Syriac Cleric Highlights Danger to Christian Site in Turkey

Timotheos Samuel Aktas, the Metropolitian of Tur Abdin in Turkey, has written a report complaining that the ancient monastery of St. Gabriel, in Midyat, has been the victim of false accusations:

Upon reviewing the petition submitted on 20.08.2008 to Midyat Public Prosecution Office by the Mayors (Muhtars) of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Çandarl? villages… it has been falsely claimed that Mor Gabriel Monastery have cut oak trees by occupying the forest land. Further to this…are a series of unfounded and wild allegations that Mor Gabriel Monastery Community Foundation has: occupied the forest land; settled on such land as an occupant without having any permits; conducted missionary activities through children between ages 10-12; that no identity declaration was made regarding such children; the Mor Gabriel Monastery building owned by the Community Foundation is a historical 10 museum and therefore required to have permission for prayer; children undergo religious education in the Monastery and anti-Turkish activities are carried out; the Community Foundation acts in contrary to Unity of Education Law; monks and metropolitans of the monastery are trying to destroy national unity and incite people to insurgency; the Community Foundation receives funds with from doubtful origins; and, that the bank accounts of the Community Foundation should be confiscated. All the allegations are frivolous and vexatious; devoid of any logic or evidence, solely aimed with the malicious intent of rousing anti-Christian sentiments by the surrounding Moslem villages.

Aktas (who was formerly himself aboot of the monastery) also complains that the villages are encroaching on monastery land. The AINA newsagency adds the detail that the Mayors are Kurdish, although Aktas himself doesn’t make that distinction.

The monastery of St. Gabriel was founded in 397. A 1990 visit by Rev Dale Jones is described here, and gives some interesting details:

Compared with the showcase of Deyr-az-Zaferan, Mar Gabriel is a working community set amongst gardens and orchards, and somewhat disfigured by a 1960s-vintage hostelry. The monastery’s primary purpose is to keep Syrian Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling, ordination of native-born monks, and – if necessary – physical protection to the faithful. You visit for the opportunity to gain some insight into the church – provided by an informative pamphlet in English – and secondarily to stay at night, for which you need to ask permission. This will be readily granted late in the day, since the heavy steel gates of what in effect is a fortress are locked tightly at sunset, not opening until dawn except for life-or-death emergencies. The high walls of the compound have retained their medieval function as barriers to marauders, since the Syrian Orthodox communities of the Turabdin live in fear of attacks from both the PKK and Islamic fanatics; the bishop receives regular phone calls from villagers requesting guidance as to how to respond to the latest provocation.

Other travellers have also visited; William Dalrymple (1) was guided around the site by a novice a few years ago; the novice, Yacoub, explained that in previous centuries the monks had fought with local villagers in order to protect their holy relics, and that that may be why the monastery can only boast the arm of St. Gabriel, rather than the entire body:

‘Do the villagers still take an interest in your relics?’ I asked.

‘Certainly,’ said Yacoub. ‘And not just the Christians: we get Muslims and even Yezidis…coming here to pray to our saints. Many of the Muslims in the region are descended from Suriani Christians who converted to Islam centuries ago. They go to the mosque, and listen to the imams – but if ever they are in real trouble they still come here.

Dust from the arm’s grave is supposed to be particularly effective. There is also a Shrine of St John the Arab:

‘This is his tomb.’ said Yacoub. ‘Or rather it is the tomb of his torso.’

‘The villagers have been at your bones again?’

‘No. The nuns this time.’

The current threat to the site was also highlighted by the European Syriac Union in September:

This attempt of occupying the historical lands of St. Gabriel Monastery is a joint and organized effort by the Arab and Kurdish residents of the surrounding villages together with the Kurdish Aghas as well as the state-sponsored village guards. However, their real ambition is to occupy all the lands and properties of the historical Monastery of St. Gabriel so that they could abolish the most important Christianity centre in the region.

…The continuous attacks against the St. Gabriel Monastery have become a systematic campaign since 1980s. And since mid 1980s, the St. Gabriel Monastery has been subject to the force of the state authorities. In 1997 the then government of Turkey banned the Syriac language education in the St. Gabriel Monastery. And now in 2005 and in 2008 the land of St. Gabriel Monastery is being subject to occupation.

It is incomprehensible that Turkey as an applicant state in the process of negotiations to join the European Union cannot protect its native citizens against such attempt of occupation, because they are members of different faith (Christians), especially when these attempts are being carried out by the state-sponsored village guards.


(1) William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East, HarperCollins, 1997, p. 102.

One Response

  1. Fascinating piece, the idea of nun’s scrapping over body parts is a little disturbing…

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