by Ralph H. Sidway, guest contributor
Recently a man was arrested in Turkey in connection with a plot to assassinate Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The alleged plot was set up to slay the Patriarch on the 560th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople on May 29. You can read a couple of articles covering different aspects of the story at Huffington Post and at Today’s Zaman (a Turkish news website).
What I would like to draw attention to, so as to provide some context for this story, is the very real threat to Ecumenical Patriarchate (and indeed to all Christian clergy) over the past several hundred years.
Ever since the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim armies in 1453, Christians in what is now Turkey have been reduced to second-class citizens (and persecuted nearly to extinction) through the institution of the dhimma, the contract of protection which subjugates Christians to Muslim rule under humiliating, demeaning terms. Under the dhimma, Christians have to pay the exorbitant jizya tax, cannot build new churches, cannot repair existing ones, cannot share their faith outside their church buildings, cannot convert Muslims, etc. One aspect of the dhimma which is most terrifying is the concept of “collective punishment.” If one Christian violates the dhimma contract, Muslims may attack any or all Christians.
The real world applications of this practice during the Ottoman era were severe indeed. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann notes in his thorough history of the Orthodox Church, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy:
[The Church’s] position was very often a terrible one, and it is impossible to describe all the suffering, humiliation, and outright persecution the Church was obliged to undergo in this age, which was dark indeed… According to Islam, Christians were rayah or cattle, the conquered, the unbelievers, and they had no real rights or citizenship… In some places every Christian was slaughtered. Russia alone intervened on their behalf, but this frequently resulted only in a worsening of their position.
From the very beginning of Muslim rule over Constantinople and the former Byzantine Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was the chief tool in Islamic control and subjugation of the Christian population. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Christians’ plight “worsened perceptibly.” To quote Fr Schmemann again:
The rights of the patriarch were gradually reduced to nothing; all that was left to him was the “right” of being responsible for the Christians. In the course of seventy-three years in the eighteenth century, the patriarch was replaced forty-eight times! Some were deposed and reinstalled as many as five times; many were put to torture… Churches were defiled, relics cut to pieces, and the Holy Gifts profaned. Christian pogroms became more and more frequent… Their situation grew worse, especially as national self-consciousness and dreams of freedom arose within the empire. Greeks in Turkey and Constantinople paid for the uprising of 1821 by terrible slaughter. That year was marked by the martyrdom of Patriarch Gregory V.
John Sanidopoulos, who runs the MYSTAGOGY blog, documents the Ecumenical Patriarchs killed under the Muslim Turks:
Listed below are the venerable Patriarchs of Constantinople who suffered martyric deaths under the Turks and paved the way towards freedom for the Greek people.
- Cyril Loukaris – The Protomartyr of the Patriarchs, on 27 June 1638 he was strangled and his body was flung into the Bosporus.
- Cyril II Kontaris – Hanged in 1639
- Parthenios I – Poisoned in 1644
- Parthenios II – Strangled in 1651
- Parthenios III – Hanged in 1657
- Gabriel II – Hanged in 1657. He was Patriarch for only 12 days.
- Meletios II – After being tortured brutally with a chain and log, he died of his injuries in 1769.
- Gregory V – Hanged on Holy Pascha in 1821 at the Patriarchal Gate, which remains closed today since that time. His death was the banner of the Greek Revolution.
- Cyril VI – Hanged on 18 April 1821 while in exile in Andrionople.
- Evgenios II – Successor to Gregory V, he was surrendered to the mob, and died from injuries on 22 July 1822.
Important to keep in mind is the role played not only by the faithful Patriarch Martyrs, but by other clergy and even monastics in the eventual liberation of Greece. Two notable examples of unlikely clerical heroes are St. Kosmas of Aitolia of the late eighteenth century (who greatly encouraged and helped educate the Greek people by traveling to hundreds of villages and cities, founding schools and keeping alive the Orthodox faith until he was martyred by the Turkish Muslims in 1779), and St. Joachim Papoulakis of the early nineteenth century (a monk from Mt Athos, who helped provide food, material support and necessities to the Greek people in aid of the freedom movement).
