A very timely story yesterday in the Wall Street Journal by Andrew Higgins about a land dispute between Syriac Orthodox monastery Mor Gabriel and Turkish authorities. Also yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a stop in Ankara, announced that President Obama will be visiting Turkey “in a month or so.” She said this toward the end of her public remarks:
I reiterate the Obama Administration’s support for Turkey’s membership in the European Union. The United States believes it will strengthen Turkey, Europe, and our transatlantic partnership. The United States continues to support the UN-sponsored talks now taking place to achieve a settlement of the Cyprus conflict based on reunification of the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. We talked about Turkey’s democracy, its multiethnic heritage, and in that context, I raised the importance that we place on reopening the Halki Seminary and efforts to reach out to all of Turkey’s communities.
For the Journal story about Mor Gabriel, Higgins interviewed Bishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas, abbot of the ancient monstery, who claims that the surrounding villagers and local government officials simply want the Christian community to “go away.”
Here’s a snippet from “Defending the Faith — Battle Over a Christian Monastery Tests Turkey’s Tolerance of Minorities” [registration required]:
A big obstacle is Turkey’s continuing tensions with its ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds, who account for more than 15% of the population and are battling for greater autonomy. Also fraught, but more under the radar, is the situation confronting members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the world’s oldest and most beleaguered Christian communities. The group’s fate is now seen as a test of Turkey’s ability to accommodate groups at odds with “Turkishness,” a legal concept of national identity that has at times been used to suppress minority groups.
The dispute over Mor Gabriel is being closely watched here and abroad. The EU and several embassies in Ankara sent observers to a court hearing in February, and a Swedish diplomat attended this week’s session. Protection of minority rights is a condition for entry into the EU.
Founded in 397, Mor Gabriel is one of the world’s oldest functioning monasteries. Viewed by Syriacs as a “second Jerusalem,” it sits atop a hill overlooking now solidly Muslim lands. It has just three monks and 14 nuns. It also has 12,000 ancient corpses buried in a basement crypt.
The Mor Gabriel situation has much in common with the “problems faced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.” There is the ongoing issue surrounding the closure of the Theological School at Halki, but also property issues. Turkish authorities, for example, do not allow the Ecumenical Patriarchate to have any property rights in Turkey and therefore it cannot own or purchase any property. None of the churches under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey are owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
How high will the problem of Turkey’s religious minorities be on Obama’s agenda when he visits Turkey? That’s hard to say at this point, but a story in today’s Washington Post points to what may perhaps be the most important work for the visit:
By concluding a European trip with a stop in Turkey, Obama is seeking to highlight its importance as a growing market, military ally and key player in securing oil and future natural gas from the Caspian region, administration officials and outside analysts said.
The administration has great interest in the development of a natural-gas pipeline that would follow roughly the same route as an oil pipeline now running from the Caspian region through Turkey. In a statement issued with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Clinton reiterated the administration’s desire to “enhance energy security and to expand the Southern corridor” for natural gas and oil delivery.
This will be a good early test under a new administration for the Greek lobby, particularly the Obamakis and Bidenopoulos crowd, that so warmly welcomed the election of Barack Obama. Will the president, for example, get the Turks moving on a Cyprus resolution that will please the Greek lobby? Or the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has built such intimate ties with the archdiocese? Or will the president be more interested in cutting new oil and gas deals?
According to Hurriyet, there is already one “incident” that won’t likely be on the agenda:
Diplomatic sources said the efforts to have the U.S. Congress recognize the Armenian claims regarding the 1915 incidents were not discussed in the meeting. Analysts say the planned visit of Obama, just ahead of the presidential statement regarding the 1915 incidents, signals that the new president will refrain from labeling the incidents as “genocide.”