Southeast Turkey Monastery Mor Gabriel Must Survive

Serbastian de Courtois writes that more steps must be taken to save Mor Gabriel, a fourth-century monastery in southeastern Turkey that he stumbled upon years ago, from government meddling.

al-monitor A part of the ancient monastery of Mor Gabriel, 15 km (9 miles) away from the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey January 13, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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Dec 19, 2012

My first visit to eastern Turkey was in the spring of 1998. I was traveling with a friend around Lake Van. On my way back to Istanbul, I was supposed to take a flight from Diyarbakir airport. However, the cab driver accidentally took me to Midyat. Hence, I accidentally discovered the Syriac villages and the monasteries of Tur Abdin mountain near the town of Midyat in southeast Turkey.

I have always had a passion for Turkey and its people. Each and every year I visit this land, which is very rich in terms of history and architecture, with joy. Yet the place I love most is the Syriac monastery of Mor Gabriel.

This place is beyond time, isolated from the outside world. Foreigners are not allowed to sleep there. In fact, they have to leave their passports at the nearest military outpost. When I got there, the monastery was almost empty. There were only a bishop and two priests, along with a few rare visitors. It was like a ghost monastery.

During the 1990s, Christian villages of the region were abandoned. People preferred to leave rather than facing the cruel consequences of insecurity. More than 30 Christians were killed in that region due to religious or political zealotry, and nobody was charged or arrested. Christians began to emigrate. The houses of those who left were illegally occupied. Only the Mor Gabriel monastery remained standing to continue a tradition that started in the mid-fourth century.

However, the monastery has been facing severe difficulties since 2008, targeted by a secret accord based on political and religious interests. It is now under heavy pressure under the pretext of taxation on the few measly hectares of land it owns.

The monastery has been protected since 1937 by a legal provision implemented thanks to the intervention of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since then, the monastery has been regularly paying the taxes for the land it owns. Now, the land on which the monastery stands has come under dispute. However, the controversy around this land is meaningless, because it has no strategic importance or value apart from its historical significance to Christians. Anatolia is vast. Why on earth is there this obsession with this tiny piece of land? This monastery stands as a symbol of the level of democracy and respect for the rights of minorities in Turkey.

Why is Turkey forcing a small minority it has vowed to protect to leave? Who is behind the dark designs against them? Who wants to close down one of the last remaining monasteries of Turkey? If this monastery is closed down, this will have a devastating impact on Turkey's image. The dignity of Turkish citizens will be stained by bad governance and a leadership which fails to take necessary measures to protect this monastery despite all the promises it made. The promise of the founder of the Turkish Republic was broken by those who have no respect for history. The monastery has had a difficult time during its legal struggle. Mor Gabriel must be allowed to exist freely.

This is not negotiable.

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