As an historic nuclear weapons treaty is reached, G20 leaders miss the mark on North Korea



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In North Korea’s eyes, its nuclear program is the only guarantee of regime survival.
Reuters/KCNA

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Over the weekend, more than 120 countries adopted a treaty at a UN conference that prohibits the production, stockpiling, use or threatened use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Australia was a notable absentee. So were the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons.

While the UN conference was taking a major step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, the US and its allies – notably Japan, South Korea and Australia – were hoping to use the G20 summit in Hamburg to focus attention on the danger North Korea’s nuclear ambitions pose.

However, the declaration issued at the end of the G20 does not even mention the issue. We can now expect a UN Security Council resolution that condemns North Korea’s latest missile test and applies slightly tougher sanctions.

The glaring contradiction between the boycott of the nuclear ban negotiations and the preoccupation with the North Korean nuclear threat does not seem to have dawned on the US and its allies.

Kim’s misguided provocation and Trump’s futile bluster

In North Korea’s eyes, its nuclear program is the only guarantee of regime survival.

North Korea’s apparently successful intercontinental ballistic missile test last week is widely seen, and portrayed by the regime itself, as part of a relentless drive to develop a reliable long-range nuclear weapon capable of striking the US.

The US responded to the latest test by declaring the policy of “strategic patience” is now over. In a speech delivered in Poland prior to the G20, US President Donald Trump warned he is considering “some pretty severe things” in response to North Korea’s “very, very bad behaviour”.

Donald Trump’s pre-G20 speech in Warsaw.

Yet America’s options are limited. In the first five months of his presidency, Trump’s strategy was to cajole China into taking a more confrontational stance with North Korea. But there are limits to what China is able or prepared to do.

Trump then intimated the use of tougher sanctions against North Korea, possible financial or trade sanctions against China for failing to do more, and even the direct use of military force.

However, resorting to these coercive tools is unlikely to have the desired result. History tells us harsh economic sanctions are often counter-productive. They impoverish economies, strengthen dictatorships, and drive dissent underground.

As for a military strike on North Korea, it could well lead the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to launch a devastating strike against America’s allies, – notably Japan and South Korea. This might include the use of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. Such a turn of events may even drag China into the conflict.

More promising is the policy of strategic caution advocated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, which they reiterated in their separate meetings with Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Both Russia and China argue North Korea can be persuaded to halt nuclear and missile tests if, in return, the US and South Korea suspend their joint military exercises. This would be a prelude to the resumption of talks involving the US and North Korea that could lead to undertakings for all sides to refrain from the use of force or other aggressive measures.

This more pragmatic stance is close to the position of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who argued in Hamburg that the focus should be kept on further sanctions and dialogue.

Why the treaty?

Nothing said at the G20 summit will resolve the North Korean crisis, for it is but a symptom of a deeper ailment.

The US and Russia, which between them account for 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons, are clearly intent on preserving and modernising their nuclear arsenals. They and other nuclear-armed countries have steadfastly resisted repeated calls for nuclear disarmament – even though Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires them to do just that.

The nuclear weapons treaty that has just emerged is a direct response to the morally and legally culpable inaction of the nuclear-armed countries – something the G20 summit did not and could not do.

Put simply, the treaty is a comprehensive effort to bring the rule of law to bear on all aspects of the nuclear assault on the planet. It designates a nuclear-weapon-free world as “a global public good of the highest order”, on which depend:

… human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.

The treaty’s provisions are robust and thorough. In addition to prohibiting production, possession and deployment, each party to it undertakes never to test, transfer or receive from any recipient any nuclear weapons or explosive devices, and never to assist anyone or receive assistance from anyone to engage in any such activity.

Countries are further prohibited from ever allowing nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to be stationed, installed, deployed or tested in their territory, or anywhere under their jurisdiction or control.

But there’s more to the treaty than this. It specifically acknowledges the unacceptable suffering and harm caused to the victims by nuclear weapons, as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons, in particular indigenous peoples.

The treaty also reinforces the legal obligation of relevant countries to provide appropriate remedies to the victims of nuclear testing, and effective repair of environmental damage.

