The Mongolians failed to destroy it 700 years ago despite the massacre of 40 friars and 400 Christians. Yet the existence of the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world, the fifth century Mor Gabriel Monastery in the Tur Abdin plane (the mountain of God’s servants) near the Turkish-Syrian border, is at risk after a ruling by Turkey’s highest appeals court in Ankara.
Founded in 397 by the monks Samuel and Simon, Mor Gabriel in eastern Anatolia has been the heart of the Orthodox Syrian community for centuries. Syriacs hail from a branch of Middle Eastern Christianity and are one of the oldest communities in Turkey.
Today the monastery is inhabited by Mor Timotheus Samuel Aktash, 3 monks, 11 nuns and 35 boys who are learning the monastery’s teachings, the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and the Orthodox Syriac tradition.
Although the monastery is situated in an area at the centre of conflicts between Kurdish separatist with the armed PKK group and the Turkish army, Mor Gabriel welcomes 20,000 pilgrims every year.
The Syriac Orthodox community – estimated to be 2.5 million across the world – is under the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch and considers the monastery a ‘second Jerusalem’.
The monastery’s reputation 1500 years ago was such that Roman Emperors Arcadius, Theodosius and Onorio built new buildings around it and enriched it with art and mosaics. But in the past 150 years Mor Gabriel has gone through a decline after the massacres of Christians by nationalists at the end of the 19th century – 3,000 Christians were burnt to death in Edessa’s Cathedral in 1895 – and clashes between Turks and Kurds in the area during World War I.
In the mid 1960s the community in Tur Abdin numbered 130,000.
Today only 3,500 people are left and the ‘second Jerusalem’ is in danger. The heads of the three neighbouring Muslim villages, Kurds with the Belebi tribe, filed a lawsuit against the monastery years ago with the support of an MP member of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Under the lawsuit, the Syriacs are accused of practicing ‘anti-Turkish activities’ by providing an education to young people, including non Christians, and of illegally occupying land which belongs to the neighbouring villages.
After a number of contrasting verdicts, the highest appeals court in Ankara, which is close to the government, has ruled in favour of the village chiefs and said the land which has been part of the monastery for 1,600 years is not its property, Turkish newspaper Zaman reported.
The lawsuit also claimed that the sanctuary was built over the ruins of a mosque, forgetting that Mohammed was born 170 years after its foundation.
The verdict has been slammed by the Turkish media and Zaman wrote that the judges had ‘lost’ property and fiscal documents ‘proving that the land in question belongs to the monastery’.
Mor Gabriel now needs to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in order to survive, a move already undertaken with success a few years ago by the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople to re-obtain the building housing the Orthodox orphanage of Buyukada in Istanbul.