This Easter in Phanar
It had been a long time since I last spent the Orthodox Easter in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the old neighborhood of Phanar. Last time I was there for the midnight mass before Easter - which must have been more than five years ago - I remember I could not even listen to the cantors from the loudspeakers because I had to squeeze myself among the crowds on the coastal road of the Golden Horn. So, one of the Prince Islands was usually my choice for the most important religious date in the Christian Orthodox calendar.
So, when last Saturday I was told by church officials that I could use one of the beautifully carved high back benches inside St. George Church, I felt privileged. These are some special seats usually reserved for dignitaries from the community or special guests. Entering the church just before midnight to take my seat, I realized the reason for my luck this year: the low attendance. Gone were the massive crowds that used to fill the church, the yard and the surrounding streets. A handful of people, at most a couple of hundred, attended the Easter Mass inside the church and then they moved to the church’s yard to sing the traditional “Christ has risen.” A mixed crowd of Rum Orthodox members of the Istanbul community, some visitors from mainland Greece, some Greeks from the U.S. and some Orthodox Christians from other nationalities living in Istanbul.
In his televised Easter message, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos gave a grim picture of the earthly realities of our world today. “We are living in a world where the media of general information are continuously broadcasting unpleasant information about terrorist actions, about religious fanaticism, famine, about the refugees’ problem, about incurable diseases, about poverty, psychological oppressions, feelings of insecurity and related unwanted situations,” he said.
The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christians was describing a reality that each of us are experiencing in our daily lives, especially if we live in this part of the world. His message was also an explanation for the rather low-key Easter this year in the See of Orthodoxy in Phanar.
Istanbul is no longer the ultimate destination of the crowds of Greek Orthodox Christians coming from Greece or other parts of the world as a pilgrimage for their faith. The last terrible period of terrorist attacks, political uncertainty, civil strife or simple primeval fear has turned a large number of people away from Turkey. As Bartholomeos correctly pointed out, the media, which are our principal means of information, are continuously feeding us with depressing and terrible news. But the media is also feeding us with exaggerated, phobia-filled and biased coverage of news through which even a trip to Istanbul to attend the Easter mass performed with its original rituals would seem like a risk to life.
I do not know what it will take to reverse the atmosphere. Will it take long? Does it need some sudden change of politics, a significant gesture toward the Greek Orthodox leadership that would restore the confidence of its flock to fill the streets of the Golden Horn again? For example, what happened to that long lost promise of re-opening the Halki Seminary?
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, I would like to hope that it may give an impetus for a new and more tolerant Turkey especially toward its ancient religious communities, which even in their diminished numbers contribute to the unique character of the city.