Muslims’ legal action against 1,600-year-old structure called ‘malicious.’

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass Direct News) – Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say a land dispute over the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery is part of a larger system of discrimination against the religious minority in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Muslim residents of southeastern Turkey dispute the boundary lines of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the fourth century as being unnecessarily large for the needs of a religious community. Islamic village leaders from Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli are attempting to confiscate one-third of the monastery’s property, claiming it was wrongfully appropriated and that they need it for their livestock.

Area Muslims also say the land in question is forest and thereby registered as land belonging to the State Treasury.

“Our land is being occupied by the monastery,” said Ismail Erlal, village leader of Yayvantepe, according to Cihan News Agency. “We make use of the forest there and pasture our animals; we won’t give up our rights.”

Among the most contentious issues are the monastery walls built around its perimeter, rebuilt 15 years ago. Village leaders complain in a lawsuit to obtain the land that the monastery has gone beyond its rightful bounds. In August the land survey office of Midyat said it had determined that 270 hectares of the monastery’s 760 hectares were government property, including land inside and outside the monastery’s walls.

A court in Mardin originally scheduled a hearing for Friday (Jan. 16) to determine the legal status of the monastery walls, but it was rescheduled to Feb. 11 to allow the court more time to examine the case. At the February hearing the court will determine if the 270 hectares of land belong to the government or the monastery.

Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas, leader of the monastery, answered in a report that the monastery has the right to leave its land uncultivated and has paid taxes on the property since 1937.

The state originally charged the monastery with being founded illegally, but it dropped those charges by canceling a hearing originally schedule for Dec. 24. Rudi Sumer, the attorney representing the monastery, said that the claim was groundless since the monastery has foundation status dating back to modern Turkey’s origins, not to mention centuries of existence beforehand.

The mayors of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli also charged the monastery with attempting to proselytize young children (illegal in Turkey) and carrying out “anti-Turkish” activity.

Metropolitan Aktas said in a report that these claims were groundless and of the same provocative nature that has historically sparked violence against Turkey’s Christians.

“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 Muslim villages,” he said.


Europe Watching

Mor Gabriel Monastery, founded in 397, is the most revered monastery for Syrian Orthodox Christians. It is inhabited by 15 nuns and two monks and is the seat of Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin Diocese.

In recent decades the monastery has turned into a religious and social center for the country’s remaining Syriacs by offering schooling to children and teaching their ancient language of Syriac, a variant of the language spoken by Jesus.

“The monastery is everything for us,” said a Syrian Orthodox Christian who grew up in Turkey’s southeast. He added that many families in the area had named their children after Mor Gabriel. “Syriacs would give up everything for the monastery.”

An international outcry from the European Parliament and numerous Assyrian organizations throughout Europe arose in response to the charges, according to the Assyrian International News Agency. A member of the German consulate said his country would monitor the case closely, as Turkey is attempting to join the European Union and its human rights record has come under close scrutiny.

Many Syrian Orthodox Christians have left southeast Turkey in the last 30 years as violence escalated between the military and Kurdish terrorists. In the last five years, however, some Syriacs have begun returning home – only to find their property occupied by others.

Residents who fled Mardin province in the mid-1980s returned to find two of their village’s Syriac churches converted into mosques. And the demographic shift from Syriacs to Kurds has increased pressure on the monastery.

“Turkey must protect its Assyrian community,” said Swedish parliamentarian Yilmaz Kerim to the Hurriyet Daily News. He visited the monastery as part of a delegation in December. “There are only 3,000 left in Midyat.”

The lawsuit has the support of a local parliamentarian who claims Christians relished their opportunity to leave Turkey. Süleyman Çelebi, member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Syrian Orthodox Christians had never come under pressure, despite their claim that they were exploited, and even emigrated away from Turkey “with joy” in previous decades.

The three villages that brought the lawsuit against the monastery overwhelmingly supported the Islamic-rooted AKP in last year’s national elections. Çelebi claims that the official boundaries of the monastery were established in Ottoman times but not properly observed by the Syriac Christians.

According to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Turkey grants full protection to churches, synagogues and other religious establishments to freely practice their own religions. But this treaty only designated Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, creating complications for groups such as the Syrian Orthodox and Protestants to open schools and churches.

Syriac Christians claim to be one of the first people to accept Christianity in the Middle East. Their historic homeland stretches through southeastern Turkey, but their numbers have dwindled to 15,000 following decades of government pressure and fallout from war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Lawyers try to put financial pressure on husband to secure 13-year-old girl’s release.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – After a judge yesterday placed new financial and social pressure on the captors of a Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and converted to Islam, attorneys have guarded optimism they can return her to custody of her Christian parents.

Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz ordered the girl’s husband, Amjad Ali, to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,275) and allow her parents visitation rights, two actions required by typical Pakistani marriage protocol. At press time he had done neither.

