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Assyrian Monastery Land Dispute a New Test on Turkey's Path to EU

The third hearing in a land dispute between the government and the Turkish Syriac community's Mor Gabriel Monastery took place yesterday in Midyat, Mardin province, attracting many international observers.

The case has led to the dissemination of anti-Syriac propaganda by villages neighboring the monastery, turning the dispute into a new test for minority rights and freedom of religion in Turkey, as the country works toward membership in the European Union.

The row began when Turkish government land officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to update the national land registry as part of a cadastre modernization project in compliance with EU instructions. 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. Christian groups believe officials want to ultimately stamp out the Syriac Orthodox monastery. Their allegations come as the EU has demanded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government do more to promote religious freedom along with its liberal economic and political reforms. Meanwhile, three neighboring villages, Çandarlı, Yayvantepe and Eğlence, have complained that the monks have engaged in "anti-Turkish activities" and alleged that they are illegally converting children to Christianity and that the Mor Gabriel Community Foundation settles wherever it chooses to without having the requisite permits and violates the Unity of Education Law. Villagers also have accused the monastery of taking land the villagers need for cattle.

Because of these allegations, the court hearing about the land dispute has garnered international attention. Yesterday's hearing was attended by many representatives from the European Syriac community, the European Commission and the Dutch, Finnish and Swedish embassies.

When the representatives walked into the small courtroom in Midyat, which in all likelihood had never before witnessed such a crowded hearing, locals complained that "because of the Europeans, they would not be able to find a place in the room."

Yılmaz Kerimo, a Swedish parliamentarian of Syriac origin who traveled to Midyat for the hearing, said they were not there to put pressure on the Turkish justice system but rather to observe Turkey's attitude as it seeks accession to the EU.

"Turkey wants to join the EU. We are here to observe Turkey's attitude on its way to the EU. We wish this court case had not started in the first place, but we hope it will end in accordance with the law," he said.

Ismail Erkal, the muhtar (village head) of Yayanvantepe, claimed that in the past, as a show of tolerance toward the minority community, they had let the monastery use the land currently in dispute, but that does not mean the land belongs to the Syriac community. "Having been here since ancient times does not prove that they own the land. There were many civilizations here. If their claims are reasonable, then we, as the grandchildren of the Ottoman Empire, could claim ownership of the land between here and Vienna," he suggested.

A legal source familiar with the case said the land dispute goes deeper. Members of the Syriac community who fled Turkey amid deadly clashes and security concerns during the 1990s have started to return and reclaim their former properties. There have been other court cases regarding private ownership of properties that were used by the other locals after the Syriacs left. Syriacs have won some cases, and the locals who were using their properties have begun to worry.

"Since then, the courts have received complaints about the Syriac community and their facilities. The courts decided there was no need for an investigation into the allegations. But when it turned into a land dispute, a court case was launched due to the demands of the Forestry Ministry. The core of the case is to determine whether the disputed land is forestland or not," he said.

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