FaithWorld

Behind the walls, an ancient monastery in a changing Turkey

January 22, 2009

Dressed in black robes and headcaps, the monks at the ancient Syriac Christian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in southeast Turkey sat gravely for dinner one recent cold night. Led by their bishop, they said their prayers in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and ate their meal of meat and rice in sepulchral silence, the clinking of forks and spoons resonating in the bare white room.

On the face of it, little has changed in a life of meditation and prayer at the Mor Gabriel Monastery since it was built in AD 397; but the monks feel the cares of a changing Turkey, beyond their walls, weighing upon them. A land dispute between neighbouring villages and Mor Gabriel is threatening the future of one of the world’s oldest monasteries, and a Reuters multimedia team had travelled to the remote monastery to cover the row.

Once supper was over, they said prayers again and we filed into an adjacent room, where the monks started conversing about Turkey’s rocky path to join the European Union and “Ergenekon”, a shadowy group suspected of plotting a coup in a case that has consumed media attention in faraway Ankara and Istanbul. In the words of Saliba Ozmen, the bishop of the city of Mardin, Turkey is changing and even the Syriac monks of southeast Turkey can feel its ripple effects.

The Mor Gabriel row has placed under the spotlight freedom of religion and other rights for non-Muslim minorities. The case also crystallises what many here view as a battle for the soul of modern Turkey — a clash between the authoritarian and stony Turkish state that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and an increasingly vibrant, diverse and democratic society striving to rid itself of the strictures of the Kemalist national and world view.

Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim though its constitution is secular, a “laïcisme à la turque” understood more as the submission of mosque to state. In practice, Turkey’s Christians, who include Syriacs, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics, have long suffered discrimination at the hands of the state.

At the same time, the ruling AK Party, which draws its constituency from the pious Anatolian heartland, has incurred the wrath of the secular establishment for what critics say is a hidden campaign to Islamise the country of 70 million. Recent battles over attempts to lift the Muslim headscarf at universities sparked a debate over public space of religion.

Some speak of the need to reinvent the state as Turkey becomes more democratic with EU-linked reforms. Founder Kemal Ataturk’s slogan of “Happy is he who can call himself a Turk” — which for decades has summoned the notion of a single Turk nationhood — lives alongside an increasingly assertive Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian and Christian identity.

Bishop Ozmen said he saw no clash between Muslims and Christians in Turkey despite the Mor Gabriel land dispute and a spate of violent attacks against Christians over several years. “Turkey is changing and those who resist change are feeling the pain of change,” the soft-spoken Ozmen said at his residence in the monastery of Deyrulzafaran, Saffron Monastery in Arabic. “Multiculturalism is our best guarantee for the future.”

(Reuters photos of Mor Gabriel by Umit Bektas)

Comments
10 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It is no surprise that Christians are an oppressed minority in Turkey. Wherever the majority are muslims, minorities are ALWAYS discriminated against.

There is no single muslim majority country that provides full and equal rights to non-muslims.

At the same time muslims enjoy far better rights and treatment in most non muslim majority states. In fact, they have far more chances for advancement and success in non muslim countries than in thier own homelands. This is why millions of mulsims while being critical and hateful of the west live there.

Posted by M.Mathew | Report as abusive
 

M.Mathew your comment is derogatory and off-base. Please prove your vague thesis with an example. Like the muslims in Israel, do you know how many muslims there are in israeli parliament? Do you know or did you even care to search in internet about how many jews in irani or turkish parliament? If you can be objective enough please check the christians and jews under muslim rule in jerusalem and the christian rule in jerusalem. Is there a single mosque in Switzerland??? Why arent there???

Posted by Alper | Report as abusive
 

Actually, it’s a tribute to Islamic law that a Syriac monastery exists at all. Like the Coptic Church in Eqypt –to which about 10% of the Egyptian population still belongs– the Orthodox Catholic [Imperial] Church considered them heretics and persecuted them. Like Jews, as “people of The Book,” these Christians were allowed to live in their own communities –whether monastic or secular– and follow their own laws in dealings amongst themselves. That’s why today ancient Churches like the Copts, Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian and other ancient Christian populations exist only in lands ruled or formerly ruled by Islamic law.

Try getting that kind of tolerance from Christian history, or in modern times, from Kemalist Turkey or any other so-called free, democratic State in the West. Govern yourself?!! Hell no! “The State” must control everyone!

Posted by John | Report as abusive
 

The article says “In practice, Turkey’s Christians, who include Syriacs, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics, have long suffered discrimination at the hands of the state.” I do not know what discrimination you are talking about. On the contrary, Jews or Christians have been living in Turkey in peace for over years. There are a lot of churches in Istanbul that Christians can practice at. Muslims, Jews, Christians live together. Yes, there are people that may not like non-muslims but those kind of intolerant people are present in every society. Any evidence of discrimination rather than just words?

Posted by Zeynep | Report as abusive
 

I lived in kAnkara,Turkey from 1959 to 1963. During that time I never witnessed a Turk pray or a Imam’s call to prayer. Turkey was a truely secular state at that time.

