be given back to the Mor Gabriel Foundation. In his statement, Erdogan said, "We will return an important right of our Assyrian community in this way, protecting their property rights."
The Mor Gabriel announcement was expected and came as the government announced its democratisation reform package in an effort to address Kurdish and minorities issue in general.
Turkey also is waiting for the EU's 2013 progress report, which is slated to be issued this month. The report is considered an important benchmark regarding the nation's efforts to join the EU.
Attila Sandıklı, an analyst and the founder of the Centre of Strategic Research of Wise Men (BILGESAM), said he believes Turkey will keep its promise of democratisation. He disagrees with those who doubt the sincerity of leadership's announcement.
"There is a widespread belief that the announcement came late. But the social structure doesn't go parallel with the speed of thought. It takes time to accept any changes in society," Sandikli told SES Türkiye. "But the government has realised that unless it opens the way for more democratic freedoms, bigger problems would arise within the society."
Sandikli also discounts assertions that the EU was behind the decision on Mor Gabriel.
"Although EU worked hard to solve the issue, I don't think that it was the driving force behind this decision. Nobody in Turkey believes that such kind of recoveries in democratisation of the country would facilitate the negotiation process with EU," he said.
Sandikli said the perspective on minorities and different ethnic identities in Turkey has changed. Instead of seeing minorities as a threat to national unity, the state considers minorities as a social wealth that creates energy, he said.
Sandikli said Turkey's motive to return the monastery's land is a desire to support a more stable and more peaceful society with its ethnically diverse citizens.
Ergun said Erdogan's announcement was a positive step solving the land dispute, but that there are many technical details to be addressed.
"We need more information, regarding when, where and how we are going to receive the official land certificates," he said.
Mor Gabriel is named for a 7th century bishop of the monastery known for his supernatural talents, such as healing. Assyrians believe that even after his death, Mor Gabriel continues to heal people through the soil over his grave under the monastery. People can visit his grave and touch the soil that covers it.
In Turkey there are an estimated 20,000 Assyrians, including about 5,000 in Mardin.
Thousands of people visit the monastery each year.
\ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)
1: an ancient empire of Ashur
2: a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern
Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)
a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of
its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender
4: a democratic state that believes in the freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the
principles of the United Nations Charter —
Ethnicity, Religion, Language
Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
\ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)
1: descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur
2: the Assyrians, although representing but one single
nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now
doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle
ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding
hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the
East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.
These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the
Christian Era. No one can coherently understand the Assyrians
as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church
from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly
difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for
in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control,
religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a
criterion of nationality.
the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya,
Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean,
Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu,
Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye,
Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. —
1: a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of
the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.
2: has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical
Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.