Assyrian monastery pawn in Turkey’s sectarian struggles

The Assyrian International News Agency reports Kurdish village leaders, in league with local bosses of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), are waging a “lawful means” campaign to confiscate the lands of the Assyrian monastery of St. Gabriel, founded in 397 CE, in the eastern Turkish city of Midyat. Timotheos Samuel Aktas, the Metropolitian of Tur Abdin, charges that the Kurdish mayors of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Çandarlı villages “falsely claimed” in a petition to judicial authorities that Mor Gabriel Monastery has illegally encroached upon village woodlands and cut oak trees. The monastery is also accused of illegally conducting missionary activity among local Muslim youth.

Aktas (formerly abbot of the monastery) reverses the charges, accusing the villages of encroaching upon the monastery’s lands. His report, titled “The Imminent Problems Facing the Syriac monastery of Mor Gabriel in Midyat, Turkey,” says the frivolous lawsuits are a means to harass the monastery and its inhabitants. It also says the next court hearing in the case is to be held on Christmas Eve—an example of how Turkish courts “knowingly disrespect Christmas Eve and schedule hearings on that day.”

There have also apparently been threats of violence. A joint press release issued by the Assyrian Democratic Organization, Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Alliance and Syrian Orthodox Church of Göteborg, on Nov. 26, stated “the head of the village Yayvantepe threatened to burn the monastery and raze it to the ground in front of the military personnel and the state prosecutor,” with impunity.

The monastery, which is said to be the resting place of the arm of St. Gabriel, is a point of pilgrimage not only for Christians but for also for Muslims and Yazidis. Dust from the arm’s grave is said to have curative properties, and there is also a Shrine of St. John the Arab. (Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, Dec. 5; AINA, Dec. 2)

This is a sad case of divide-and-rule—the Kurds and Assyrians, both traditionally oppressed or marginalized by the Turkish state, being played against each other. We also imagine that the AKP’s Islamo-puritans are none too happy about Muslims revering the Christian shrine and placing faith in sacred dust, with overtones of paganism and idolatry.

See our last posts on Turkey, the Assyrians, and the struggle for Kurdistan.