Greek language education, humanitarian aid to be provided to Levant's Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox

(Photo: Reuters / Khaled al-Hariri)Newly elected Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna (John) Yaziji, lights a candle on his arrival to the Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus Dec. 20, 2012, next to Patriarch Gregory III Laham, spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

Important steps were taken on November 30 for Greece to provide Greek language education and humanitarian aid to the Levant's Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox population.

Four Levantine-Greek [Rûm, Ῥωμαῖοι Romaic] associations met with the Greek Parliamentary Committee on the Diaspora in a virtual meeting.

The meeting aimed for the Greek State to recognise the Greek Orthodox minority of the Levant, known as Levantine Greeks or Rûm (in reference to their East Roman/Byzantine heritage), as a Greek minority, and to provide Greek language education to their communities.

The Levant region, comprising of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel and Turkey's Hatay province, is home to millions of Levantine Greeks, most of whom have no recognition from the Greek State as a community.

Levantine Greek Rum East Roman map

Although the Levantine Greek community is rooted from Bronze Age, Hellenistic Period and East Roman Era Greek settlements, today they are overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking following forced Arabisation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Journalist and researcher Alexandros Massavetas explained that at the end of the 19th century, in the context of rivalry between the Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchates, "the Russians managed to penetrate one of the four ancient Patriarchates, that of Antioch, and through their very extensive sabotage operation, to pass its leadership from Greek priests to Arabs who were manipulated by Moscow."

In speaking at to the Greek Parliamentary Committee, Rafael Issa, President of the Levantine Greek Association, said:

"Not many in the world are aware of the existence of our community, let alone that we share a common Hellenic and Byzantine ancestry with the people of Greece - once mentioned by one of the most eminent Greek historians of the late 19th century, Pavlos Karolidis.

"From the establishment of Constantinople to the formation of the modern nation-states in Asia Minor and the Levant - We have always been seen as the same people.

"This is a fact that is confirmed in the 1878 ethnographic study of French historian Alexander Synvet, that is until foreign power introduced toxic ideologies to serve their own interests, such as Pan-Arabism - an ideology that became very popular throughout the Levant, as well as competing ideologies like Phoenicianism, Arameanism, and Turanism.

"Although these ideologies took root throughout Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian societies, they only affected our language and names.

"The rest has remained Romaiic. As a matter of fact – we are still given Greek names at baptism."

After stressing how despite the Greeks of Greece and Levant being disconnected for over 200 years but remaining culturally similar, he explained how in Syria they suffer from sanctions and why the Greek state must recognise their community as Levantine Greeks, provide humanitarian aid and open Greek-language schools within their communities.

In support of Issa's proposals, Member of Parliament for Chania, Manousos Voloudakis, said on Twitter: "the Hellenic Parliament's Committee on the Diaspora, a session on the Romioi / Romaians / Rûm of Syria and Lebanon with the participation of four associations: The Romaian Cultural Society of Beirut, the Greek Community of Beirut, the Greek Community of Damascus and the Levantine Greek Association. We also had the honour and pleasure to have as a special guest Nassim Nicholas Taleb."

"This is a first step in an effort to reconnect with communities with which we share culture, faith and history," the lawmaker said, adding: "We intend to work on issues of education (teaching of Greek language) as well as on mobilising donors of humanitarian aid, given the humanitarian crisis in the two countries."

In parliament, he said: "The bottom line: In the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of people call themselves Rûm. We share culture and faith. In other words, in the Middle East we have a family. Forgotten, unfortunately, to a large extent, but family. Family in real need right now."

"The Greek state must stand close to these people," he added.

Jordan-born and founder of Grecosyrian, Edmond Shami, said "I still can't believe the significance of this historical moment. Very happy to have attended and heard the true leaders of our communities conveying the truth about the Rûm of the Levant to the Hellenic Parliament."

For his part, Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb said days after the Parliamentary Committee meeting: "An interesting fact: the De-Hellenization of the Antiochian church and its Arabization was driven by the Patriarchate of Moscow. They opened 23 schools teaching... Arabic in the Levant!"

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