But the amazing contribution of the “higher clergy,” the bishops, is very important. Again we turn to John Sanidopoulos, who translates an historical summary by political scientist Konstandinos Holevas:
Blood-Stained Cassocks and 1821
Without the Orthodox clergy the great national campaign of 1821 would not have succeeded. Some propagandists of outdated ideologies deny the role of the Bishops and speak only of the “lower clergy”. They are wrong both in terms of terminology and in their historical perspective.
In the Orthodox Church the higher clergy are the Bishops, the Presbyters (priests) and the Deacons. To the lower clergy belong the Subdeacon and the Reader, who are laymen. The French Consul François Pouqueville writes that 100 Patriarchs and Bishops were killed during the Turkish Occupation and the Struggle [of 1821]. Before 1821 there were 80 movements made by Greeks, and most were led by Bishops. Remember that from 1680 to 1700 Eastern Central Greece was free after two Bishops revolted, Hierotheos of Thebes and Philotheos of Salona.
1821 is stained with the blood of Patriarch Gregory V and Patriarch Cyril VI, from Andrionople. Besides Bishop Germanos of Patras, who blessed the banner at Holy Lavra Monastery and in Patras, Isaiah of Salona declared Revolution in Fokida and was sacrificed in Alamana. The Patmian Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilos Pagkostas, went to Patmos and raised the banner of revolution. From then he never returned to his throne.
Most Bishops of Peloponnesos were imprisoned by the Pasha of Tripoli from the beginning of March 1821, and only two were found alive when the Greeks entered after 6.5 months. Let us not forget this sacrifice of the shepherds.
In Cyprus, Archbishop Kyprianos had joined the Filiki Etairia (Society of Friends). The Turks were informed and on 9 July 1821 there was a great slaughter in Nicosia. Kyprianos together with all the Bishops and Archimandrites were killed together with the elders.
Many other Bishops played a significant role in the Struggle, such as Anthimos of Elos, Theodoritos of Vresthena, Joseph of Androusa, and Neophytos of Talantio (Livadeia). And in the Grand Exodus of Messolonghi, Bishop Joseph of Rogon, aid to Metropolitan Porphyrios of Arta, was sacrificed while blowing the windmill.
All who lived at that time were confessors: Bishops, priests, simple monastics, all proclaimed their “presence”. Our [Greek] Freedom is owed primarily to the Blood-stained Cassocks.
Eventually, the Serbs and Bulgarians threw off the Muslim yoke as well. It was this series of humiliating defeats during the nineteenth century, and losses in the Balkan Wars of the early twentieth century, which enraged the Turkish Muslims, who turned on the weakest elements of their Christian population, precipitating their infamous genocide against the Christians of Armenia, Greece, Pontus, and Syria, massacring over 3.6 million men women and children (some dying from starvation, disease and the forced deportations) from 1894 to 1922. Sporadic persecutions against remaining Christians extended well into the 1950s, perhaps the worst example being the Istanbul Pogroms of 1955, which dealt a crushing blow to the Orthodox Christian community in Turkey. The Greek population of Turkey had already been reduced to about 120,000 in 1927 (following the main period of the Orthodox Christian Genocide); by 1978 it had collapsed to only 7,000. According to the Human Rights Watch, by 2006 there were only 2500 Greeks in Turkey.
Thus we see, from the very beginning of Muslim occupation of former Byzantine Christian lands, persecution of not merely lay Christians, but of all the clergy, including the Patriarchs, was standard practice for the Muslim Turks. Brutal and prolonged persecution, pressure and institutionalized discrimination has almost exterminated the Orthodox Christian population from what was once a flourishing Christian civilization. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Muslim Turks mercilessly targeted the weakest of the weak, setting an example that Hitler extolled in his plans for his Third Reich.
