Articles, Opinions & Views: Turkey: Will the Abuses against Historic Churches Ever End?

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Turkey: Will the Abuses against Historic Churches Ever End?
Friday, November 27, 2020

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 Renaissance times.”

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 Turkey.

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 civilizations.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.

posted by Major D Swami (Retired) @ 10:08 AM  
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