Those who have been busy drafting and redrafting the treaty have taken great care to make room at a future date for those countries that have not participated in the negotiations – in particular nuclear-armed countries and their allies. A well-crafted set of procedures allows for the progressive, transparent and carefully verified dismantling of their nuclear activities.

Nothing said at the G20 summit will resolve the North Korean crisis.
Reuters/Kay Nietfield

Australia’s negative role

The dramatic events of the last week raise troubling questions for the future direction of Australian foreign policy. Why is it that Australia has been absent from the negotiations leading up to the adoption of this treaty?

More than that, why has it done all in its power to thwart the initiative?

The reasons are not hard to find. There is within Australia a firmly entrenched but dangerous mindset that America’s military might, including its nuclear arsenal, underwrites Australia’s national security.

The Australian government’s opposition to the nuclear ban treaty is the logical consequence of its subservience to US strategic objectives and priorities. It is the extension of longstanding policies that have led Australia to entanglement in protracted, costly and unwinnable wars – in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.

It is the result of Australia’s psychological insecurity, and the tendency of governments to try to demonstrate at every opportunity that we remain America’s most faithful ally.

Yet there are other options. Australia has much to gain from actively supporting efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, and from collaborating with like-minded countries and international organisations to develop an effective long-term nuclear disarmament agenda.

Such a process would create immense possibilities for easing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region – not just in the Korean peninsula, but in China-US and China-Japan relations, and in the South China Sea.

The ConversationPublic support for such a transition is greater than many would think. The nuclear ban treaty is the beginning, not the end.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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New tax treaty will close loopholes that allow multinationals to avoid tax


Miranda Stewart, Australian National University

Australia, with another 70 countries, has signed a multilateral treaty to create more coherence in fighting tax avoidance by large multinational corporations. The Multilateral Convention to Implement Treaty Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, or BEPS Convention, aims to close loopholes in the international tax system that result from differences in individual country tax systems.

Countries are fiercely protective of their own tax sovereignty and claim the right to set their own company tax rate and base. But this can result in lower company tax around the globe, as multinational enterprises can move capital investment to lower tax jurisdictions and take advantage of tax havens to reduce their global tax bill. This latest treaty will help to overcome this problem.

Since the global financial crisis, nearly a decade ago, the G20 countries have tried to reform international tax with a Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project. Australia has been a strong supporter of the BEPS project since it started, including as chair of the G20 in 2014.

This project resulted in 15 actions that were endorsed by the G20 in 2015. The signing of this tax treaty implements action number 15 to amend existing tax treaties to limit international tax planning.

The other BEPS actions aim to strengthen enforcement, remove inconsistencies in national tax rules, enforce disclosure of corporate tax profits in havens and encourage sharing of tax information between country revenue agencies.

Australia can’t go it alone on international tax

International tax cooperation remains critical and this BEPS Convention enables an anti-abuse framework to be embedded in Australia’s treaty network.

In the last century, countries around the world have negotiated bilateral tax treaties, producing a network of thousands of treaties. Australia alone has about 45 bilateral income tax treaties.

The main goal of bilateral tax treaties has been to prevent double taxation of international business where it operates in more than one country. But the terms of tax treaties can also be used to minimise tax. For example, a company may have significant business sales in a country – like Google in Australia – but under a treaty rule, it may not be treated as having a business presence there.

How does the BEPS Convention amend tax treaties?

Without this multilateral convention, it could take decades for countries to renegotiate these bilateral tax treaties. Where countries sign up, the new rules will take effect as soon as each country has ratified the convention.

The BEPS Convention is the first ever multilateral tax treaty that modifies substantive tax rules. Even the speed of signing the BEPS Convention is unprecedented: from treaty mandate to signature has been only 18 months. Most multilateral treaties take much longer, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been in negotiation for more than nine years (and may not ever be agreed).

A leading British tax lawyer observed that the BEPS Convention is “not tax peace in our time”. But it is still significant.

The convention inserts a new anti-abuse rule which states that tax treaties are not to be used to abuse national tax laws, if a taxpayer uses a treaty rule for the principal purpose of reducing its tax liability in a country. The convention will also make changes to prevent mismatches in treaty tax rules and to end the artificial avoidance of a business tax presence in a country, for example by using a separate company to do its operations under a contract.

