A message of peace from İzmir

A message of peace from İzmir

It was an emotional celebration by a congregation of a few hundred of Orthodox Christians who gathered last Saturday, Feb. 6, in the recently restored 19th century church of Voukolos (the Shepherd) in the old neighborhood of Fournaradika (the Bakers’ district). It is the only Christian Orthodox church still standing in Izmir.  The spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomeos, conducted a special mass before a diverse flock of Greeks, Russians, Romanians, representatives of all other Christian faiths as well as Turkish municipal authorities and ordinary Turks. In his address after the service, Bartholomeos called for peace, collaboration, tolerance, dialogue and love “in a neighborhood where blood is running daily;” where religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and refusal to accept “the other” eroded the deeper message of religion to build “bridges” of love and tolerance between peoples. 

In this ancient city-port where commerce brought together so many peoples of different religions and cultures, the sad memories of the painful population exchange of 1922 between Greeks and Turks have never gone away. But the message of Bartholomeos was clear: against the blood spilled today in our neighborhood, against the tragedy of so many people dying while trying to flee war zones using this land as an escape route. “We, Christians and Muslims in Turkey are an example today of peaceful coexistence and conciliation. We keep our memories but we are living side by side in peace. We are restoring our churches, we are conducting mass, we respect the hoca,” he said while the muezzin from a nearby mosque started calling people to noon prayers. 

It was not the first time that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos had delivered a powerful appeal on the need of peace against war and death, but perhaps what made it more powerful this time was the time and the place. 

Not far from the Voukolos Church, and only a few hundred meters from my hotel, shops were competing for the best display of life jackets on their windows. I was told that just the previous day, Turkish police had raided three illegal workshops and confiscated 49 unregistered inflatable boats destined to carry refugees across the Aegean. I am sure that even during the two days I spent in Izmir, many desperate people with their children and elderly would have visited those shops, would have bought some of the necessary accessories, and would have been led in the dark by middle-men to a nearby seashore where they would embark on a journey of life or death, often the second. 

During my short visit to Izmir, I had the chance to talk to Greek journalists who are based on the island of Lesbos, and whose only task for the last year has been to cover the news on refugees coming from Turkish shores. Lesbos is the place where hundreds of thousands of migrants have gathered waiting to be sent to western Europe. They have survived the journey from Turkish shores, many from the shores around Izmir. Many others have not made it. Their bodies have been recovered and carried to Lesbos. 

My Greek colleagues told me their personal ordeals trying to cover those daily stories of life and death. They told me that two of female reporters with young children of their own had to ask for psychological help as they were unable to keep on reporting. One young reporter who had been sent from Athens last summer on his first assignment to cover the story has been receiving medication and psychological support in order to continue his job. They all had to deal with the worst story of all: a child dying before their eyes minutes after reaching shore. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is paying a visit to Turkey today in order to talk about the refugee crisis once again with Turkish political leaders. Her open-door policy has pushed huge numbers of people from the region’s war zones to Turkish shores risking what they thought would have been a safe life. The reality was to be quite different and the problem got worse. Now, everybody is running around trying to find quick solutions. Politics proved once again inadequate to deal with human needs. 

One wonders whether the message of Patriarch Bartholomeos on the good old values of peace and conciliation is now more appropriate than ever.