Jihad Watch : “Turkey has again confused faith tourism and religious freedom in the
announcement that the Imera Monastery has been partially restored,” reported International Christian Concern (ICC) on November 19.
“It is acknowledged that the Imera Monastery is an important
Christian site in the eastern Black Sea region, but the fact that
Christians in this area suffered a genocide which nearly eliminated
their presence was ignored. Rather than taking steps to bring healing to
those communities who have suffered genocide, their religious and
cultural sites are instead turned into cultural tourism sites that help
fund the state’s activities,” the ICC added.
Today Christians and Jews comprise only 0.2 percent of Turkey’s
population. This major population decline was largely caused by the 1913-23 Christian genocide that targeted Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.
Christian and other non-Muslim places of worship in Turkey are
exposed to several types of abuses. Author Raffi Bedrosyan explains:
Along with the hundreds of thousands of homes, shops,
farms, orchards, factories, warehouses, and mines belonging to the
Armenians, the church and school buildings also disappeared or were
converted to other uses. If not burnt and destroyed outright in 1915 or
left to deteriorate by neglect, they became converted buildings for
banks, radio stations, mosques, state schools, or state monopoly
warehouses for tobacco, tea, sugar, etc., or simply private houses and
stables for the Turks and Kurds.
Violations against churches are ongoing in Turkey. On July 24, for
example, Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia church/museum held its first
Islamic Friday prayers in 86 years after being officially converted into
a mosque. Four days later, Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia was reopened as a
mosque. Sadly, this grave abuse has not received enough media attention.
These two are not the only former churches in the country. All across
Turkey are historic Greek, Armenian and Assyrian churches. Prior to the
Turkish takeover in the fifteenth century, the region was inhabited by
indigenous Christian peoples for centuries. Today, however, the
Christian presence in the region has almost completely ceased to exist,
due to Turkish policies. As a result, the historic churches are either
empty or have been used as mosques or for other purposes.
The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon (or Trapezus/Trebizond) is one of these
many former Greek churches. It is located in a former Greek city in the
ancient region of Pontos, which means “the sea” in Greek. The first
Greek settlements appeared here as early as 800 BC. Many renowned Greek
philosophers, such as Diogenes and Strabo, were born in Pontos.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia,
Trebizond’s “first settlers were from Sinope (Xenophon, Anabasis, 4.8),
a Greek city on the southern shore of the Black Sea, about 400
kilometers to the west. Because this city was a daughter of Miletus,
which in turn was believed to be a colony of Athens, the Trapezian
scholar Cardinal Bessarion would still boast to be an Athenian in
During the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) era, the city was rebuilt by the emperor Justinian I (reigned 527–565). Antony Eastmond writes that,
Trebizond was one of the major Byzantine centers in
eastern Anatolia. Its port was important for commerce arriving in
caravans from the east. Its easily defensible position ensured its
importance as a Byzantine military outpost, and it was used as a base
for military expeditions to the east. Later it served as a stronghold as
other parts of Anatolia fell first to invading Arabs and then to the
Seljuk Turks. Consequently, Byzantine emperors over the centuries were
concerned to protect, enhance and improve the city, and major
commissions are recorded in, among others, the reigns of Justinian
(527-65), Basil I (867-86), and Basil II (976-1025).
After the invasion of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204,
two Byzantine princes founded an independent offshoot of the Byzantine
Empire in Trebizond. It stretched from Georgia along the Black Sea
coast, with Alexios I Megas Komnenos serving as emperor.
“This new empire outlived the parent city,” writes Anthony Bryer. “Until 1461, it remained an unconquered outpost of Greek-Christian civilization.”
The Empire of Trebizond’s end came when its territories were invaded
by the Ottoman Turks in 1461. Under the Ottoman rule, Christians became
“dhimmis,” oppressed subjects of the empire whose adherence to a
non-Islamic religion perpetually exposed them to second-class status.
The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center reports that,
The Turkish persecution of Pontian Greeks and other
Christian peoples began after the fall of Trabzon, starting slowly at
first and gradually becoming more widespread and terrifying. Massacres
and deportations became more frequent and intense. Many Christians
reluctantly converted to Islam to avoid oppression and discrimination
and merely to survive. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
approximately 250,000 Pontian Greeks were forced to convert to Islam and
speak Turkish. Almost 250,000 migrated to areas of the Caucasus and the
northern shores of the Black Sea that Russia controlled.
From 1913 to 1923, Ottoman Turkey committed a genocide against indigenous Christians: Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. In the Dictionary of Genocide,
Samuel Totten and Paul R. Bartrop write that “The destruction of the
Pontic Greeks, and the forcible deportation that followed, had but a
single planned outcome: the removal of all Greeks from Turkey.”
The genocide atrocities committed against Greek and other Christians
included the mass drowning of victims in the Black Sea. According to the
article “The Greek Relief Committee: America’s Response to the Greek
Genocide,” Lazaros George Macrides of Trebizond was rescued from Cotyora
(Ordu) on the Black Sea coast by a Russian vessel, along with 2,000
other survivors in August 1917. He sought refuge in the United States to
join the Greek Relief Committee (GRC).
In a statement made public by the American relief organizations, Macrides described some of the practices used in the destruction of the Greeks during the genocide,
Those of us who were between the ages of 16 and 60 were
drafted into the Turkish Army. Our women and children and the older men
were placed temporarily in homes and orphanages until the opportunity
offered to dispose of them in the approved Turco-Teuton fashion, which
in this instance turned out to be by wholesale drowning. The unfortunate
survivors of the deportation were towed out for several miles into the
Black Sea and then calmly dumped overboard, just like so much garbage.
None of them survived.
Today, there is neither an Orthodox community nor an active Orthodox
church in Trabzon. The survivors of the genocide were forcibly expelled
from their ancient homeland, where they had lived for over 3,000 years,
as part of the 1923 forced population exchange treaty between Greece and
Hagia Sophia in Trebizond: Church-Mosque-Museum; now a mosque again
Hagia Sophia in Trebizond was built during the reign of Greek Emperor Manuel I between 1238 and 1263. Antony Eastmond defines
Trebizond’s Hagia Sophia as “the finest surviving Byzantine imperial
monument of its period.” It was converted into a mosque after Ottoman
Sultan Mehmed II invaded Trebizond in 1461. This followed a month-long siege and its ruler, David Megas Komnenos, and his family were taken captive.
The Turkish government turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1964. However, since 2013, it has once again been used as a mosque. The church’s Christian symbols are damaged or destroyed. On July 28 of this year, the historic building was officially reopened as a mosque.
See the interior of “Hagia Sophia mosque” in Trabzon here and here.
Turkey aggressively denies the genocide, of which one of the
consequences is these types of conversions from historic church to
mosque. Turkey also applies intense legal pressure against those who
wish to objectively discuss the issue. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal
Code makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation or Turkish
government institutions. There are also several “anti-terrorism laws” used by prosecutors against dissidents.
An investigation, for instance, was launched
by Ankara’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2018 against Garo
Paylan, an opposition MP of Armenian origin, “for violating Article 301
of the Turkish Penal Code.” Paylan’s office said that “the investigation
was launched after comments he made in an interview about genocides
taking place in Turkey today.”
The tactics used by the Turkish government to bury the truths
concerning the genocide are multifaceted. Turkey denies the Christian
genocide on several levels: state/political, academic, educational, and
through journalistic platforms. Meanwhile, it violates, and in some
cases destroys, the remnants of Greek, Armenian and Assyrian
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.