To push governments to resolve tax disputes, the convention inserts an arbitration clause into treaties. If two countries cannot resolve a treaty dispute, then after two years (and if no court case is on foot), it will go automatically to an independent arbitrator who can make a decision that binds the governments and taxpayer. Its controversial and many countries may not agree to arbitration but Australia has signed up to it.

Australia has adopted most of the BEPS Convention measures, as being consistent with its current tax treaty policy. But many countries, including Australia, will need to enact domestic legislation to bring the convention into law.

Once countries sign up, the treaty changes will take place immediately – this could amend as many as 30 of Australia’s treaties.

The future international tax architecture – but without the US?

The BEPS Convention was signed by more than 70 countries. This includes leading signatories such as China, Germany (the current G20 Chair), the United Kingdom, France and Japan and also several low tax financial centres like Singapore and Ireland. But the United States did not sign.

The US failure to sign is hardly surprising. It comes one week after President Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s another example of the US retreating from multilateral cooperation on issues affecting all nations.

The US also did not sign the Tax Administrative Convention, now with 111 country members, which provides the legal basis for the country by country exchanges of information about global profits for billion dollar companies, including with the Australian Tax Office. Instead the US insisted on “going it alone” with its Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA regime, which demands foreign countries provide data on US citizens.

Many US tax treaty provisions are in line with the BEPS Convention. But surely that misses the point of multilateralism in tax or any other field of global concern. Instead, we see China is taking a leading role in multilateralism. It is unclear what the US stance will mean for international tax in the longer term. However, this treaty will give some help to other countries aiming to tax global profits of US multinationals, including Google, Apple and Uber, while those companies lobby for the US to reform its own company tax laws.

The ConversationThe pace of international tax change is usually glacial and most country co-operative efforts go nowhere. The BEPS Convention provides, for the first time, an international legal architecture for future multilateral tax reform.

Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s behind Timor-Leste terminating its maritime treaty with Australia


Rebecca Strating, La Trobe University

The government of Timor-Leste has officially notified Australia of its wish to terminate the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS). The treaty sets out the division of revenue from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, an estimated A$40
billion deposit in the Timor Sea.

The maritime border between Timor-Leste and Australia has been a source of contention over recent years. But the decision to terminate the treaty and begin negotiations anew could have serious ramifications for Timor-Leste’s economic development, given its dependence on the Timor Sea resources.

The CMATS treaty

The CMATS treaty was designed to enable the joint exploitation of the Greater Sunrise field. The treaty circumvented the competing border claims by placing a 50-year moratorium on negotiating maritime boundaries betweeen Australia and Timor-Leste.

The Sunrise International Unitisation Agreement, finalised in March 2003, agreed that 20.1% of Greater Sunrise was located in the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JDPA) established under the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty and 79.9% within Australia’s jurisdiction.

If the maritime border was drawn halfway between Australia and Timor-Leste, the oil and gas fields would fall completely within Timor-Leste. Under CMATS, however, Timor-Leste negotiated a 50:50 revenue-sharing arrangement.

Scrapping the CMATS

Timor-Leste has long considered this treaty invalid. In recent years, the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia have been unable to agree on how the Greater Sunrise gas should be processed.

In 2013, Timor-Leste initiated proceedings against Australia at an arbitral court (in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague) under the Timor Sea Treaty to invalidate CMATS. It did so on the grounds that Australia’s alleged spying on Timor-Leste’s negotiators in 2004 contravened the Treaty of Vienna requirement that treaties be negotiated in “good faith”.

Timor-Leste favours an export pipeline to its south coast to enable its ambitious petroleum industrialisation plans. In contrast, Australia supported the decision of the licensee consortium, headed by Woodside, that the export pipeline was not the best commercial option.

When the CMATS treaty was negotiated, these disagreements were put aside in order to reach an agreement. However, this just delayed the seemingly irreconcilable dispute about developing the field.

Sovereignty

Timor-Leste’s government has developed a narrative that maritime boundaries are necessary for completing its sovereignty. This narrative has linked the independence movement to the sea disputes in order to bolster public support against Australia. Consequently, the moratorium on forming permanent boundaries had increasingly become a problem in relations between Australia and Timor-Leste.

