BY THOMAS KANELOS
Tuesday, May 29, 1453, is a day that all true scholars of history know well. After a siege of more than six weeks the Queen City, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. We can only imagine the end recalling the words of the great Historian Sir Steven Runcimen. We remember the stories of the “…last Christian Emperor, standing in the breach of the wall, abandoned by his Western allies, holding the infidel at bay until their numbers over powered him and he died, with the empire as his winding sheet.”
For nearly 500 hundred years, the Christians of Constantinople and the surrounding areas lived as second class subjects with periods of general calm interspersed with periods of violent pogroms. The Church, as the body responsible for the political as well as spiritual jurisdiction over the Christian subjects, also vacillated between times of peaceful coexistence along with times of persecution. From the period of 1453 through 1922, there were 103 Ecumenical Patriarchal reigns, averaging less than five years each—an indication of the interference of the Ottoman Government into the administration of the Church. Nevertheless, with notable exceptions, the Christian subjects were allowed their properties and their customs and most importantly their Churches and their practice of the Faith.
Let’s move forward to the era of the First World War. Traditional empires were coming apart as the world entered the 20th century and the Ottoman Empire was no exception. War, decay, and corruption had caused great unrest among the Turkish subjects and animosity against the Government. The defeat of the Central Powers, the brief war with Greece culminating with the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the expulsion of Greeks from Smyrna in 1922 signaled a new era in the treatment of the Christian Orthodox citizens of the new secular Republic of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his Nationalist Movement succeeded in taking control and he became the first President of Modern Turkey.
The Treaty of Lausanne settled the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Forces. This treaty of 1923 was incorporated into the new Turkish Constitution and guaranteed freedom of religious expression and belief for the religious minorities in Turkey. However, in practicality, this has not been the case. According to scholarly and legal research and documentation by the Order of St. Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in a report given at the Second International Conference on Religious Freedom, held in Berlin in 2013, the Turkish government has violated its own Constitution as well as the Treaty of Lausanne in the following ways:
- Government Interference in Patriarchal Elections. The Turkish government requires eligible candidates to be Turkish Citizens and reserves the right to veto any Candidate. It is widely believed that our own Archbishop Iakovos, of blessed memory, was vetoed by the Turkish government in 1972.
- Non-Recognition of “Ecumenical” status. While the rest of the world understands and respects the Ecumenical Patriarch as the Spiritual Leader of World Orthodoxy, the Turkish government only recognizes His All Holiness as the local bishop of the Turkish Orthodox Citizens.
- No legal entity. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has no legal standing and cannot even own property in Turkey. Likewise, the government will not authorize work permits to individuals from foreign nations who work at the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
- Closing of Seminary and inability to train new clergy. With the closing of Halki Theological School in 1971, the Patriarchate must send its local persons wishing to study for the priesthood to foreign Theological seminaries. In many cases, they do not return due to the difficulty in obtaining work permits.
- Confiscation of Property. Since 1922, thousands of properties belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate have been confiscated and the Patriarchate must engage in costly legal actions to try to regain its rightful properties.
The persecution, as you can see, remains to this day. The Turkish Authorities are effectively forcing the population to leave. In 1955, there was an outright sack on Christian-owned businesses that cost the lives of their owners. This caused many to leave and a population of nearly 500,000 in 1900 has dwindled to 2,000 today.
What can we do? First of all, it is our responsibility to know these things are happening. We must know how we arrived at this situation.
The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are charged to defend and promote our Holy and Great Mother Church. Creating awareness among the faithful is paramount and your Archons are working diligently to combat the challenges that threaten our very Orthodox existence.
Thomas (Athanasios) Kanelos is an Archon Depoutatos.