TURKEY: 1700-year old Syriac Orthodox Church in Merdo (Mardin) put up for sale, Syriacs outraged over simple sale of cultural heritage

MERDO / MARDIN, Turkey: A fourth century Syriac Orthodox church has been put up for sale by the deed owner like any other given secular building. The historical Syriac Orthodox Church of Mor Yuhanon (St. John), in the Teker neighborhood of Merdo, has been in use as a warehouse for the last couple of years. The church is registered as a cultural asset since 2009 and, according to local media reports, contains two tombs of Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs. The designation as a cultural asset means the owner is not allowed to make modifications to the structure of the building but can sell it.

Archbishop of Mardin Saliba Özmen, residing in the Mor Hananyo or Deyr al-Zzafaran Monastery, requested the relevant institutions to step in; “This church has been used as a warehouse for a long time. Regardless, this place should remain a Church. It is sad that this place is put up for sale. We want the building to be transferred to the Mardin Deyr al-Zafaran Foundation. If we had the power to buy, we would, but we cannot buy it. We hope the relevant institutions will take precautions for this,” he said.

Several Syriac religious and cultural organizations have complained to the appropriate authorities and want the Mor Yuhanon Church be put under a Syriac ‘Vakif’ or Religious or Cultural Foundation.

It is the second time the owner is trying to sell the property. In earlier responses, the Diyarbakır Directorate Foundations Protection Board said it cannot ban a sale. It can only occur if structural changes have been made to the building. This time too the Protection Board said it can not ban a sale, but said it doesn’t consider the sale of cultural assets this way correct. The first time the owner tried to sell it was in 2015. Erol Dora, Syriac Member of Turkish Parliament for Merdo (Mardin) from 2012-2018, asked parliamentary questions at the time to the Minister of Culture and Tourism about the unjust and negligent attitude of Turkish authorities with regards to the protection of historical Christian buildings. Where authorities have the duty to protect, preserve, and ensure historical heritage is passed on to next generations, the sacred sites of Christian worship are neglected and passed on as simple property, he said.

How, when, and under what conditions the deed were passed on to a private individual is not known. Erol Dora also asked in 2015 whether the competent authorities would return the hundreds of churches or historical buildings belonging to Syriacs, Armenians, and Greeks whose title deeds had been passed on for various reasons to the Treasury or individuals.

There are only some few dozen Syriac families left in Merdo (Mardin). After the Sayfo Genocide of 1915, the remaining Syriacs left Merdo in the following decades. They settled mostly in Istanbul and emigrated from there to North America and Europe. They left behind their cultural and religious buildings. Turkey is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries. Many of them have fallen into ruins.

The estimated remaining Christians in Turkey (population 82 million) is not known, Syriacs in the homeland of Tur Abdin do not exceed 2 thousand and in Istanbul there are about 20 thousand Syriacs – the majority of whom originate from Merdo (Mardin).