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.