However the Turkish government would not the Americans to build a church. We had to pray in a movie theater. There was a large article in the Wall Street Journala few years ago commenting on the Turkish government’s refusal to permit christians to build churchs in Turkey. Christian missionaries in Turkey were harassed, threatened, and beaten.

I have represented a nonprofit Turkish group here in the U.S. I am an attorney. Rather than being secular in outlook they demanded that I provide halal food when I went camping with my Turkish clients. They seemed disinclined to associat with Americans except when necessary and did not seem interested in integrating with American culture.
What happened to secular Turkey???????????

A pox on religion.

Kimo

Posted by Kimo Smith | Report as abusive
 

Minorities are ALWAYS discriminated against under muslim majority rule. At best they were/are treated as DHIMMIS.

Examples? I’m surprised such a question is even asked. Just open any international newspaper or news website any day and plenty of examples of islamic violence or intolerance can be seen. Historically and in modern times islam has ALWAYS been intolerant.

What about the millions killed in Jihad in Sudan against the “infidel” south? The recent massacares of Christians in Iraq? The massacare of the Armenians by Turkey. How did the great mosque in Istanbul previously known as Haga Sophia become a mosque? How are Ahmadias treated in Bangladesh? How do Sunnis and Shias treat each other? What about the routine killing of people who convert out of islam in the islamic world? How are Hindus treated in islamic pakistan, while muslims of Hindu majority India are able to achieve any position that they want? How were Pakistan and Bangladesh created? Through peaceful means? Bombing of Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.How are “kufurs”, their religious symbols, holy books etc.. treated in the birth place of islam – Saudi Arabia. SA is a country where even privately practising any other religion other than islam gets you thrown in prison, lashed and deported.

What are the laws of building and maintenance of non muslim places of worship in islamic countries inclduing Egypt, modern “moderate” Malaysia? How many islamic countires allow people of other faiths to propogate their religion? If caught doing so, what is their treatemnt? Millions of more examples can be given.

Contrary to Dar Al Islam, in most of the Dar Al Harb muslims are allowed to build grand houses of worship,practice and propogate thier religion freely and achieve whatever they want.

Islamic tolerance exists ony for blind followers and naive non muslims.

Of course, a no. of islamic apologists will write back justifying and accusing in turn and not admitting anything. But those who pretend to sleep can never be awakened.

Posted by M.Mathew | Report as abusive
 

“They seemed disinclined to associat with Americans except when necessary and did not seem interested in integrating with American culture.
What happened to secular Turkey???????????”

Posted by Kimo Smith

Many countires (particularily Muslim countries who have always had a thriving and succesfull culture) don’t want to follow the example of American culture as it is seen as moraly corrupt and leading to the eventual loss of social order, yet Americans (and many westerners) seem to beleieve American culture is the only true ‘civilised’ way of living and those who do not adhere are ignorant and hateful.

Yet muslims are called intolerent and forceful in imposing their thinking by large parts of the west with absolute disregard for history and even common sense, anyone see the irony?

The ‘Islamic’ culture is ‘a way of life’ and unlike many other cultures will not easily be assimilated, Turkey being a prime example of ‘modern secular’ values eventualy being rejected by the majority even after having lived that way for nearly a century. Importantly as pointed out by a poster above the very fact that ancient ‘christian’ and ‘jewish’ communities/cultures/sects still exist in many muslim countries is proof enough of tolerence, infact much of the intolerence present in muslim countries today has in fact been imported from the west along with ‘american culture’.

Posted by Ali | Report as abusive
 

Christians are an oppressed minority in Turkey. This is the case for centuries. The Syriac Christian population of Tur Abdin in modern-day southeastern Turkey was massacred by Ottoman (Turkish and Kurdish) forces between 1914 and 1920 under the regime of the Young Turks. It is widely acknowledged to have been one of the first modern, systematic genocides, as many Western sources point to the sheer scale of the death toll as evidence for a systematic, organized plan to eliminate the Christians in Turkey. Other Christian groups were similarly attacked by the Ottoman forces during this period, including Armenians and Greeks. Scholars have placed the number of Christian victims at 2 millions. This genocide has been official recognized by many countries like Sweden, Germany and France.

Posted by Johnny | Report as abusive
 

To think or write or speak of this article, without the first line being, leave the “Dressed in black robes and headcaps, the monks at the ancient Syriac Christian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in southeast Turkey”
to themselves.

What has been writn is not a comment at all if this is not the first thought you have.

NO CLASH, NO CLASH_How does this happen without the interaction of the Spirit That IS Holy?

Bishop Ozmen said he saw no clash between Muslims and Christians in Turkey despite the Mor Gabriel land dispute and a spate of violent attacks against Christians over several years. “Turkey is changing and those who resist change are feeling the pain of change,” the soft-spoken Ozmen said at his residence in the monastery of Deyrulzafaran, Saffron Monastery in Arabic. “Multiculturalism is our best guarantee for the future.”

Posted by Nemo | Report as abusive
 

What has been writn is not a comment at all if this is not the first thought you have.

Correction

What has been written is not a comment at all if this is not the first thought you have.

The Spirit That IS Holy, in all religions G_D is thought of first. Do not forget this.

Posted by Nemo | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/