ANKARA -- One of the world's oldest Christian monasteries, located near Turkey's border with Syria, will be visited next week by a group of German lawmakers seeking to monitor progress in an ongoing land dispute.
The visit demonstrates the German interest to make sure religious freedoms and minority rights are fully safeguarded by the Turkish government which aspires to join the European Union. The boundaries around Mor Gabriel and its surrounding villages were redrawn last year as part of an effort to update the national land registry. The foundation operating the monastery has petitioned the court to have the new boundaries re-examined, saying that they take large plots of land for which the monastery has been paying tax since 1938 and turn them over to the villages. Officials from the three neighboring villages argue that the monks hold more land than any other place of worship in the world.
Critics of the villagers' position say the land dispute is rooted in the return of migrant Assyrians to their former lands in Turkey. Assyrian Christians began emigrating from Turkey and other countries in the region to Europe some three decades ago, with close to 80,000 of them settling in Sweden. Recent democratic reforms in Turkey have prompted some to return home.
EU monitors the court case
The court proceedings in the town of Midyat, home to around 3,000 Assyrians, are being closely followed by the European Union and its member states, as evidenced by the German delegation's visit. "It is up to the Turkish authorities to make a decision," an anonymous source said. "The EU only wants to see that the procedures are fair and that minority rights and freedoms are thoroughly protected."
After spending a few days in Istanbul, the German members of the Bundestag's Commission on Culture and Media will hold talks Thursday in Ankara before traveling to the monastery. Eckart Cuntz, the German ambassador to Ankara, visited the region in December. If all domestic legal means are exhausted, the Assyrians plan to apply to the European Court of Human Rights.