The struggle between the Government and the High Judiciary has frightened everybody. This won’t be so anymore; they have reached an agreement now. Established in AD 397 in the district of Midyat there is the Mor Gabriel Monastery (Deyrulumur) of the Syriacs – the calmest and the most oppressed people of the Middle East. The Government and the High Judiciary have decided to get together to “Turkify” the lands which have belonged to Mor Gabriel for centuries.

The whole thing ended with me getting into trouble, though. I had written an article entitled “the Syriacs have had enough” in the 21 November 2008 issue of Radikal-2 [Sunday supplement of an important Turkish daily newspaper: ed.]; I had mocked the petitions of the Kurdish villagers of Midyat, who had undertaken the mission of occupying Syriac lands by then. I had done this because odd things were written in the petition: “We don’t claim that you should cut off the head of this bishop, but you should prevent his illegal occupation and looting.” Or: “The Christian clergy is here to agitate and provoke the public. They are engaging in all kinds of activity to harm the spirit of national unity and solidarity.” Whoa! So these Syriacs have not only apparently saved themselves from getting their heads cut off, they are also agitating the public. Or “Where have these priests come from? What kind of education are they getting there and for what purpose?” Whoa! This Monastery has been there for almost 17 centuries. Now I come to understand that the petition was not for nothing; the petitioners apparently knew well what they were doing. In fact, now, with all its grandeur, the State has made its entry onto the scene.

How the State confiscates

The number of court cases opened against the Syriacs – this people on the verge of disappearing from their ancient homeland in the Mardin-Midyat region (they now number no more then 3000) – is now approaching 300. The AKP government is blaming the EU on the one hand, saying, “We will not pull the plug out; you do it!”; on the other hand it is getting many government institutions to go to court against the 1,644-year old Mor Gabriel Monastery in order to destroy it, despite the fact that the whole world is watching closely. Do you know when this process speeded up? The moment that the Syriacs started to return from abroad and wanted to resettle back in their villages.

The State uses two methods: 1) According to the Court of Cassation interpretation of the Cadastral Law no. 3402 and the Forest Law no. 6831, arid land not used for agricultural purposes for more than 20 years becomes “State property.” 2) According to the Forest Law, land which looks green in aerial photography is registered by the State as forest. (For an example of this application see the case the Court of Cassation, 20th Civil Chamber, E. 2009/15971; K. 2009/18101; T. 07.12.2009). How many people, have you heard of, against whom these “Laws of the Turkish Republic” have been implemented so far? As a result of these Mor Gabriel is now struggling with 5 lawsuits:

1)    The two neighboring Kurdish villages of Yayvantepe and Eğlence litigate against the Monastery in 2008. The reason: “Our lands, when the Cadastre was here, were officially left within the territory of the village of Güngören, and thus of the Monastery.” The tribal chief of these two villages is Süleyman Çelebi, an AKP deputy for Mardin. This case ends with the Midyat Cadastral Court approving the decision of the Cadastre, that is, in favour of the Monastery.

2)    Upon this decision the villagers start occupying the land of the Monastery. The villagers of Güngören, the village within the administrative boundaries of which the Monastery stands, having had good relations with the Monastery for centuries, litigate to determine the administrative boundaries. They win at Midyat Court of First Instance. But, when the case goes to the Court of Cassation, the latter overrules it. Reason: “This lawsuit is within the jurisdiction of the administrative court; not within the jurisdiction of the general court”. The case is now to be sent to the Administrative Court. The best of luck!

If it is deserted, confiscate it; if it is green, still confiscate it

3)    There are 260 acres of land within and 60 acres of land immediately outside the outer walls of the Monastery. All of it has been in the possession of the Monastery for centuries. During the cadastral survey, these lands were registered as Treasury lands. The reason: “The land constitutes forest land.” The Monastery had once planted trees there, and as you know, forests belong to the State. Upon this, in October 2009, the Monastery Foundation litigates against Forest Administration at the Midyat Cadastral Court. Result: “Denied.” The reason: “In aerial photographs of the 1950s the land looks green.” The foundation appeals against this decision. The file is now at the Court of Cassation. The best of luck!

