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An inseparable pair: Mor Gabriel land and Aramean rights by Roberto Frifrini*

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Last November the monastery of Mor Gabriel suffered further defeat in an attempt for recognition of its rights. The Supreme Court of Appeals rejected a petition by the Mor Gabriel Foundation asking for a review of the judgment issued by the 20th chamber of the same court in June 2012. It seems the age-old struggle between Mor Gabriel and the Treasury has come to a dead end.

If viewed from a broader perspective, the court's decision leaves me speechless: It occurred during a time in which we see significant changes in the state's behavior towards minorities.

‘Becoming like Turkey'

In recent months two major events bear witness to this new focus on the issue of minorities: the so-called “Restitution Decree” of August 2011, and the discourse of President Abdullah Gül on Oct. 1, 2012 -- in my opinion the most important one, especially from a constitutional perspective. Speaking in Parliament on the opening day of the legislative year, President Gül highlighted Turkey's leading role in the region, stressing that every neighboring nation would like to become like Turkey. In his “Becoming like Turkey” speech, the head of state emphasized the Turkish model as an example of secular democracy, being respectful of all ethnic and religious groups in its territory -- a nation based on the inclusive concept of Turkish citizenship. The inaugural presidential address also stated the need for a "new citizenship contract" in the next constitution of the republic: a freedom-based constitution, respectful of the rights and freedoms of all citizens. This means that members of minority groups, including those who belong to ones not officially recognized, will finally enjoy their rights. A new presidential attitude, in stark contrast to that of former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Unfortunately, it seems the judicial branch doesn't agree with the government's behavior. The Mor Gabriel trial represents one of the clearest examples of this different attitude towards minorities. The quarrel started in 2008, and now it seems it has reached its epilogue -- a most controversial one. The monastery is one of the most important sites of worship for Aramean and now, due to the supreme court's decision, it is at risk of disappearance.

The battle against Mor Gabriel's land commenced when the neighboring villages unrightfully claimed monastery land. At that time, the court at Midyat -- the district in which the monastery is located -- stated that the religious foundation was the legitimate owner of the land in dispute. All the documents submitted to the court showed that the monastery, in complete accordance with the 1936 Declaration, and the tax records prior to Dec. 31, 1981, was the legal owner of the lands, having paid taxes since 1937.

Regrettably, this was a Pyrrhic victory. After the neighboring villagers, the minority foundation has had to defend its land against the demands of the Treasury, which claimed ownership of part of the land belonging to the community, under the pretense of the presented documents being invalid.

Following the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling, there only remains for the Arameans (Syriacs) the possibility of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Otherwise, they are in danger of completely losing the cradle of their civilization. First of all, they must bring the case to the Constitutional Court with individual applications, a mandatory appeal but probably unnecessary due to the unfriendly approach of the national judiciary towards religious minorities. Why such a different judgment by two branches of the same judiciary system?

It might seem like nonsense, but looking carefully at the history of the relationships between the supreme court and national minorities, we could solve the riddle and understand the discriminative behavior towards the Arameans.

To understand the present judgment of the court, we must look back at the historic verdict issued by the same appeals court against the Balıklı Rum Hastanesi Foundation, formed by Turkish citizens of Greek origin in 1974. In that judgment the appeals court published a verdict defining the members of the minority as non-Turkish people. Maybe this is the crux of the national attitude towards minorities. Despite the progress made by the government and the recent speech by President Gül, until members of national minorities are not seen as foreigners, as non-Turkish citizens, nothing will change.

Mor Gabriel: the need to exist

I visited the monastery of Mor Gabriel in September 2011 to prepare the final thesis of my internship period at the Human Rights Agenda Association (IHGD) in Ankara. By chance, the Mardin airport was closed for maintenance, and this closure transformed my journey to Mor Gabriel into a path of enlightenment, leading to the Aramean community in Diyarbakır, Mardin, Midyat, Mor Gabriel Monastery and some time before, as a tourist, İstanbul.

At every place I observed the daily life of the community, its interactions with other faiths and ethnicities, from a privileged perspective. Thanks to my studies, I immediately saw both sides of the coin. On the one hand, there were the official sources that described the minority as an isolated enclave, cut off from society. On the other hand, there were tangible testimonies and behaviors showing the connection of the Arameans with lands and people. In that journey I understood the real meaning of the battle over Mor Gabriel, the hope and pride of the Arameans in Turkey. Its legal defeat would represent a worsening of existing conditions of all members all over the country. Its victory would allow the community to live, finally, as a national minority, enjoying the rights provided for by the Lausanne Treaty, from which the Arameans were arbitrarily excluded.

In my opinion, the age-old debate is not just about the Arameans, but also concerns all national minorities as well as the essence of the Turkish state, the social fabric on which it was founded: the multiculturalism that puts the country in a privileged position compared to Western European states. A multiculturalism that Western Europe has been pursuing for years and of which Turkey may be the best example.

The full report, titled “Mor Gabriel Manastırı Under Siege,” is available at the Human Rights Agenda Association website: http://www.rightsagenda.org/

 Roberto Frifrini*

*Roberto Frifrini works for the Human Rights Agenda Association (IHGD).



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