The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the modern Turkish State is a complicated one. With the exception of the churches domiciled in the former Russian Empire, most Patriarchates came under the control of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th-19th centuries, including Constantinople, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Jerusalem, Antioch and the southwestern part of Georgia.
The experience of Orthodox Christians at the hands of Ottoman officialdom in these occupied territories was a mixed one, consisting of periods of unrelenting pressure to convert to Islam and martyrdom for those who resisted, to periods of reasonable tolerance and calm. Unfortunately, Turkey’s laws against the denigration of Turkishness make it a dangerous activity to suggest that treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire was anything less than exemplary.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in Constantinople in 1453, and the surrender of Trebizond (Trabzon in Turkish) to the Ottomans in 1461, the Ottomans decided to allocate responsibility for all Orthodox Christians in the Empire to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. This followed the medievel Turkish concept of dividing its realms up into millet or ethnic groups (The Patriarch of Constantinople was designated as the head of the Orthodox Christian millet), and also followed the established concept in post 1054-Christendom of the Ecumenical Patriarch being “first among equals” of the archbishops in the Eastern Christian world.
The city of Trebizond was a Greek trading colony on the Black Sea, surrounded by a rural population of hundreds of thousands of Laz Georgians, and small populations of Armenians, Europeans and other foreign traders. After the Ottoman conquest, Christian Laz converted to Islam (no doubt some by choice to avoid persecution or taxation, but many martyrdoms of the Laz are documented and commemorated by the Georgian Church) or fled to Georgia. There are many Georgians today with Laz surnames whose ancestors emigrated to Ajara, Kutaisi, Tbilisi or Kakheti between 1461 and 1918. The Pontic Greeks of Trebizond for the most part stayed where they were, and while some converted to Islam, it is believed that most remained faithful.
The decision of the Ottoman government to side with the Central Powers in the Great War was a tragic one; had they sided with the Allies, the Ottoman Empire could have quietly divested itself of its more restive provinces, reformed its governance and worked out an amicable settlement with its sizeable Christian community for mutual benefit. The British and French governments had long-standing amicable relationships with the Sublime Porte and had sacrificed masses of young men on the Crimea in support of the Ottomans against Russia in the Crimean War not long beforehand. By Turkey siding against Moscow, it provided Russia with ample opportunity to stir up trouble amongst the Empire’s Greek, Armenian and Assyrian subjects to weaken the Ottoman war effort.
The result of Moscow’s attack on the Empire’s northern flank was a multitude of revolts amongst the Christian population of the Empire, as well as some disgraceful and deadly anti-Muslim pogroms initiated by Christians against their Muslim neighbours. The response from the Young Turk government was swift and brutal; massacres, forced deportations and mass starvation were imposed en masse upon Pontic Greek, Armenian and Assyrian populations in Anatolia and beyond.
Many Pontic Greeks fled persecution to the Russian Empire, mostly to Georgia, and some then moved to join distant relatives in the Crimea or in Moscow. Others emigrated to the Kingdom of Greece. In Georgia, there are sizeable Pontic Greek populations in Poti, Sukhumi, Tbilisi and Rustavi. Previously, there were also many in Marneuli in Kvemo Kartli.
Those Pontic Greeks who fled Trebizond left behind a fully functioning Greek city, with sophisticated residential districts, theatres, trading houses, banks, warehouses, and Greek and Armenian churches, with scores of 10th-15th century Georgian churches in the surrounding hinterland.
The attempt by the Greek Venizelist government in 1919 to drive the Turks out of coastal Turkey and recolonise Eastern Thrace and coastal Anatolia as Greek homelands failed. Of course, like any people subjected to a serious attempt at ethnic cleansing, the Turks still bear a significant grudge against the Greeks because of this attempt. While the Megali Idea is dead amongst Greek people, the fear of it lives on amongst many Turks.
As a result, historic Greek buildings in Turkey, instead of being seen as an important part of Turkey’s history and hallmarks of the indigenous civilisation that flourished in Anatolia for more than 1000 years before the Turks left Siberia, they are seen by some as “enemy architecture” that should either be demolished or converted to mosques.
