The 6-7 September Pogroms, Ecumenical Patriarchate
Katsumi Kasahara/AP
Patriarch Bartholomew

Tide of Nationalism Threatens Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox Community

September 12, 2008 06:57 AM
by Anne Szustek
Rising Islamism and nationalism within Turkey are hurting Istanbul’s once robust Orthodox Christian community. Possible EU accession has brought the situation into the limelight.

Istanbul’s Orthodox Patriarchate Fighting for Survival

In 2007, 42 of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s 50 members sent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a letter pleading on behalf of the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate, established in Istanbul in the 4th century. Bartholomew I, the leader of the world’s 300 million members of Eastern Orthodox churches, sits in the Patriarchate’s headquarters in Fener, a blighted neighborhood on Istanbul’s Golden Horn.

Former Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., then the head of the committee, called the patriarchate “one of the world’s oldest and greatest treasures.”

But the Turkish government recognizes Bartholomew I as only head of the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul, which numbers at some 2,500 members. Turkey requires Orthodox clergy to come from within this community. This policy is based on the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which stipulated that all Ottoman-era religious leadership positions, including the Caliphate, were to be abolished. “Yet the patriarchate is not mentioned in the document that grants non-Muslim religions in Turkey the status of minorities with extensive rights,” points out Quantara, a German Foreign Office-funded site intended to promote understanding of the Islamic world.

Nicholas Gage, who covered Turkey for The New York Times during the late 1970s, writes that the Turkish government’s continued inflexibility on accepting Bartholomew as a leader of an international congregation and on allowing the church to refurbish the few buildings remaining under its control is a likely roadblock to the country’s EU accession.

The Turkish belief that Bartholomew I only presides over Istanbul’s Orthodox community interferes with the Church’s everyday affairs.
Tahsin Sahlioglu, the president of the Solidarity Association of Western Thrace and former mayor of Istanbul’s Avcilar Municipality, petitioned to the Istanbul Governorate to block an assembly organized by the patriarchate because it was to have foreign participants.

Background: The AKP and Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community

In late July, Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist-leaning AKP, narrowly missed closure by Turkey’s Constitutional Court on the grounds that it has an ulterior Islamist agenda, including intermittent bans on alcohol and a clampdown on pork production.

As of April 10, Istanbul’s last remaining pork butcher was down to his last month of stock. The country’s Islamist-leaning government had shut down all but two pork farms and taken away the licenses from slaughterhouses. The butcher, ethnic Greek Lazari Kozmaoglu, says, “I don’t know what I can do if they don’t give it to me; this business is my life."

Like the pork industry that it largely runs, Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community is also on the decline. According to statistics supplied by the patriarchate, there are some 6,000 to 7,000 Orthodox adherents left in Turkey, many of whom are not Turkish citizens. Turkish law requires that future patriarchs be Turkish citizens; but given that the Halki Seminary was shut down in 1971 when private schools were nationalized, there remains no institution of Greek Orthodox training in Istanbul.

The Halki Seminary is located on Heybeliada, an island part of the Prince’s Islands archipelago just off of the coast of Istanbul. Adjacent island Burgazada is traditionally a home of the Istanbul Greek Orthodox community and retains a largely Greek character.

Historical Context: The September 6–7 Pogroms of 1955

The 6–7 September Pogroms, taking place in 1955, were a two-day organized riot against Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox community. Jews and ethnic Armenians were also attacked, however the violence was targeted at Greeks after false rumors leaked that their countrymen had burned down the childhood home of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the deeply venerated founder of the Turkish Republic. Ethnic Turks took to pillaging thousands of Greek-owned businesses and homes. Some 50–200 ethnic Greek women were raped. Greek men were forcibly circumcised. One synagogue and 73 Greek Orthodox churches were destroyed.

Mehmet Ali Birand, a well-known newspaper columnist in Turkey, was 14 years old during the riots. On the 50th anniversary of the Pogroms, he recounted the scene in his neighborhood, Erenköy, located on Istanbul’s Asian side: “Our neighbors were mostly Greek … I can never forget Madam Eleni when she asked, ‘Can we seek refuge in your home if they attack us?’ The barbershop she managed with her husband was in ruins.”

About 12,000 of the roughly 15,000 Greeks living in Istanbul at the time fled Turkey, never to return.

It turned out that the Pogroms were orchestrated as part of then-Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ unspoken plan to rid Turkey of non-Muslims—who constituted much of Istanbul’s merchant class—and redistribute the wealth to Muslim ethnic Turks from the country’s poorer eastern regions. Turkey already had imposed a Wealth Tax on the Jewish community in 1934 and a tax on all non-Muslim minorities in 1942.

In September 1961, Menderes was hanged for violation of the national constitution. His role in the Pogroms was also mentioned during his sentencing.

An art gallery exhibition in Istanbul commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 6–7 September Pogroms opened to egg peltings and shouts of “love Turkey or leave it!” reported The Washington Post.

Opinion & Analysis: Nationalists equate Turkish identity with Islam

In Turkey, the concept of national identity is all-encompassing. Each school day, children repeat “how happy he is who can call himself a Turk.” Turkish nationalists believe one key facet of this is being Muslim.

But as Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol explains to the Council on Foreign Relations, “the ideal Turk, according to the state and the official ideology, should be Muslim, but not too Muslim. He should not be Muslim like wearing a head scarf or something, but … in order to distinguish himself from the Greeks and Armenians and the Jews and the Americans, and so on and so forth.”

Nationalists consider behavior outside of the accepted construct “yabanci”—which can be translated as “foreign”—but also as “strange” or “alien.” It is this sort of mindset with which nationalists regard the patriarchate. His use of the term “ecumenical,” in their view, signifies that the Eastern Orthodox Communion has designs on Turkish territory—perhaps creating a Vatican-like state in Istanbul’s Fener neighborhood, where the patriarchate is located. Even more extreme is a belief invoked by an ex-Marxist Turkish nationalist, Aytunc Altindal, that the patriarch intends to re-establish the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Turkey.
There is also a fear among hard-line secularists that if the religious minorities are accorded favors, Islamist factions will push for their own political enfranchisement.

Key Players: Patriarch Bartholomew I and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Patriarch Bartholomew I (1940– )
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (1954– )

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