In 2015, Timor-Leste’s government initiated a United Nations Compulsory Conciliation under Annex V of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a bid to pressure Australia into changing its policies on Greater Sunrise.

Timor-Leste’s withdrawal from CMATS is not a surprise. In the opening statements of the conciliation process, Timor-Leste’s representatives flagged this as a likely action.

The careful wording of the joint statement makes it clear that the Australian government “recognises” Timor-Leste’s right to initiate the termination of the treaty. This does not suggest that Australia has substantially shifted its long-standing policies on the Timor Sea. However, the joint statement does indicate that the Australian government recognises that maintaining the CMATS treaty had become untenable.

Future negotiations

Terminating CMATS reflects a continuation of Timor-Leste’s high-stakes approach to Timor Sea diplomacy.

Negotiations on establishing a permanent maritime boundary will continue under the UN Compulsory Conciliation. This process is designed to help states resolve bilateral maritime disputes by providing recommendations from a panel of experts.

The Australian government has repeatedly emphasised the non-binding nature of these recommendations. While Australia has an obligation to negotiate in good faith, this does not mean it can be forced into agreeing to a maritime boundary. Negotiated boundaries still appear to be some way off.

Timor-Leste will be pushing for permanent maritime boundaries that will give Timor-Leste most, if not all, of Greater Sunrise in order to support its ambitious oil industrialisation plans.

Terminating the CMATS treaty ultimately means that the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia are back to square one in negotiations over Greater Sunrise.

The consequences

There are a number of potential consequences for Timor-Leste.

First, the revenues that flowed from the Joint Petroleum Development Area under the Timor Sea Treaty have provided approximately 90% of Timor-Leste’s state budget. The Bayu-Undan oil field is expected to be depleted by 2022 or 2023.

Without a source of revenue, Timor-Leste’s economy would be at serious risk of collapse: the A$16 billion petroleum fund could be depleted by 2025. The risk for Timor-Leste is that Australia will prolong boundary negotiations, putting more strain on its finances. Timor-Leste’s vulnerability increases as the window for resolving the dispute before oil revenues run out narrows.

Second, the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf claims of Timor-Leste and Australia overlap with those of Indonesia. While the spectre of Indonesia’s future involvement in the dispute is largely ignored in the media, it would be naïve to believe that Indonesia would not become a third claimant if the opportunity arose.

The Conversation

Rebecca Strating, Lecturer in Politics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church


Bengali-speaking settlers file case against Christians; one threatens, ‘I will finish your life.’

DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 1 (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh’s Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

“In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation,” said Chakma. “We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there.”

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

“It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies,” said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, “I can devour dozens of people like you – I will finish your life.”

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

“Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists,” said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians’ village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

“Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism,” he said. “The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us.”

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

“They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there,” he said.

Land Ownership

Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

“The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner’s office,” said Pal. “On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land.”

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

“I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them,” said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

“The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance,” said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

“Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government,” he said. “Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government.”

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: CHRISTIANS MAY APPEAL FINE FOR ‘ILLEGAL’ FUNDS


Converts accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’ fear ruling sets dangerous precedent.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Fearing that a court-ordered fine of two Turkish Christians here for “illegal collection of funds” would set a precedent crippling to churches, their lawyer plans to take the case to a European court.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul yesterday. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

“For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches,” said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, concurred that the case was worrisome for the country’s small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services by three plainclothes policemen waiting for Tastan at his church. Tastan and Topal were given a “penalty” sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of “insulting Turkishness,” the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

“They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country,” Tastan told Compass. “They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the gospel.”

Tastan has spoken publicly over his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities.

“This case is proof that Turkey’s legal system regarding human rights isn’t acting in a just and suitable way,” he said.

 

Difficult Circumstances

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey’s notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting “the Turkish nation.”

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case – originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government – focused on the two men’s missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team’s witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of “wrong interpretation” of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, Turkey’s basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built upon reciprocity with Greece’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a “lowest-common denominator” understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms, the report said.  

Report from Compass Direct News

TURKEY: ANCIENT MONASTERY THREATENED


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