Under previous secular-nationalist governments in Turkey, all religious groups were held in contempt by the State. Oddly enough it took the election of an Islamic party to government for State-Church relations to improve. Recent permission for Armenian clerics and Constantinople clerics to celebrate liturgies in decommissioned Armenian and Greek churches in Turkey’s East has been seen as a major step forward for Christianity being recognised as a normal part of the fabric of Turkish life that poses no threat to the Turkish state.
Despite these advances, there are still difficulties, such as this case where some local activists wish to convert a Greek church into a mosque (its current status is as a museum). Of course the Ecumenical Patriarchate would prefer it to remain as a museum rather than as a mosque, as it still no doubt holds onto the hope that one day the church will be reconsecrated and used by an indigenous Christian community, perhaps supplemented by people returning to their ancestral home from abroad.
The Georgian Church also has grave concerns for decommissioned Georgian churches in Tao-Klarjeti and Lazeti regions of eastern Turkey, which are crumbling or being vandalised. While we may hope that these churches may be reconsecrated and used to baptise new Christians from Turkey’s Laz population (or even their Turk neighbours) one day, a more immediate concern is preserving these ancient churches from collapse. Unfortunately, the Georgian Patriarchate’s channels of communication with the Turkish government are limited at this time. It is to be hoped that dialogue and mutual understanding can be further developed with time.
Bartholomew I: Do not transform Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque
by NAT da Polis
The Ecumenical Patriarch is opposed to the proposal of the Vice-President Bulent Arinc because there is “no need” for worship. Bartholomew is also supported by the head of the Muslim community, who points out the many mosques, which remain largely empty. Regarding minorities, the government is Turkish makes “one step forward, one step back.” Anti-conformist sentiments on the up.
Trabzon (AsiaNews) – There is “no need” to transform the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque, it is better that it remains a museum open to all religions: Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, expressed with clarity his opposition to the idea supported by the Deputy Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc who would like to turn this monument of Christianity in an exclusive place of worship for Muslims.
The church of Aghia Sofia (Saint Sofia) is a gem of ancient architecture and dates back to the era of the Comnenus Emperors (1204-1461). It testifies to the ancient presence of Christians of Pontus on the Black Sea, wiped out as a result of various genocides and purges first by the Ottomans, then by the neo-Turks.
Yesterday, the Ecumenical Patriarch visited the church and met with the mayor of the city, Genc. In front of reporters, Bartholomew said: “We respect all mosques and all places of worship, but in this case – turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque – I see no need for worship.”
He added. “We are in favor of maintaining the church of Hagia Sophia as a museum. Moreover, as stated by the head of the local [Islamic] community [here] there are already many mosques to meet the needs for worship of the faithful, and they remain largely partially empty. “
The Patriarch recalled the recent statements by the President of the Muslim community of the place, Zeki Baytar who reacted strongly to the Arinc proposal, even threatening a revolt, and said: “First we must fill the mosques, then, if necessary, transform Saint Sophia into a mosque.”
“If Hagia Sophia in Trabzon is converted into a mosque – continues Bartholomew I – it will be made available only to our Muslim brothers. Conversely, if it remains as a museum, it can offer its services to the entire international community, with sizeable profits for its inhabitants.”
Among the journalists present, many remember the words of the same Bulent Arinc during his visit to the Phanar – the seat of the patriarchate – in January 2011: “As a government we have a duty to meet the needs of these citizens who have a centuries old presence in these lands.”
Therefore, the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch is hardly surprising. What is of wonder however, is the Turkish government policy towards minorities of “one step forward, one step back”, depending on the circumstances and political conjunctures. Precisely for this reason anti-conformist courageous groups voicing anti-conformist sentiments are on the increase in Turkey.
Trabzon, in the far north-east of Turkey, is inhabited by a population of almost 300 thousand inhabitants. Of these few are Christians.