BOSTON – Pantelis Vingas, known widely as ‘Lakis’, one of the most prominent lay leaders of the Greeks of Constantinople, spoke with The National Herald with courage and frankness about the issues of the Greeks of Constantinople, once known as the Queen City.
Vingas also spoke about the pandemic and its victims, the nightmarish shrinkage of the Greek population, which he considers the most serious problem of all that impacts the survival of the Hellenism there, about the institutions and the communities, and coexistence with their fellow Turkish citizens in a city of close to 18 million.
The entire interview follows:
TNH: How has the Greek community in Constantinople dealt with the pandemic over part last year?
Lakis Vingas: First, I would like to thank you for the honor of offering me a platform for communication with the Greek community in America.
As for your question, we could say that the trial of the pandemic was immense for our community here. Apart from the unprecedented anxiety and fear that prevailed, we were also called to face financial consequences as a result of the general situation, but there was also loneliness and isolation that people experienced, especially senior citizens. In a community where population is a major problem, the loss of every fellow human being – even beyond the emotional pain – exacerbates the challenges we face regarding the future development and presence of Greeks in Turkey. Nevertheless, this trial taught us that one fundamental antidote for confronting the pandemic, along with science, is solidarity. This is why, as communities, we gave priority to supporting our fellow Greeks above the age of 65, who received both practical and emotional support, always through the personal concern of members of our communities.
TNH: Have there been many cases or deaths among the Greeks of Constantinople?
LV: We estimate the number of infections at around 25 within the entire Greek community. I am not aware of the number of cases because most people recovered at home with medication and guidance from the Ministry of Health. There were also some severe cases that, fortunately, were overcome after treatment in hospitals. I believe that the care from the state institutions and local municipalities proved instrumental, and now that the vaccinations are being accelerated, we are gradually returning to life as normal.
TNH: Speaking of numbers, and since from time to time much is said about the subject, what would you say is the most accurate number for the Greeks in Constantinople today?
LV: This is our greatest problem, which we are unable to address solely through our own resources. Our numbers have for some years been diminishing and no measures have been taken to restore them. The magnitude of our civilization and history, as well as the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, are so well known and are always at the forefront and as a result the question of our population is unfortunately being overlooked. For my part, I endeavor to demonstrate the immensity of this problem both within the Turkish as well as within the Greek communities, because the shrinking that we experience leads to uncertainty. SYRKI, the coordinating body of our community, was launched after the population census of 2020 in Constantinople, Smyrni, and Imvros. Our report is that, even in the best case, we do not surpass 2,500 people. As for our youth, they comprise 20% of our population.
TNH: Have you observed a repatriation in recent years among those who had departed or been deported?
LV: A real repatriation occurred in Imvros with the reopening of our schools after half a century. The collective action of individuals and organizations around this vision and the understanding of politicians from both our countries allowed us to create the appropriate circumstances for sufficient families to repatriate. The Imvros project, however, requires hard work, and it should also continue to inspire other concentrations of the Greek community in Turkey. Regarding our City, however, we must discover and implement ways that go along with the prescriptions and conditions of our City, which differ by comparison with those of Imvros. As locals, we continue to nurture the hope and dream of population growth, but there is no doubt that we need political assistance, steady planning, and trust. The dilemma and insecurity of the population must be transformed into a sustainable purpose with a specific developmental strategy.
TNH: What professions are the existing Greeks involved in?
LV: We have representatives in various professions, including teachers, musicians, executives in shipping, tourism, small and mid-size businesses in trade and industry.
TNH: I must say from the outset that the following question is well-intentioned: but what will happen to all these properties, churches, cultural centers, and schools?
LV: This is a question that has concerned many people for over 50 years. Today, by comparison with the past, we have a much smaller population but we also have the assistance of digital applications and the internet as well as, of course, both the support and collaboration of specialized companies. All this helps us respond to the needs of our community. The system of our administrative organizational structure is an antiquated model with its roots in the period of the Ottoman Empire (what is known as the ‘vakif’). The progress of technology, the perceptions of our community, and the evolution of volunteerism lead us to new challenges and demands. Thus, it is mandatory for us to reform the system into a new model that our Community will be able manage through democratic institutions within the framework of a system of values and organizations in collaboration with companies with specialized expertise. Of course, the final decisions and direction will be provided by representatives of the Patriarchate and the Greek community.
TNH: How do the Greeks in Constantinople coexist with your Turkish fellow citizens?
LV: I would say that it is an excellent coexistence. There are no conflicts, fears, threats or insecurities as in the past. The new society of Turkey does not yet know us as much as it should, and endeavors to approach us all the more through extraverted cultural activities and social programs. Thankfully, there is the good will of support from various social classes in our country.
TNH: How are the communities and institutions supported financially? For instance, the hospital and nursing home at Baloukli.
LV: Most of our institutions have land properties in their portfolios and are supported by making use of these properties. Unfortunately, I would say, we have no other resources, which is something we are obliged to create in order to respond to crises such as the one we are facing now with the pandemic. Because in such times, many tenants are unable to pay their rent. In order to sustain our community, the steady flow of income is a basic factor. Baloukli is our largest institution, with an important history and record, but at the same time it has multidimensional operations as well as obligations. The needs of the nursing home are covered by the institution, again primarily from the income of its land property.
TNH: How are the communities supported financially? How are the clergy paid?
LV: From the land property of the communities themselves. Those communities that do not have any property are supported by neighboring communities from the surplus. The holy clergy is paid primarily by the Patriarchate.
TNH: How do the Turkish authorities treat the communities, the institutions, the Patriarchate?
LV: Over the last years, relations with the authorities and municipalities are very cordial and civilized, and there is a good disposition for providing services. For our part, we certainly express our needs and disagreements boldly and publicly wherever we believe it is our self-evident right, such as in the matter of elections in foundations which is one of the fundamental petitions that we submit on a regular basis.
TNH: Does the Turkish State provide the Greeks of Constantinople with pensions, medical insurance, and hospital treatment?
LV: Yes, those who are entitled have pensions, as well as medical care and insurance. Those who do not have these receive small grants and subsidies from municipalities but are also supported by our communities.
TNH: What can you tell us about the conversion of Aghia Sophia and the Chora monastery to mosques?
LV: Personally, I would say that this development is sad. It does not reflect either the tradition of the ‘vakif’, which considers the inviolable desire of its founder (in this case, Justinian), or even the multicultural nature of Constantinople and our contemporary society. Perhaps it served political and symbolical purposes. I would react in the same way about the conversion of a mosque or synagogue into a church or something else.
TNH: How can a young Greek of Constantinople establish a career?
LV: Like other young men and women in a large city. They can find a position in the corporate world that offers various opportunities, or else equally in the academic and artistic worlds.
TNH: What sort of business are you involved with?
LV: I have my own business that I have managed for the last 25 years in the domain of imports as well as representing foreign companies in the pharmaceutical industry.