Peace messages from everybody at Fener, including İmamoğlu and Dendias

Peace messages from everybody at Fener, including İmamoğlu and Dendias

It was an interesting day yesterday in Fener, the ancient neighborhood of Istanbul on the shores of the Golden Horn. A thick crowd of Orthodox Christians had gathered from the early hours of the morning to celebrate Christmas at the Patriarchal Church of St George. They listened to the Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople delivering a Christmas message for love and peace as he does every year. In a year where wars multiplied in our region and where peace proved to be all the more impossible, the words of a religious leader could be soothing as wishes more than realities. 

I have been listening to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch’s messages for many years. This year, I was struck by the new contemporary spin he gave to his speech. He talked about the new “electronic order of things” which seem to transfer the center of life from the tangible to the virtual reality. He talked about the “mesmerizing charm of technology which makes the personal dimension shrink.” And, as always, he talked about human love. “Love, he said, is always a specific relation with specific person in a living coexistence, conversation, cooperation,” he said, adding, “it does not flourish as an abstract communication in the cyber world as an exchange of messages and images.” The “abstract” and “on-line” freezes the society and love.” 

The truth is that there was a lot of talk about love and peace during yesterday’s Christmas celebrations at Fener. But there were also political messages wrapped up in messages of love and peace.

Yesterday, Greece’s new Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias paid his first official visit to the Patriarchate. He attended the Christmas mass as the official representative of the Kyriakos Mitsotakis government and had a private meeting with the Patriarch closed to the press. To a crowd of mainly Turkish journalists who had rushed to Fener perhaps expecting a catchy line on Libya, Dendias preferred to express his happiness for being at Fener this Christmas and sent his best wishes to everybody for the festive season “including our Turkish hosts.” 

Although, there was no more than a “Christmas peace message” from the Greek foreign minister, there were interesting sub-textual messages during the traditional after-mass reception in the building which houses the Patriarch’s office inside the Fener complex. There, in a relatively small space, several Istanbul mayors from the main opposition party had squeezed themselves in after the mass, to offer the Patriarch their best wishes. Among them was Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, who sat next to Patriarch Bartholomew who had Mr. Dendias sitting on his other side. The Patriarch spoke both in Greek and Turkish thanking everybody for their love. In his message to the Greek public TV, İmamoğlu sent another message of peace to “both Turks and Greeks.” “We wish these two neighboring nations to have a good year. Turkey, Greece and the whole world need prosperity and peace. We send our wishes to our friends and neighbors in Greece. I wish peace for the whole world.”    

The insistence of Dendias not to send a “political” message while being in Turkey - considering that he had already had a telephone conversation the previous day with his Turkish counterpart - can only be seen as a tactical move by the Greek government. Greece has chosen to opt for a diplomatic dialogue with Turkey. Dendias’ “peace message” is perhaps another way of saying “we are waiting for your response to our message to sit and talk.” 

Of course, Ankara’s message is different. Almost at the same time as messages of peace were delivered in Fener, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from Tunis was repeating that Turkey would consider sending troops to Libya if such a request was made. He also targeted Greece as “they do not have any say in what is happening between Libya and Turkey.” “The days when [Greece] might have signed several agreements in the past are gone. Turkey is not the same today, they have to know this.” And yesterday from Ankara he announced that the permission to send troops to Libya will come to the Turkish Parliament for voting immediately after recess and attacked the opposition for their negative stance.

Athens seems to believe that Ankara would not risk a dangerous escalation of tension in the eastern Mediterranean. Greeks count on diplomacy and to the meeting between Mitsotakis and Trump on Jan. 7. Before that, though, there is the critical date of Jan. 2, when the agreement for the huge east Mediterranean pipeline will be signed in Athens between Greece, Greek Cyprus and Israel. How will Ankara react to this? We will see.

Going back to the message of peace given by the Istanbul mayors yesterday at Fener, I think by their presence they confirmed their negative stance towards an escalation in the eastern Mediterranean, a message which already has infuriated the Turkish president, as he said so yesterday.