Demonstrations are being held in many European countries to save the monastery of Mor Gabriel, a spiritual center for the Syriac Orthodox community in Turkey.
Founded in 397, it is the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world. It is located on the plateau of Tur Abdin, "The Mountain of the Servants of God," on the Turkish border with Iraq. The see of the metropolitan archbishop of Tur Abdin, Mor Timotheus Samuel Aktas, with its three monks, 14 nuns, and 35 young people who live and study there, it is a religious and cultural point of reference for all Syriac Orthodox Christians, who still preserve ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Every year it welcomes more than ten thousand tourists and pilgrims, many of them Syriacs of the diaspora in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Now, however, the future of the monastery and the Christian minority is threatened by a series of lawsuits against the monks and the prestigious religious institution. In August of 2008, the leaders of three Muslim villages around the monastery accused the community of proselytism, for having students to whom they can hand down the Christian faith and the Aramaic language. Their case has not yet been accepted by the Turkish court. But the village leaders are also asking that the monastery's land be appropriated and divided among the villages; that a wall be knocked down that was built during the 1990's (when the monastery was on the front of the conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish communist party (PKK)). According to the Muslim leaders, there used to be a mosque on the land where the monastery was built. "The accusation is absurd," says David Gelen, leader of the Aramaic Foundation, "the monastery dates from 397 A.D., about 200 years before the prophet Mohammed and the construction of any mosque whatsoever. And yet the court has considered hearing the case."
Gelen says that he thinks a "campaign of intimidation" is underway against the religious of the monastery. "Bishop, monks, and nuns," Gelen continues, "are always threatened in the most direct way possible by the inhabitants of the village, and they do not dare present themselves at trial or defend themselves in some way. So for some time, the monks and nuns have not had the courage to leave the confines of the property."
"In Turkey," Gelen explains, "freedom of religious expression is guaranteed by the constitution; but those who are not recognized as a minority do not exist, in practical terms. Now the Syriacs, unlike the Greeks and Armenians, are not recognized as a religious minority, although they have been living there for millennia. The purpose of the threats and the lawsuit seems to be to repress this minority and expel it from Turkey, as if it were a foreign object."
The Syriac community has high hopes in the European Union, which on February 11 is supposed to address together with the Turkish government the question of religious freedom and human rights for the non-Muslim minorities present in the country. "We hope not only that our rights will be recognized," David Gelen says, "but we are convinced that for the Turkish state, the time has come to recognize, accept, and protect the cultural multiplicity of the country, instead of fighting it. Turkey must decide whether it wants to preserve a 1,600-year-old culture, or annihilate the last remains of a non-Muslim tradition. What is at stake is the multiculturalism that has always characterized this nation, since the time of the Ottoman Empire."
Since 1923, when the Turkish state was created, the Syriac Orthodox have been dispersed in four countries: Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran. Yasar Ravi, president of the Syriac Orthodox community of Antioch, notes that the Treaty of Lausanne guaranteed certain essential freedoms for this minority, but "things have gone differently."
Since that time, there has been a constant exodus of the community toward central and northern Europe, especially Germany (where there are 20,000 Syriacs) and Sweden (70-80,000). In the middle of the 1960's, there were still about 130,000 of them in Tur Abdin; today there are just 3,000.
"We have no territory, we are scattered throughout the world, but we are very united thanks to our linguistic, social, and cultural identity," Yasar Ravi continues. "As history teaches us, religion has always had a dominant role in civilization. Ours is without doubt a very religious people, and we are proud of speaking the language of Jesus: the language that, in terms of its diffusion, was essentially the English of the Middle East."