Turkey seizes 50 churches and monasteries from Syriac Orthodox communities

Turkish authorities have reportedly seized around 50 churches, monasteries, and other Syriac Orthodox Christian properties in the country's southeastern region, sparking fears that the indigenous culture will soon become extinct.

(REUTERS / Murad Sezer)Local and foreign visitors, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in the background, stroll at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul August 23, 2013.

In May, a government commission tasked with liquidating assets denied an appeal filed by the fifth-century Mor Gabriel monastery against the confiscation. Dozens of churches, monasteries, and other church properties in southeastern Turkey were seized on the grounds that the Syriac Orthodox Church's ownership deeds had already lapsed, according to community leaders, Al-Monitor reported.

Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation chairman Kuryakos Ergun expressed concern over the effect of the confiscation of properties on the survival of the Syriac culture. He said the country should be the one to protect and not endanger this heritage.

"Our churches and monasteries are what root Syriacs in these lands; our existence relies on them. They are our history and what sustains our culture," said Ergun. "While the country should be protecting this heritage, we instead see our culture is at risk."

The seizure of Syriac churches and properties has earned condemnation from the Assyrian Confederation of Europe. The organization criticized the move as a serious violation of the Syriac people's cultural rights, SBS detailed.

In addition, the confederation urged the Turkish government to implement measures that exempt Assyrian religious properties from municipal reforms. It also warned that it would elevate the case to the European Court of Human Rights if the government does not do anything to address the problem.

Syriacs, or Assyrians, trace their roots to the historical Mesopotamian civilization in 3500 BC. Many of them use Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ spoke. For years, they lived on properties with titles listed in the national land registry, but their ability to own property was canceled when their villages were made part of the city of Mardin in 2012, according to Syrian Christian lawmaker Erol Dora.

In 2016, the liquidation commission started transferring Syriac properties to state institution assets. However, Dora said the Syriac churches and cemeteries should have been turned over to Mor Gabriel. In light of the situation, the lawmaker passed a parliamentary question to Turkey's prime minister in a bid to find a solution to what he sees as the country's failure to protect minorities' rights.