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Christians Urge Turkey to Protect Ancient Monastery

Ankara (Reuters) -- A leading Syriac Christian group urged Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday to protect a fifth-century Christian monastery in eastern Turkey from local officials claiming land the monastery has owned for centuries.

The dispute over the boundaries of Mor Gabriel, one of the world's oldest functioning Christian monasteries, has raised concerns over freedom of religion and human rights for non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country and European Union aspirant.

The row began when Turkish government land officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to update a national land registry.

The monks say the new boundaries turn over to the villages large plots of monastery land and some as public forest.

A court ruling on the case, which has become a rallying cry for Christian church groups across Europe, has been postponed several times, the last time until May 22.

In the letter, the Syriac Universal Alliance, a leading Syriac group based in Sweden, asked Erdoğan to protect the rights of Syriacs in Turkey.

"We strongly believe that a united approach to Aramaic rights in Turkey will result in a number of benefits -- not only for the Aramaic people, but also for Turkey," it said.

Syriacs are one of the oldest communities in Turkey and still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. But they are not officially designated a minority in Turkey like the Greeks or Armenians, so have no special protection under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne's provisions for non-Muslim minorities.

Erdoğan's ruling AK Party government has said it has expanded the rights of minorities. But the EU and U.S. President Barack Obama, during a trip to Turkey in April, have urged Ankara to do more to promote religious freedom.


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