The judge gave Saba Masih, 13, the opportunity to talk with her family during yesterday’s hearing, but she remained mostly silent behind her veil, offering only blunt replies.

“I don’t want to see my parents. They are Christians and I am a Muslim,” she said, according to her parents’ attorney.

Her younger sister Aneela Masih, who was also kidnapped but returned to her family three months ago, pleaded with her older sister to return home. The 10-year-old told her that Christmas was coming and she didn’t want her sister to spend it with those “who are not our people.”

Saba Masih appeared at the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court yesterday along with her Muslim husband and his family. Her parents filed a contempt petition last month against her captors for failing to follow Pakistani marriage protocol.

Islamic law (sharia), however, gives a wife the right to relinquish a dowry. Lawyers said they fear that the Muslim family will pressure Saba Masih to claim this right in order to offset growing financial pressure.

Lawyers hope that if her mother can visit her, it will convince her to leave her husband and come home to the family; her family believes he has threatened her with violence if she attempts to rejoin them.

At Monday’s hearing, Saba Masih still appeared reluctant to return to her family. Relatives said they were praying that she would change her mind and that the captors would lose their influence over her.

“The main thing is Saba must be ready herself to come back,” said her uncle, Khalid Raheel, the family spokesman. “But she isn’t ready to come back yet, and I don’t know how they are convincing her.”

On Wednesday (Dec. 17) the judge is expected to adjourn the case and issue a deed requiring Ali to pay the dowry at the convenience of the Masih family. The judge yesterday threatened Ali with prison time if he failed to carry out this order.

Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said the attorneys might try to use Aneela Masih’s testimony of kidnapping to take the case to the Supreme Court if other options fail.


Prostitution Business

The Christian family’s lawyer said the attempt to force Ali to pay a dowry was a tactic to mount financial pressure on Saba Masih’s husband and to convince her to return home. Her family and their lawyers believe she has stayed with her Muslim husband because he and his family have issued death threats.

The Christian family’s chances of winning run against the judicial status quo for Pakistani religious minorities, but the new push comes after a Sept. 9 ruling that returned Aneela Masih to her parents, a rare legal victory for non-Muslims.

“We filed this [contempt] petition so she would come into the court, see her family and hopefully change her statement,” said Durrani of CLAAS. “We also want to put pressure on the Muslim family members because they are afraid of litigation, since they have to pay all these legal expenses.”

Aneela and Saba Masih were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa and three others kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. The girls’ first defense attorney believed they could have been raped and sold to a brothel.

Ironically, attorneys said, the kidnappers’ alleged desire to exploit Saba Masih may now be the best hope of her returning to her parents, as keeping her has become not lucrative but increasingly costly with court hearings continuing and legal fees multiplying.

“These [kidnappers] don’t have an emotional link to Saba,” Durrani told Compass by phone. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business.”

Prosecuting attorneys said they have a growing optimism that they can regain custody of Saba Masih, something they thought unlikely two months ago.


Long, Hard Battle

In previous hearings, a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistan marriage law requires the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

The judge determined that her age was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board pressured by Muslim groups to inflate her age. He did not accept as evidence her birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13.

Younis Masih and his wife first saw their daughters after their kidnapping at a July hearing. The girls were in the company of 16 Muslims and were said to be under pressure to claim they had converted to Islam.

After Aneela Masih returned to her family in September, she claimed that their captors threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them.

Previously it had been reported that she was raped while in captivity, but there was no medical evidence that she was sexually abused or manhandled, lawyers said.

Her sister appears to be suffering, Durrani said.

“The family has told us that Saba Masih is not in good condition – most of the time she cries and is not satisfied there,” Durrani said.


Recurrent Problem

Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon. Many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s influence by sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society.

Every year there are cases of Pakistani Christian children kidnapped, killed or exploited by those who believe their parents are powerless.

Last month a Muslim family in Nankan kidnapped the 7-year-old son of Pakistani Christian Binyamin Yusef, 30, over a land dispute. Two days later police found his son’s body, which showed signs of torture and rape.

Police did not register the case when Yusef initially approached them. CLAAS representatives hope to open court action against the alleged perpetrators.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Another inflammatory funeral procession planned for Sunday, in spite of ban.

BHUBANESWAR, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Asserting that most area Hindus are tolerant and peaceable, victims of ongoing anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa blamed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other extremist groups for the terror of the past two weeks.

“The mobs that attacked our parishes and institutions were largely composed of extremists from the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Behrampore Catholic diocese.

At least four parishes, a presbytery and a youth hostel were destroyed in Munniguda town in Rayagada district under the Behrampore diocese in the spate of violence that began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23. Christian leaders say more than 100 lives have been lost and thousands of houses, churches and institutions damaged or destroyed in the violence.

