Orthodox flock to once-banned holy site in Turkey

By Ayla Jean Yackley

SUMELA MONASTERY, Turkey (BestGrowthStock) – Europe Papadopolous’s grandparents were children when they fled their village in northeast Turkey and settled in Greece almost 90 years ago, yet she still felt she was in exile.

Papadopolous, 45, was one of thousands of Orthodox faithful who journeyed to Sumela Monastery, built into a sheer cliff above the Black Sea forest, on Sunday to attend the first mass here since ethnic Greeks were expelled in 1923.

“Being apart from this place feels like Ulysses: always searching for your home,” Papadopolous said, tears streaming down her face. Even though her grandparents are dead, Papadopolous said she was sure they could see her “homecoming.”

The historic service is part of a broader easing of religious restrictions in Muslim Turkey as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seeks to fulfil pledges to expand minority rights, which could also kickstart Turkey’s stalled European Union bid.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, celebrated the divine liturgy to mark the Feast Day of the Virgin Mary. The faithful believe Jesus’s mother Mary was taken up to heaven on August 15 after her death.

“This monastery is the bequest of a civilization that had a culture of living together. Let’s ensure this bequest survives so the pain does not recur,” said Bartholomew.

Security was tight. Helicopters circled above as police and gendarmes ringed the monastery, founded in the 4th century.

Last year, authorities prevented Greeks and Russians from praying at Sumela, long ago stripped of its official religious status. The patriarchate this year received permission from the Culture Ministry, which administers the site as a museum.

Two men in the nearby city of Trabzon who were briefly detained last week allegedly protested the service on Facebook and planned to disrupt it, the state Anatolian news agency said.


Incomes in Trabzon are a third less than the national average of $11,000, and poverty has fed nationalism. The teenaged gunman who shot Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 was from Trabzon. A Catholic priest was killed here in 2006.

The EU, which Turkey seeks to join, says the government must boost religious tolerance and improve rights for non-Muslims. Out of a population of 72 million, 99.9 percent are Muslim.

“This is a landmark event, and it won’t be the last. Slowly the taboos are falling by the wayside,” said Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “Minorities were always alienated. Now Turkey is shedding its old skin.”

Next month, Armenian Orthodox followers will pray at a former church in eastern Turkey, part of efforts to repair relations with neighboring Armenia.

Fewer than 3,000 Greeks remain in Istanbul, but it is still home to the patriarchate, a vestige of the Byzantine era. The Church has no legal status nor seminary to train clergy. It has seen millions of dollars worth of property seized by the state.

Bartholomew said the service may foreshadow a government decision to re-open an Istanbul seminary closed in 1971. The EU has said opening Halki School is key to Turkey joining the bloc.

“This gives us hope because it shows our government’s constructive approach to minorities,” Bartholomew told NTV news channel. “In the next school year, at the latest the 2011-2012 year, we intend to begin instruction.”


Although Bartholomew occasionally has led prayers in other deconsecrated churches in Turkey, Sumela was always contentious.

During the upheaval of World War One and subsequent War of Independence, the Black Sea region, called Pontus by Greeks, sank into violence between ethnic militias and Ottoman forces.

Historians estimate the number of Greeks killed at 65,000 to 200,000. As many as 300,000 fled by 1923. Most of the violence occurred in the western Black Sea, said Nikos Sigalas of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.

The 1923 Lausanne Treaty that forged modern Greece and Turkey’s borders engineered one of the biggest forced migrations in modern history. Some 1.5 million Christians fled Turkey, and 500,000 Muslims were driven from Greece.

Sumela and other holy sites were abandoned as Pontian Greeks vanished. Today, the monastery’s medieval frescoes are battered, and shoddy restoration work has erased some of its glory.

Perched in the Pontic Alps, the mist-wrapped Sumela was the most important monastery in the Trebizond Empire, successor to the Byzantines that lasted 250 years until the Ottoman conquest of 1461. Tradition has it that sultans prayed at the site.

“For ages, Sumela had great religious significance, but it also has a serious symbolic power,” Sigalas said. “It is not a place easily forgotten, even by descendants of those who left.”

Indeed, the draw of the ancient homeland remains strong.

“In our family, we always kept Pontus alive,” said Fotiy Exizov, 62, whose family settled in Sochi, Russia, after his great grandfather left Trabzon in 1864.

“We speak the language, we pass on the stories. We are like the birds who must return to the nest.”

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

Orthodox flock to once-banned holy site in Turkey