Patriarch Bartholomew’s Ataturk Misstep

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On October 24 the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited the purported childhood home (historians disagree whether he ever lived there), now “museum” dedicated to the founder of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, located within the Turkish Consulate complex in Thessaloniki.

Bartholomew, accompanied by 10 prelates of the Patriarchate, was welcomed by Consul General Tuğrul Biltekin. The latter gave him a tour through the halls of the renovated museum, which hosts publications and snapshots from Ataturk’s life, as well as an eerie life-sized wax likeness of this leader.

According to the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet’s online publication, Bartholomew wrote in the visitors’ book, “We are happy to visit the founder of the republic’s renovated house in Thessaloniki (sic). While asking for a blessing from God, we pray to the great God for the continuation of [Atatürk’s] reforms forever and for the realization of his ‘Peace at home, peace on Earth’ saying more and more over the years.”

At first glance, had this been a visit by a foreign dignitary devoid of layers of historical baggage, it could have been characterized as a diplomatic formality, full of empty gestures and fatuous poses. Nonetheless, even someone from another part of the world, one that is not haunted by the genocidal ghosts that accompanied the founding of the Turkish republic, could be criticized for praying for “the continuation [Atatürk’s] reforms forever…” in light of their historic context.

Patriarch Bartholomew’s comments may have been pro forma, and he may not have given serious consideration to their content — he has routinely paid homage to a succession of Ankara regimes, from the imagined “democracies” (controlled by the military) of the last decades to the present meta-Ottoman Islamic AKP headed by Tayyip Erdogan.

One would have expected a level of sensitivity that obviously was lacking: the purported home of Ataturk in Thessaloniki was bombed in 1955 by an agent of the Turkish regime at the time; this bombing was used as justification for the pogrom that took place in September 6-7 of that year and that resulted in the practical elimination of the Greek minority’s presence in Constantinople and the wholesale theft of its properties.

Since then the Ecumenical Patriarch, reverting to a submissive reflex developed over centuries of oppression has evolved into providing a subtle cover to, and alibis for civil – and human rights deficits of the Turkish state — while at the same time the bulk of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s the operational income until the recent past was provided by Greek government and private sources.

One more recent and prominent example of this alibi function by the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Ankara regime may be found in the sponsorship of the “Conference of Peace and Tolerance” held in Constantinople in February 1994.

This was a public relations tour de force as it brought together luminaries from the worlds of business, politics and array of religious leaders, Christian, Jewish and Muslim — pointedly excluding the Patriarch of Serbia and the Archbishop of Cyprus (to his credit, Archbishop Seraphim of Athens and All Greece refused the invitation). However, while the world’s attention was drawn to this conference, the Turkish military launched the largest and deadliest attack that had taken place until that time against the Kurdish minority

Let us return to the refractions of Patriarch Bartholomew’s comments by a closer look at the object of his admiration: Mustafa Kemal, who came to be known as Ataturk (“father of the Turks”), was an early (albeit lesser) member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a group that dominated and gave shape to policy of the last Ottoman government; more importantly, after end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918-1919, CUP members, ultimately led by Mustafa Kemal, aimed to create a “Turkish” nation and founded the state that came to be known as “Turkey.”

The Turkish state, became ensconced in the historic space known as Asia Minor, and was envisioned by Mustafa Kemal as a “secular” republic. In practice however, the creation of this entity entailed a plan conceived and set in motion by the CUP, which included the physical extermination or expulsion of the non-Muslim populations.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” and wrote the passages which describe and define it in international law (in the 1940s), studied these events two decades before his own people were to suffer a similar fate.

In fact, the premeditated slaughter and expulsion of the Christians had a militantly Islamic hue: churches (and Christian symbols) were systematically desecrated, people were burned alive within them, many Church hierarchs were martyred, headed by the saintly Metropolitan Bishops Chrysostomos of Smyrna, Ambrosios Moschonesion, Gregorios Kydonion, Prokopios of Ikonion, Bishop Euthymios Zelon, hundreds of priests and hundreds of thousands of ordinary believers were tortured and killed on account of their Christian faith and devotion to Hellenism.

This process was completed between 1919 and 1923 under Mustafa Kemal, a period to which he and his followers referred by the euphemism of “the War of Liberation.” In practice this meant the destruction of the physical presence of the Greeks in such great urban and commercial centers as Smyrna, Trebizond and the hundreds of towns and villages of Ionia, the Pontus and Anatolia.

According to most demographic studies in 1912 the Christians (Greeks of Ionia, the Pontus and Anatolia, Armenians, and Assyrians) in that part of the Ottoman Empire that became Turkey numbered about 4.5-5 million, while the number of Muslims is set at about 7-7.5 million.

By the time Mustafa Kemal declared the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the number of Christians was reduced to less than 250,000, while the number of Muslims remained at about 7.5 million, even taking into account the number casualties the latter community suffered as a result of ten years of war.

One last note on Kemal Ataturk and the Christian genocide in Ottoman/Turkish space: there are many of his apologists that have tried to claim that Kemal somehow was not involved in this crime. The historian Erik Zürcher wrote in his book The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building (p. 203), “[w]hen it mattered, in 1918-20, Mustafa Kemal never spoke out against genocide …, and surrounded himself with people, his own bodyguard Topal Osman among them, who were quite notorious for having blood on their hands. His keynote address in Ankara in December 1919 put the blame squarely on the victims.”

It is thus not altogether surprising that in the 1920s and 1930s the regime of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his successors became in many ways a model for the other authoritarian regimes that had sprung up in Europe.

Falih Rifki Atay was a journalist, author and probably Kemal’s most accomplished publicist in the sense that he expounded the principles of the ideology that came to be known as “Kemalism.” In his book titled Cankaya Atay recounts a visit he made to Berlin, as part of a Turkish delegation, in order to attend the celebration of Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday.

Atay recounts in his book (p. 319) that “an exceedingly proud” Hitler told the Turkish well-wishers, “Mustafa Kemal proved to us that he had helped save his impoverished people, and he made possible their recovery. His first disciple is Mussolini, I am his second [disciple].” Atay later in the same work (p. 451) posits, “When we think of the state of the Turkish people in 1923-1924, we must again acknowledge how right Hitler was.”

It is with a heavy heart that one must note that Bartholomew the man has erred (as distinct from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the most ancient continuously functioning institution of Greek Christians). He has been too submissive in serving the state that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded on a genocide, that for decades persecuted its minorities into extinction, and that now violates the rights of many of its own people.

The Patriarch needs to recall that our Faith teaches that his, and our, first duty is to the dignity of the human being, who is created in the Image of God, and not pay lip service to trees, the environment or, quoting Cavafy, other “well sounding clack” (“και άλλα ηχηρά παρόμοια“).