With tears in my eyes, I read the public apology of Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, a Greek Orthodox Christian citizen of Turkey, to the Greeks of the diaspora and to Cypriot Hellenism. Has anyone considered how Archbishop Elpidophoros, with his ecumenical vision, felt when he was blessing the “Turkish House” in New York, standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, only last July, had re-converted the Haghia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople into a mosque?
Has anyone realised the fortitude of Archbishop Elpidophoros as he attended the ceremony with the sole purpose of reminding us that the flame of the Phanar (i.e. the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) is still burning, emitting strength and hope as one of the last symbols of Greek Orthodox Christianity in Turkey? The “so-called” Cyprus problem cannot be solved by co-mingling the global with the local, but by elevating it to an international level. After all, that “problem” stems from systemic forms of segregation resulting in the infliction of discrimination, the commission of unpunished international crimes and the perpetration of ongoing violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms.
What I have to say is this:
I salute Archbishop Elpidophoros for being thoroughly Ecumenical.
Since the time of the Ottoman Empire to this day, all us Greeks have been brought up amid the fear and trauma generated by the Turks. The Turkish invasion and ongoing occupation of Cyprus as well as repeated provocations in the Aegean keep reminding us that Turkey’s expansionist policy has remained unaltered. Nevertheless, we too are impervious to history: we don’t seem to realize that Turkey’s greatest weapon against us is discord between Greeks and Christians in general.
During the Ottoman period, the Turks used clerics for purposes of tax collecting and, being aware of the close ties between the people and the Church, the Turks had no qualms about hanging them in plain view in order to belittle, terrify and scorn the Greeks.
I have had the great honour of being acquainted with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I have worked with experts of international acclaim to promote the work of “The Green Patriarch”, to try and offset the oppression suffered by Christians in Constantinople in the face of the insufferably hostile, divisive attitude of the Turkish authorities against non-Muslim minorities.
A strategy focused on the protection of the environment was cleverly designed in a way that enabled the Patriarch to demonstrate that, yes, Constantinople was conquered by the Turks, but the Phanar is still flickering there.
Soon thereafter, I located stolen treasures that belonged to Mount Athos and to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That was the first time I was given the opportunity to co-operate with Elpidophoros. Back then, I saw the nobility of his soul, his assertiveness, but, above all, his low profile that has helped him achieve a great many things behind the scenes.
Each time Cyprus was in the throes of adversity, the Greeks of Turkey paid the price. During the pogrom of September 1955, the Turkish mob attacked and pillaged Greek property, looting Greek churches and raping Greek women. Nobody has asked the President of the Republic of Cyprus to apologize for the sufferings of the Greeks in Constantinople.
The Greeks of Constantinople have always stood in support of the campaigns of the Greeks of Cyprus. Greeks in Constantinople have brought a suit against Turkey and they are waging long-term struggles to open the Theological School of Halki.
Consecrated church items in Turkey have either been destroyed or stolen and sold to international art traffickers. I have worked with Elpidophoros when he served as Secretary of the Holy Synod and was pleasantly surprised to observe the gracious manner of the Greeks of Turkey. At the same time, I was taken aback by how little of their great works are known to the rest of the Greeks; the oppression, persecution and deprivation at the hands of the Turks goes largely unnoticed.
Elpidophoros went on to become Metropolitan of Bursa. You must not think that the Phanar is a palatial edifice like the Archbishopric and the Bishoprics of Cyprus. When one converses with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who can speak six languages, one becomes aware of his high religious and moral standing. He is a profoundly educated man, like Elpidophoros, but as they are citizens of Turkey, they live in fear of the Turks, in conditions of continuous oppression.
Soon after Elpidophoros rose to the rank of Metropolitan of Bursa, he became cognizant of Turkish plans to convert a church into a nightclub, and decided to collect money to avert such action. I suggested he wrote a letter to the wealthy Church of Cyprus, headed by the current Archbishop Chrysostom, to request financial aid.
Instead of being given aid, Elpidophoros was snubbed by the Church of Cyprus. I was embarrassed, as I was the one who had suggested that he should appeal to his Cypriot brothers. In the end, a monk gave Elpidophoros the necessary money and so the church escaped ruin. Elpidophoros went on to restore it, humbly and discreetly, as befits a proper cleric.
I was recently in Armenia, following an invitation by the Catholicos of All Armenians to speak at a conference on peace and religious freedoms. There, I drew a parallel between what is happening now regarding the attempted Islamization of the Turkish-occupied areas of Cyprus, and what is taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh. There, the Azeris, encouraged by Turkey, are eliminating every trace of Christianity, obliterating what is holy to the Armenians, in an effort to present Nagorno-Karabakh as their own territory.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turks are helping the wealthy Azeris to chase the Armenians away and destroy everything that is Christian. Neither the Church of Cyprus nor the Cypriot government were officially represented at this important conference.
