Greek faithful return to pray in ancient Turkish homeland

June 29, 2010

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leads prayers at St Theodore in central Turkey on June 27/Photo by Simon Johns

About 1,000 Greek Orthodox gathered in central Turkey this weekend for a pair of emotional liturgies led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the Greek faithful seek to reclaim a cultural and religious link to their ancient homeland.

Elderly women wept as black-clad nuns and monks recited mournful chants on Sunday in the 19th-century St Theodore’s Church in Derinkuyu, a sleepy hamlet Greeks once called Malakopi in the popular tourist region of Cappadocia. Most of the worshippers were the descendants of Greeks who were expelled from Turkey almost 90 years ago with the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

(Photo: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at St Theodore’s Church in Turkey, 27 June 2010/Simon Johns)

Bartholomew of Constantinople faced the altar flanked by three crowns: Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria, Archbishop Ieronymos of Greece and Archbishop Hilarion, the head of Russian Orthodox external relations. Hilarion has been a key player in a rapprochement between the Churches of Moscow and Istanbul. Bartholomew said Hilarion came on a pilgrimage to Cappadocia.

Hilarion urged worshippers to continue returning to the land of their forebears to maintain Orthodox holy sites. “Cappadocia is a much suffered land, as its churches, once magnificent and beautiful, have fallen in desolation,” he said. “We believe that the light of Christian faith will be rekindled in this holy land.”

Bartholomew began presiding over annual June services a decade ago in Cappadocia’s deconsecrated churches as Muslim Turkey, a European Union candidate, relaxed restrictions on Christian worship. In a sign of the growing tolerance, Bartholomew recently won permission to celebrate the Divine Liturgy this August at the more politically sensitive Sumela Monastery on the Black Sea for the first time since 1923. Last year, local authorities and residents tried to block Greek and Russian tourists from praying there.

cappadociaSt Theodore’s frescoes are almost completely gone and its Corinthian columns are etched with graffiti. The basilica, like most churches outside of Istanbul, is no longer a functioning house of worship but the property of the Tourism Ministry.

On Saturday, the liturgy was celebrated in the Church of Saints Constantine and Helen, built in 1729, at the other end of Cappadocia. The church in Mustafapasa, a pretty little town of stone houses formerly called Sinasos, was reportedly used as a stable for animals in the past; this year it bore a banner from the mayor that welcomed the town’s “friends from Greece.”

(Photo: Rock formations in Cappadocia, 12 December 2008/Tan Shung Sin)

The warmer reception has been a saving grace for the descendants of the Mikrasiates prosfyges, or Asia Minor refugees. An estimated 1.5 million ethnic Greeks departed Turkey, while 500,000 Muslims fled Greece in a population exchange after World War One. Today, 3,000 Greeks remain in Turkey, residing mainly in Istanbul, still home to the ecumenical patriarchate, spiritual centre of the world’s 250 million Orthodox.

The population transfers included tens of thousands of Christians from Cappadocia, famous for its fantastical landscape of so-called fairy chimneys: natural, free-standing columns of volcanic tuff. The earliest Christians carved thousands of homes, monasteries and churches into the rock.

“For more than 1,000 years, there were Greek Orthodox here, and then they were gone. Now we have this special day with the patriarch here again,” said Georgia Dimaki, who traveled from Thessaloniki in northern Greece for the services. She pointed to goose bumps on her arm. “It means so much. It’s fantastic, but it is still very sad to think about those who came before us.”

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