Nearly a century after hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians were forced to flee violence and political persecution, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has encouraged Christians to return to Turkey.
The Patriarch’s statement came during his visit to his home village on the island of Imros — today Gokceada in the Dardanelles of Turkey.
“My homeland continually waits to embrace its estranged children, to tell them it’s alive and breathing”, he told a congregation at the church of St. Theodore. “Although our home is not as it was, its poverty is decent and honorable, with self-sufficiency and a rich heart and an austerity reflecting the ascetic ethos of Orthodoxy.”
The 79-year-old Patriarch’s village is located near the entrance to the Sea of Marmara, which is now home to merely 200 Orthodox Christians — a drastic decrease from the nearly 12,000 who lived there decades ago.
France’s La Croix daily reported that he recently funded the refurbishment of Gokceada’s churches, chapels and monasteries, as well as the reopening of Christian schools — which he said should allow local Orthodox to be hopeful.
“The fact that our schools unexpectedly reopened gives us the right to hope, to be optimistic and to believe that Imbros is not a lost cause forever,” he said.
But he emphasized that Christian life in the region still requires much repair after “the hurricane which uprooted it,” referring to the Turkish government-sponsored campaign against ethnic Greek Christians during the early 20th century.
Christian minorities have long made claims of denied rights and religious persecution in Turkey, a majority Sunni Muslim country with a population of 77 million.
During a November 2014 visit, Pope Francis appealed for greater tolerance of Christian groups — including the Catholic Church, which has seven dioceses and apostolic vicariates, 54 parishes and 13 pastoral centers in Turkey.
As many as 350,000 Greek Christians died during the 1919-1922 Greek-Turkish war over Anatolia and 1.3 million were deported to Greece after the mass population exchange of 1923.
The Orthodox church, which has reestablished various long-disbanded dioceses, still awaits the promised return of a historic seminary complex at Halki, which the Turkish government forcibly closed in 1971.
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