When it comes to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Turks do not by any stretch of the imagination have a “rabble rouser” on their hands. Recently, yes, His All Holiness has taken a vocal stand against converting the great Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. He has also been persistent in asking for the Turkish government to return the Halki Seminary to the Patriarchate and allow it to reopen. The seminary, closed by the Turks in 1971, was the only indigenous Orthodox seminary in Turkey. Orthodox clergy since then must pursue theological studies overseas, yet bishops must meet ridiculously stringent requirements of Turkish citizenship in order to serve at the Phanar, the seat of the Patriarchate. +Bartholomew has also stood valiantly against suggestions by the Turks that the title “Ecumenical” be removed from his office.
And that’s not all. The ancient thread of crude and dangerous persecution from the Ottoman days is strong as ever in modern, moderate Turkey. As journalist Nicholas Gage pointedly observed back in 2008:
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was established in the fourth century and once possessed holdings as vast as those of the Vatican, has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul called the Phanar, or Lighthouse. Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments, its schools have been closed and its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey.
The ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, is often jeered and threatened when he ventures outside his walled enclave. He is periodically burned in effigy by Turkish chauvinists and Muslim fanatics. Government bureaucrats take pleasure in harassing him, summoning him to their offices to question and berate him about irrelevant issues, blocking his efforts to make repairs in the few buildings still under his control, and issuing veiled threats about what he says and does when he travels abroad.
In my book, Facing Islam, I express my concerns over some of His Holiness’ statements, notably in his book, Encountering the Mystery, where he writes of a “dialogue of loving truth” with Islam, and of Orthodoxy having for centuries “coexisted peacefully” with Islam, and where he also projects the chimera of an “interfaith commitment… still felt and lived by Greeks [and] Turks” as an example for all to follow.
Elsewhere in his book, he goes even further, calling for the tearing down of “the wall of separation between East and West, between Muslims and Christians, between all religions of the world,” and writing warmly, “One who achieves the state of inner peace in relation to God is a true Muslim.”
Such unfortunate effusions obscure the Truth of Christianity, giving the impression that +Bartholomew leans towards some sort of syncretic, relativistic creed, embracing the equal validity of all religions and especially of Islam and Christianity.
Yet we must understand such assurances in context, as being carefully crafted to pacify both the hostile government under whose thumb His All Holiness struggles to lead his flock, as well as the sea of easily agitated Muslims who surround the tiny island of Orthodoxy in Istanbul. No doubt +Bartholomew’s concern is to avert Muslim aggression not so much against himself, but against the dwindling Christian population of Turkey, which has endured nearly six centuries of relentless persecution and pressure from their Islamic masters. Sounding a falsely irenic tone is too often a sad necessity for those oppressed under Islamic rule.
While we may be heartened by the brave resolve and serene faith of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the face of such overwhelming odds, if Muslim history is any indication, he may yet earn his heavenly crown in a far more abrupt fashion than his longsuffering, patient endurance of trials. May it not be so, and may God grant His All Holiness many years! And may we even see the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a Christian church!
Ralph Sidway is an Orthodox Christian researcher and writer, and author of Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad. He operates the Facing Islam blog.
 The Serbian Revolution began even earlier than the Greek, 1804-1815, and led to “autonomy” and a constitution in 1835, with full independence in 1867; Bulgaria’s freedom had some help from Russia via the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
 Originally the grandest church in Christendom, the basilica of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) was built by the Emperor Justinian and dedicated in 537, but was converted to a mosque in 1453 after the Muslim conquest of the city; earlier Hagia Sophia basilicas in Constantinople dated back to the fourth century. This building was a Christian church for over 900 years before the Great City fell.
 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery, Doubleday, 2008, pp xxxvii, 196, 174.
 Ibid., 205, 209.