Some 100 Syriac Christian properties including monasteries, churches and cemeteries have been liquidated and transferred to the Treasury: Two functioning monasteries and lands adjacent to the 4th-century Mor Gabriel Monastery belonging to Turkey’s oldest indigenous culture. Monks at the monastery still speak the Aramaic dialect closest to that spoken by Jesus.
According to the Turkish government, this systematic expropriation of allegedly “lapsed” title deeds began in recent years because of reformed land registry laws and the reorganization of municipalities within the Mardin province.
Reportedly, these new statutes give the state a legal pretext to either force the Syriac community to lease back their own church properties from the government or worse, stand by while the state sells them outright to someone else.
The Mardin Governorate’s original court order transferring the Syriac deeds to the Religious Affairs Directorate was dated 12 August 2014. The Syriac church was not informed of this judicial action. In fact, church leaders only learned of the extent of these newly disclosed expropriations less than a month ago.
In a front-page story on 23 June, the weekly Agos newspaper reported that the state Treasury had recently transferred the deeds of many Syriac properties to the Religious Affairs Directorate, which regulates all Muslim religious facilities and practices in Turkey. The official state institution has no jurisdiction over non-Muslim communities.
Inquiries of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation revealed that dozens of churches and monasteries had been transferred to the Treasury first and then allocated to the Diyane (the Muslim directorate). And the cemeteries have been transferred to the Metropolitan Municipality of Mardin.
The Foundation of Mor Gabriel Monastery filed a court case at the Civil Court of First Instance in Mardin against the registration of title deed records in the name of Treasury. In the petition it is noted that since ancient times, the properties have been under the possession and ownership of the Foundation and the Mor Gabriel Monastery “dates back to the 4th century BC. The Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world which is still active and is one of the most ancient religious centers of Syriacs and the entire world with its history of more than 1600 years.”
The petition refers to the Lausanne Treaty, which is the treaty that ended WW I, established the Republic of Turkey and provided for the protection of the Greek Orthodox Christian minority in Turkey states: According to Article 42/3 of the Lausanne Treaty the Turkish Government undertakes to grant full protection to the churches, synagogues, cemeteries, and other religious establishments of [non-Muslims]. All facilities and authorisation will be granted to the pious foundations, and to the religious and charitable institutions of the said minorities at present existing in Turkey, and the Turkish Government will not refuse, for the formation of new religious and charitable institutions, any of the necessary facilities which are granted to other private institutions of that nature.”
According to Article 37 of the Lausanne Treaty, Turkey undertakes that the stipulations contained in Articles 38 to 44 shall be recognized as fundamental laws, and that no law, no regulation, nor official action shall conflict or interfere with these stipulation's, nor shall any law, regulation, nor official action prevail over them.
The Mardin Governorate has now reversed its decision to give the Christian properties over to the control of the Diyane, putting the disputed properties back again under Treasury control.
An ethnic community whose ancestral roots date to the Assyrian civilization, Syriac Christians numbered several hundred thousand under the Ottoman Empire before the mass murders and deportations in which some 1.5 million Syriac and Armenian Christians died during World War I.
Over the past few decades, most of the 70,000 Syriacs who were living in southeastern Turkey fled to escape the deadly fighting between government and Kurdish rebel forces that erupted in 1984. It is estimated that only 2,500 Syriac Christians still live in the region.