The state government attributed the assassination of the VHP leader and his associates to Maoists who have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.

Asked if he condemned the violence on Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not.

“You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said.

While the Global Council of Indian Christians says more than 100 people have been killed in the violence, the Kandhamal District Collector’s Office told Compass that the death toll is only 14 people. The office reports 22,685 people are in relief camps in Kandhamal. The same office has also reported that 2,400 buildings have been destroyed in the mayhem, though Christian leaders believe the total is much higher.


Hindus Protected Christians

Father Mathew Puthyadam, a Catholic priest in Phulbani town in Kandhamal district, told Compass that local Hindu families gave him shelter.

As mob of around 4,000 people was carrying the body of Saraswati in a procession outside his church on the night of August 24, he said, he first sought shelter with Christians.

“When the mob was destroying my parish [Christ the King Church], I went to the house of parish workers nearby and hid in a broken bathroom,” Fr. Puthyadam said. “The mob somehow came to know that the house belonged to Christians, and they launched an attack on it. They beat up the two boys who live there, but they managed to escape. Thankfully, they did not come to the bathroom.”

About an hour after the mob left, Fr. Puthyadam came out to the street to see if it was safe for him to leave.

“A Hindu lady told me some extremists were still roaming around,” he said. “She asked me to hide in her kitchen and gave me food to eat.”

Later, Fr. Puthyadam fled to a forest, and finally came to the Archbishop’s House in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

“Many among the mob were goons and thieves who were seemingly led by extremist groups,” he recalled, saying he felt he had gotten a “second life” as he could have been killed.

Another priest who managed to reach Bhubaneswar after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal district praised local Hindu families for protecting him.

“On the evening of August 25, a mob of 300 people who were armed with pistols, chisels and sticks, started burning houses and churches,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, a Catholic priest. “We could see thick smoke rising from all around. But Hindu families in the village asked Fr. Prabodha Kumar, my associate, and I to hide in their homes.”

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier of the Indian Army, told Compass that VHP supporters attacked Christian houses in his village of Gadragaon in the Rupagaon area of Kandhamal.

“We know the attackers – they are from the VHP,” he said. “We have named them in our police complaint.”

Pradhan and 113 others reached Bhubaneswar on August 28 after walking for four days from Gadragaon. The homeless Christians were given shelter in a YMCA center in the capital city.


Creating a Rift

Some Orissa locals believe the extremists meant to create a rift between Christian missionaries and lower-caste tribal peoples known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs).

Prabhu Kalyan Mahapatra, a local Hindu and freelance journalist, told Compass that he did not think the violence was the result of what media are portraying as a Hindu-Christian “clash.”

In Kandhamal, there are OBCs who are lower castes but not “outcasts,” Mahapatra said, noting that the OBCs were mainly traders, while Dalits and tribal peoples were laborers and the poorest of the poor. He said the OBCs exploited Dalit and tribal people.

“However, Christian missionaries provided education to Dalits and tribals, which was not liked by the OBCs for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing out that several people from Dalit and tribal backgrounds had risen to become bureaucrats and members of parliament because of education provided by Christian institutions. “And the VHP took advantage of the situation and created a rift between OBCs and Christian missionaries.”

Mahapatra said that locals’ tolerance for Christian converts made Hindu-Christian conflict an unlikely reason for the violence. A Christian convert, Madhusudan Das, was recognized by the people of all local communities as the “father of modern Orissa,” he said.

Das, a lawyer, social reformer and patriot, worked for the political, social and economical uplift of people of eastern India, especially Orissa, and contributed numerous articles and poems both in Oriya and English.

“If the people of these communities respect a convert [Das], how can you say the Hindus of Orissa are not tolerant?” he asked.

Mahapatra explained how the VHP extended Saraswati’s funeral procession to incite violence.

“The funeral was taken from Saraswati’s ashram [religious center] in Jalespeta to his other ashram in Chakapada in Kandhamal, covering around 134 kilometers, when the distance between the two ashrams is merely 70 kilometers,” he said.

The attacks on Christians began during the funeral procession, he added.


New Tensions Feared

The Orissa government yesterday put a ban on rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in another public procession throughout Orissa villages beginning on Sunday (September 7), according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India. The state government, however, fears fresh trouble on Sunday, as it is believed that the VHP may still go ahead with the processions.

“The state government has decided to rush additional force to the riot-affected areas in view of VHP’s proposed ‘kalas puja’ [worship of the remains of a deceased] of slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati,” reported The Indian Express newspaper today.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, mobs led by extremist groups are “roaming in Kandhamal and threatening the Christians to ‘reconvert’ or face death.”

Christians from various denominations will fast and pray for the Christians in Orissa on Sunday.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.

Report from Compass Direct News