ANKARA -- A Swedish parliament deputy of Assyrian origin will attend a hearing Friday for a land dispute between a 1,600-year-old monastery and locals in the southeastern Anatolian town of Midyat, populated by about 3,000 Assyrians.
'Assyrians part of Turkey' "I hope a fair verdict will be delivered and the case will be resolved within Turkey's legal system, so that the country's image is not harmed in Europe," Yılmaz Kerimo told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a telephone interview.
Kerimo has served in Sweden's parliament for 10 years. He is from Midyat and moved to Sweden three decades ago.
The land dispute has been brought by local officials of three nearby villages who contest the borders of the monastery, which they argue are bigger than any place of worship in the world. Concerned by the re-drawn borders following land surveying proceedings in the area, officials from the monastery foundation applied to the court, saying they are not occupiers as they've been paying tax for the land since 1938.
"Our goal is not to denigrate Turkey. On the contrary, we want to see the country in the EU. The monastery has been there for centuries. The Assyrians peacefully live in the region without engaging in any terrorist activity. I cannot understand why the group is branded as occupiers," Kerimo told the Daily News.
More Assyrians claimed to return home
The land dispute is rooted in uneasiness about the return of migrant Assyrians to their former lands in Turkey, according to some Assyrian groups. Kerimo said their migration to Europe started 30 years ago but democratic reforms in Turkey over the last five years have prompted some to return home, leading to land disputes.
"Some of the Assyrian land was occupied [by the locals] and ended up in courts. Turkey must protect its Assyrian community. There are only 3,000 left in Midyat. Assyrians are a richness of Turkey and part of its mosaic," he said.
The EU is closely monitoring the situation for religious groups in Turkey. A draft report of the European Parliament drew adverse reactions from Ankara when it referred to an alleged "genocide" of the Assyrians, but that was later removed. "The Assyrians are non-Muslims but they are considered neither a minority nor Turk. In other words, the Assyrians were caught in the middle. An Armenian or a Jew has the right to education and religion but not an Assyrian," said Kerimo. Jews, Greeks and Armenians are the only recognized minority groups spelled out in the Lausanne Treaty, the founding agreement of the Turkish Republic.