Lack of knowledge about non-Muslims of Turkey

Lack of knowledge about non-Muslims of Turkey

Not long ago, I had asked my students of communication and media if they knew who the Rums are. In a class of about 30 young Turks who — at least some of them — would aim to work as journalists or media people, one or two answered, but wrongly: The Greek-Cypriots, they said. A third one, though, knew better, and said, they are some people who are “Orthodox” and they go to the “Rum Patriarchate,” which is in Fener.

She knew more about the subject because she had attended the Epiphany feast  on the shores of the Golden Horn where crowds of Greek-Orthodox faithful gather to watch the ceremony in a  usually cold day of January and where the “Rum Patriarch,” the Patriarch Bartholomeos as is his official title, conducts the service. 

My student had attended such a ceremony, and probably, like many Turks, she had also watched the ceremony at other times on Turkish television. She also told me that she had Rum friends with whom they socialize. For years now, the Epiphany or Theophany as it is known, has been one of the few events regarding the Greek-Orthodox community in Istanbul, that is covered regularly by Turkish TV.

This particular ceremony is also known by several Turkish citizens who choose to actively participate in the spectacular “blessing of the Waters” ceremony, by diving into the freezing waters of the Golden Horn on Jan. 6 to catch the holy cross thrown by the Patriarch. 

I was somewhat encouraged that at least one person in the class knew more about the Rums of Istanbul. And I insisted on the subject taking the risk to ask my knowledgeful student, how many did she think the Rums are. Half a million, she said!

So, it was not a surprise when I read an interesting interview by one of the most active members of the community of the Rums who live in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul but also on the island of Gokçeada (Imvros), Bozcaada (Tenedos) and very few in İzmir.

Laki Vingas, chairman of the Yeniköy Rum Foundation and former joint representative of the of minority foundations in the General Directorate of Foundations, was asked his opinion about a recent episode that has stirred the community of the Rums: The publication by the magazine Gercek Hayat of a List with names of the purported “Founding members of the organization FETÖ.”

Among the names and pictures on the cover of the magazine were the Patriarch Bartholomeos as well as the late Armenian Patriarch Shnork I and Chief Jewish Rabbi Isaac Haleva.

Both Bartholomeos and Haleva expressed their regrets for such an “unfounded” attack and expressed their concern over possible attacks against sacred sites.

Vingas, and I am sure his opinion is shared by the majority of his community, is upset. He thinks that Turkish politicians and media are treating them as “ready-to service-commodities.” In other words, the Rums feel they are being used either negatively or positively according to the political and social circumstances of the day.

Ignorance of the minorities, he claimed, has a lot to do with that as well as preconceived perceptions. Of course, don’t we know this so well when we are referring to the Turks and Greeks? 

But I felt a sense of strong affiliation with Vingas when I noticed the example he put forward as a typical “lack of knowledge” case about the Rums, an ancient community, once populous and strong and now small but resilient. He mentioned that a close Turkish friend of his thought that the Rums numbered half a million. Just like my student! There must be a reason why they would pick up this number, perhaps against the huge population of their country, half a million would be a logical number for a minority.  

I have been living side by side with the Rums of Istanbul for a number of years. I have witnessed their constant worry about their future, their presence, their existence in this country. They are trying their best, they preserve their institutions, their traditions, their memory, their education, their language.

They do not want to feel that their presence is a countdown. I admire their energy and after all their strong bond with this land, in spite of everything. This deep bond makes them feel “heimatlos” whenever they leave this land, even if they end up living in Greece. However, all is not a helpless struggle.

My cleaning woman from Bolu, who could not read and write when I met her years ago and knew that this city was inhabited only by  Muslim Turks, is now not only literate, but knows about the Rums, the Patriarchate in Fener, knows that the Rums are few but also knows about Catholics who she says are “many more.”

Ariana Ferentinou,