Away from maddening politics, Greeks relish Easter at Fener

Away from maddening politics, Greeks relish Easter at Fener

The Patriarchal Church of St George in the ancient neighborhood of Fener on the Golden Horn was packed with visitors for most of the last week. So were the narrow streets leading to the ancient See of Orthodoxy. Rums (Greek Orthodox Turkish citizens), Greeks from mainland Greece, and also Russians and Eastern Europeans, all rushed this year to their center of faith for the celebration of Pascha, the Orthodox Easter. Nobody had seen so many people in this part of the old city in recent years.  

For the Rums, Easter is the most important date in their ecclesiastic calendar; with their particular traditions coming from Byzantine times. Less in number but devoted to their faith and their city, they spent most of their time last week in visiting their spiritual center, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Fener, even if their own parish church was elsewhere in the city. Happier than in earlier times, and some having come to terms with a life that may be split between Istanbul and Athens, they explained to me why Easter in Fener is “different” than anywhere else. Indeed Easter in Fener is simpler in terms of ceremonial pomp, it strictly follows the ancient Byzantine form, it may be less colorful than Easter in mainland Greece or less of a show of ecclesiastic power than in Russia. But it is a more moving and more dramatic experience. “It is majestic in its simplicity,” one school teacher told me.

Perhaps that moment of turning into one’s soul, that moment of introspection and calm thinking was what thousands of mainland Greeks sought when they chose Istanbul as the place to spend their Easter this year. According to Greek travel agents, Istanbul was the top destination this year for the Greek travelers. At least for some, the reason must have been psychological.

These are tense times in Greece. In less than a month, the people of Greece will be called to cast their votes in a double election. They will have to elect their local government as well as their representatives to the European Parliament. They know that although these are not general elections they will be seen as such by their politicians. As in Turkey recently for the Erdogan government, these elections will be seen as a referendum vote for the work of the Samaras coalition government or a green light to the main opposition to demand the resignation of the government. They have been told by their government that they have reached the end of their economic sufferings and that the revival of the country’s economy is about to start. They hear encouraging statements coming from European leaders, who praise their government for its aptitude to deal with the crisis. They even saw the leader of the most powerful European economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visit their capital only a few days ago. They heard her congratulating them for their tolerance. But they were not convinced.

They heard the official opposition promising that if they come to power “justice will be done” for the legions of people who lost their jobs during the recession. They heard them talking about their plan together with other peoples in the EU to create an “alternative” Europe within the Euro but with a “renegotiated” plan of economic development based on social justice, with more emphasis on public and less on the private. They are not convinced by this either.

With less than a month to go for the double elections at the end of May, more than one third of Greeks do not know who is best to govern their country. Gone is the time when people were born and died loyal to their party. The economic crisis has also crushed the confidence to the political system. But the skepticism toward the political system in general has also opened the door for the newly emerged phenomenon of new movements that are against old politics and ideologies, but they too demand to be chosen to govern their country. The people are not wooed by them, either.

Against such a blurred landscape and away from the real problems of living under a savagely reduced income, it is no surprise that so many Greeks escaped to Istanbul this Easter in this warm atmosphere of deep cultural reference and historic unity. Maybe the “Doric candor” of the Easter mass in the St George’s church will help them make up their mind about their future.