ISTANBUL - A land dispute over an ancient monastery in the southeastern city of Mardin is a test for Turkey's ability to accommodate groups at odds with "Turkishness," the Wall Street Journal said in a front-page article yesterday.
The boundaries around Mor Gabriel, one of the world's oldest Christian monasteries, which is located near Turkey's border with Syria, 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 on 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.
A test on minority policies
"The trial comes at a critical stage in Turkey's 22-year drive to join the European Union," the article said. "A big obstacle is Turkey's continuing tensions with its ethnic minorities... [and the fate of the members of the Syriac Orthodox Church] is now seen as a test of Turkey's ability to accommodate groups at odds with 'Turkishness,' a legal concept of national identity that has at times been used to suppress minority groups."
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.
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.