4)    Upon the complaints of village chiefs of Eğlence, Yayvantepe and Candarlı the Chief Prosecutor of Midyat starts a criminal lawsuit against Kuryakos Ergün, chairman of Mor Gabriel Foundation. Subject: “Illegal occupation of forest land.” The reason: “The Monastery’s outer wall is partially within this 276-acre area of forest land.” The old wall was reinforced when clashes in the region and attacks against the Monastery multiplied in the 90s. This case still continues, dependent upon the result of the lawsuit opened by the Foundation against the Forest Administration. If the Court of Cassation approves the decision of the Midyat Cadastral Court against the Foundation, K. Ergün will be penalized and the wall will be demolished.

5)    Most important of all: on 29 January 2009 the Treasury starts a lawsuit against the Foundation at the Midyat Cadastral Court. What it wants is the 12 plots, 244 acres, which were registered as Monastery land during the cadastral survey. The Court denies the case of the Treasury. The latter goes to the Court of Cassation which quashes the decision and asks for the land to be registered as belonging to the Treasury. The reason is very interesting: “According to the Cadastral Law Art. 14, when a plot of non-registered land is claimed by someone who can prove that he has been its de facto possessor for at least 20 years, this land cannot exceed 100 acres in dry places, whereas the land registered here is 244 acres.”

Does the Supreme Court Recognize Legal Documents?

I said “interesting” because Art. 14 continues: “In case one of the following documents is submitted, more than 100 acres can be registered.” The first document in the list is: “Tax records prior to 31 December 1981.” In accordance with the Land Registry Law the Monastery has been paying taxes on this land since 1st September 1937. Based on this very fact, the Midyat Cadastral Court decided in favour of the Monastery. But the Court of Cassation did not accept this as a document. Moreover, let me add this: The Monastery had mentioned this land in the well-known 1936 Declaration [for this concept see box at the end of this article: ed.] The present situation: the Monastery will apply to the same chamber of the Court of Cassation. The best of luck!

Our State does not even allow the Syriacs to benefit from the minority protection clauses of the Lausanne Treaty, just because these people are located in a distant corner of Anatolia. But the European Court of Human Rights does not differentiate between villagers and the people of the cities. Whatever it requires for the compensation of real estate in Beyoğlu [central Istanbul: ed.], it will require the same for the Monastery lands. This, of course, is of no concern either to the Government or the Court of Cassation, because the public will pay for it with their taxes. Good, but, what about the honour of our State?

My word to AKP: This time, it will be difficult to save yourselves by saying “There is nothing we can do about it; that’s what the High Judiciary has decided.” Who is in command of the Treasury, anyway?

My word to the State: Since 1915 capital accumulation in Turkey has been accomplished by “Turkifying” non-Muslim property. Are we still continuing? Haven’t we exhausted it all?

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Box – The 1936 Declaration

The Law on Foundations came into force in 1936 as a Republican reform law. The state called on each foundation to declare all real property in its possession. The purpose of the declaration (in fact a circular order) was to make arrangements that would deprive the Islamists of their financial means. But Atatürk died shortly thereafter, and the declaration fell into oblivion.

After 1972 the Directorate General of Foundations, as a means of pressuring Greece in the Cyprus affair, wanted to put pressure on Greek (Rum) Orthodox foundations and started calling on non-Muslim foundations to submit their founding charters. These foundations had no such charter, however, because they had been set up through imperial decrees during the Ottoman era. The Directorate General informed these foundations that the 1936 declaration would be accepted in lieu of a charter and started appropriating all real estate acquired after 1936. The legal justification for this was that the 1936 declaration did not indicate that these foundations could acquire new properties.

The argument that the 1936 declaration was merely a listing of all real property and therefore could not contain such a clause was to no avail, and all property acquired through purchase, donation, legacy, or other means and not listed in the declaration was expropriated. The property thus expropriated was returned, free of charge, to the sellers or their legal heirs or, in the event of their absence, to the Treasury. This violation of the Lausanne Treaty as well as of the right to property came to an end in 2003 with the promulgation of an EU Harmonization Package. Seizures were stopped, real estate buys were permitted, and confiscated real estate was planned to be returned to the owner foundations. But no solution had yet been found (by the end of 2010) for real estate sold to third parties, nor for properties already confiscated.

(Excerpt from: Baskin Oran, Turkish Foreign Policy 1919-2006, facts and analyses with documents, Utah, University of Utah Press, 2011).

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Baskin Oran
Professor Emeritus of International Relations, University of Ankara, Turkey