Pontian Greek Monastery in Turkey Celebrates First Mass Since Genocide

pontian1.jpgBy: Weekly Staff
SUMELA, Turkey—The Greek Orthodox faithful flocked to the cliffside setting of Sumela monastery in northeast Turkey on Aug. 15 after Ankara allowed mass to be celebrated here for the first time in 88 years, reported AFP.

Patriarch Bartholomew I, center, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, conducts a service at the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon, northeastern Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Usta)
“After 88 years, the tears of the Virgin Mary have stopped flowing,” the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, said during the service.

Greece’s Prime Minister George Papandreou, speaking after attending mass on the Cyclades Islands off the Greek mainland, welcomed the “historic and important event.”

It was a sign of bilateral rapprochement with Turkey and reflected “a spirit of cooperation and peace between us and our neighbor,” the prime minister said.

The site is of particular importance to Pontian Greeks, whose ancestors fled the region around the Black Sea during fighting after World War I and dispersed in Greece and Russia.

When Turkey fought Greece between 1920-22 during its war of independence, several tens of thousands of Pontian Greeks were massacred, or died as they went into forced exodus. Some 350,000 people died in what is known as the Pontian Genocide, which Turkey denies to this day.

On Aug. 15, around 500 Pontians were allowed into the fourth-century monastery while around 2,000 others come from Istanbul, Greece, Russia and Georgia, watched the mass on a giant television screen outside.

“For us the Virgin of Sumela is more important than our own mother,” Charalambos Zigas, a 51-year-old mechanic from Greece, told AFP. “You have to be a Pontian Greek to understand the importance of this mass.”

He said that when his grandfather fled the mountainous region for exile in Russia in 1922, he lost his wife and son who were eaten by bears.

Many of the faithful sought out houses that used to belong to their ancestors.

“Everyone here is like me, they came to see the region, find a house… we’ve even met two people from here who say they’re Pontian and we spoke Pontian Greek,” Greek veterinarian Maria Piativou, 42, told AFP.

“It is a very exciting moment for us Greeks because it’s the first time we get to have such a Mass,” Ketevan Nadareishvili, 24, told the Associated Press. “We can pray on the land of my great-great-grandfathers.”

Turkey in May sent a letter to the patriarch authorizing mass to be celebrated here once a year on Aug. 15.

The gesture appeared aimed at Turkey’s own Greek Orthodox minority, thought today to number around 2,000 people, which complains of discrimination.

Akhtamar is Next

In a similar gesture to Turkey’s Armenian minority, Ankara also authorized mass to be celebrated in September at the Church of Akhtamar, in the eastern Van province.

President Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party this week spoke out against Armenian participation in the mass. The party spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, denounced the Turkish government’s decision to reopen it for a one-day religious ceremony on Sept. 19 as a publicity stunt and “provocation” aimed at misleading the international community.

“Once again, instead of taking a serious step, the Turks are staging an imitation show,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I don’t think you can achieve tolerance and solidarity of civilizations in that way.”

In turn, Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) political affairs director Giro Manoyan urged Armenians to boycott the mass.

“I think it would be wrong to go there on a day set by Turkey and especially in these conditions of blockade and so on,” Manoyan told RFE/RL. “I don’t want to blame believers willing to go there but they must know that they somewhat contribute to the Turkish provocation.”

Manoyan expressed regret for the decision by His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, to send two senior clerics to the Sourp Khatch (Holy Cross) Church for the mass. “I’m not sure that’s the right step,” Manoyan added.