Monastery case set to test Turkey on religious liberty

A land dispute involving a Christian monastery near the Turkish-Syrian border is being watched across the EU as a test of Turkey’s commitment to religious freedom.

The nation has so far been blocked from joining the European Union over concerns about its record on human rights for non-Muslim minorities.

According to the Reuters news agency, critics say the monastery dispute is the latest chapter in a long history of persecution of the Christian community by the Turkish state and its majority Muslim population.

The row began last year when land officials from the Turkish Government redrew the boundaries of the Mor Gabriel monastery, which dates back to the fifth century.

Christian groups say land has been taken from the monastery. They claim some of the land has been turned over to local villages and some land has been designated a public forest.

A court is set to rule on the dispute on 11 February.

Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim but the nation’s constitution says the Government should be strictly secular.

The case follows pressure from the EU on the governing AK Party, which has Islamist roots, to do more to promote religious freedom alongside its liberal economic and political reforms.

“This case relates to the political criteria Turkey has to meet to become a member of the European Union,” said Helena Storm, First Secretary of the Swedish embassy in Ankara, who has travelled to the monastery to follow court hearings.

“It is important that freedom of religion and property rights for minorities are respected in Turkey,” she said.

A local prosecutor in August 2008 initiated a separate court case against the monastery after mayors of three villages complained the monks were engaged in “anti-Turkish activities” and alleged they were illegally converting children to the Christian faith.

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