Last July, accompanied by German reporters from the acclaimed Der Spiegel magazine, I went to the arbitrarily “enclosed” suburb of Turkish-occupied Famagusta. I was born and bred in Famagusta and I am not a ghost, as some Turks claim when they speak of us Famagustans.
There, outside the mosque that was inaugurated by Erdogan, I came across a group of Azeri entrepreneurs. When I asked them what they were doing in my city, they arrogantly replied that it supposedly belonged to “the wider Mother Turkey”; hence it was “theirs”. I knelt down on the ground near the mosque and prayed in front of the looted Church of St Nicholas on Democracy Street.
There, in front of astounded Turkish soldiers, I prayed to the icon given to me by my godfather, Antonis Sardalos, to keep me safe. That was my way of claiming the fundamental human rights and religious freedoms that all forcibly displaced persons have been deprived of because of the Turkish occupation.
The event was captured in images that formed part of a five-page special in Der Spiegel which was disseminated across the world. It offered a detailed account not only of what we saw and experienced in the arbitrarily ‘enclosed’ suburb of Turkish-occupied Famagusta, but also the essence of the so-called “Cyprus problem”.
In Cyprus, during a period of summer holiday, the Der Spiegel special was not highly publicized; perhaps because we are yet to grasp the significance and value of defending and claiming our religious freedoms and the inalienable human right of every person of faith to pray freely on their chosen sites of veneration.
It is not a question of equally sharing money for building “bicommunal” edifices with the Turkish Cypriots. When the lights go out at “bicommunal” gatherings in churches in the occupied areas, who keeps the key to the church? Who will give the priest “permission” to officiate? The answer is clear. It is the de facto occupation authorities of Turkey. Is this religious freedom?
If the political and religious leaders of the Republic of Cyprus understood the value of religious freedoms, then they would have been present at the international conference on peace and religious freedom in Yerevan. We would have claimed our rights in a different way, and we would also be more understanding of Archbishop Elpidophoros and the other Greeks of Turkey. We would thereby see how much those Greeks have suffered under Turkish rule, as they strive to be a beacon of Hellenism and Christianity for all of us.
Turkey is cleverly using Russia against us Greeks, favouring a Russian to the rank of the Ecumenical Patriarch in order to hold the Ecumenical Patriarchate under its sway and control. I have not heard a single minister in Cyprus asking for explanations as to why Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu on the southern coast of Turkey, 80 km away from the northern territorial sea of Cyprus and 115 km away from Nicosia, its capital city. Nor have I heard President Nicos Anastasiades asking for explanations or for the interruption of trade relations between Cyprus and Russia. President Anastasiades should be protesting the fact that the Russians are building a nuclear power plant that constitutes a terrible threat for the entire Mediterranean. That plant is being built in a vulnerable area prone to earthquakes, terrorism, conflict and so many other sources of danger.
Turkey is playing the game of depriving and suppressing religious freedoms in Cyprus. It has been using this game as a political weapon for 47 years now. In the occupied areas, the Turks have destroyed, pillaged, looted and desecrated more than 550 Orthodox churches and monasteries. They have also ruined churches of the Armenians and of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem while vandalizing cemeteries including the Jewish cemetery.
To perform a liturgy in a church in the occupied areas, the priest needs “permission” from the occupation authorities. By contrast, the Maronites are largely unhindered, supported as they are by the Pope, and falling outside the religious jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The Turks are fighting the Ecumenical Patriarchate; they essentially hold it captive. Only a naïve person would merely see Elpidophoros as Archbishop of America and not also as a beacon of Hellenism, as an afflicted hierarch and as a Greek Orthodox citizen of Turkey who has been reflecting our own pain and history, along with the beliefs of Hellenism. At the end of the day, it does not matter whether Elpidophoros will become Patriarch or not; in any event, nobody can ignore the History of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its symbolism for Orthodoxy and Hellenism.
Therefore, I address you, Elpidophoros, Archbishop of America, on behalf of all our brethren in Cyprus, politicians and clerics, to ask for forgiveness of our sins, to extend a big “thank you” for everything you do and to acknowledge everything you Greeks of Turkey have suffered. I ask you to forgive some of our brethren’s lack of sensitivity regarding what you represent and what the Phanar and Christians are faced with in Constantinople and, more broadly, in Turkey.
It is high time that all us Christians unite our voices against Turkey and its wealthy friends such as Azerbaijan. We must denounce before the world the Turkish policy which blatantly violates religious freedoms and fundamental human rights. Erdogan aspires to finish what Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’, the proponent of genocide and ethnic cleansing, has left unfinished, in a bid to surpass his grandeur. Will the faithful of every religious doctrine, especially the Christians of the world, permit this to happen?
by Tasoula Hadjitofi
Tasoula Hadjitofi is an activist and Founder of Walk of Truth