Silent voices of disquietude at a reception

ARIANA FERENTINOU – 2/12/13

A lot has already been said about the “revealing” beauty of Olga Kefalogianni, the Greek Tourism Minister, or the equally attractive appearance of her female entourage that flocked to the upper floor of the Salt Galata center Nov. 29 in order to promote one of the healthiest sectors of Greek economy.

The reception given on the occasion of the opening of a new Greek Tourism Organization office in Istanbul, turned out to be a popular social event as it brought together not only the Ecumenical Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomeos, the Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış and Ms. Kefalogianni, but also a host of dignitaries, business people, media representatives from both countries who enjoyed the intricate delicacies of two popular Greek chefs one of whom, Stelios Parliaros, was born and raised in Istanbul.

I am not going to dwell on the opportunities the opening might bring for the increasing flow of tourists between these two countries. A lot has already been discussed and there is every reason to think the Greek Tourism Organization will soon need to increase its presence in Turkey in order to cater to the rising number of Turks flowing into their Greek neighbor’s land.

It is another issue that I would like to talk about.

I had the chance to talk to various representatives of the Rums (Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul), who, on this occasion, were greatly outnumbered by the visitors from mainland Greece.

For the first time after several years, perhaps since 2007, I saw them worried and disappointed. The open hints from government representatives of the Turkish government that Christian historical religious monuments founded during the Byzantine empire and converted to Islamic shrines after the Ottoman conquest, may be turned back into Islamic places of worship, have deeply disturbed the community. I am, of course, talking first about Aghia Sofia a church designed and constructed in 537 as a “shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God” under emperor Justinian and served for almost one thousand years as a central place of worship for the capital city of Constantinoupolis. It also served as a major center of all Christendom until the great Schism in 1054 and survived until the fall of the City in 1453 before being turned to a great mosque under the Ottomans and finally turned into a museum in 1935 on the orders of Kemal Ataturk, as it is today. Already, the recent conversions of two other Christian Aghia Sofia’s –in Trabzon and Iznik- into Muslim mosques was a disappointment for the Rum community and they saw it a precursor of the Turkish government’s attitude that it caters more to its Muslim flock than its non-Muslim minorities.

But although the conversion of Aghia Sofia in Istanbul back to a mosque seems to be still in the back burner of the Erdoğan government, the recent decision to convert the Monastery of Studius in the Samatya neighborhood in Istanbul back into a mosque, gave a clear signal to the Greek Orthodox community that their most sacred monuments may become victims of a policy change. The Monastery, which is older than Aghia Sofia, as it was founded in 462, was once a center of monastic life and culture. As with many other Orthodox places of worship it was converted into a mosque under the Ottomans, but was lying in ruins after being destroyed by fire and earthquakes. Like Aghia Sofia, it was one of the places of worship that turned into a museum, but like the Aghia Sofia’s of Trabzon and Iznik will be turned back into a mosque in 2014 after restoration.

“The government can do anything,” one Rum told me, “but if they touch Aghia Sofia, they will have to face the reaction of the whole Christian world, not just the Orthodox,” he said although he accepted that the coming three successive electoral fights are too big a challenge for the government, and particularly for the prime minister, to risk a defeat. All means could be used in order to bring the Muslim electorate together.

I left the best or the worst for the end. Standing far from the bright lights of the TV cameras and photo ops, a somber looking high-standing member of the Rum community, gave me his assessment on another matter.

“The book of Halki Seminary is closed, as long as this government is in power,” he said

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