Rev. Gnel Gabrielyan, who represented Sona Eypper, Chairwoman of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Cultural Center, Berlin; Panagiotis Tsavdaridis, from FÖGG, with a member of the Pontos Greek community; Archimandrite Emannuel Sfiatkos, Priest of the Greek Orthodox Parish Ascension of Christ, Berlin and Chairman of the Ecumenical Council Berlin-Brandenburg; Abdullah (Abdo) Arik and wife, Board of the Syrian Orthodox Mor-Afrem Parish in Berlin-Charlottenburg; Amill Gorgis, Syrian Orthodox Chairman of FÖGG (left to right).

Ecumenical Days of Remembrance in Berlin


BERLIN — At a time when political issues are straining relations among European nations, it is all the more important to reflect on what unites them. In this spirit, the European Commission dedicated the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 to the theme of Sharing Heritage. Among the numerous events taking place during this thematic year, under the patronage of German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were two initiatives in Berlin earlier this month, linked to the Day of the Open Monument, which commemorated victims of the Ottoman genocide. Dr. Tessa Hofmann, of the Promotional Society for Ecumenical Monuments for Genocide Victims in the Ottoman Empire (FÖGG), organized a tour on September 8 of the Altars of Remembrance which honor the Armenians, the Greeks from Asia Minor, Pontos and Eastern Thrace, as well as the Aramaens, Assyrians and Chaldeans ( On the following day, she hosted a special day of remembrance for the Greek Orthodox victims of the genocide 1912-1922.

In the presence of diplomatic representatives of the Greek and Armenian embassies, religious leaders of the Greek and Armenian churches, as well as members of the Berlin Greek community, Hofmann recalled that “the concluding chapter of this crime occurred exactly 96 years ago, with the takeover of the undefended Ionian port and capital city Smyrna; there on September 9, units of the so-called liberation armed forces marched in and four days later, after the wind had shifted to a position advantageous to them, set fire to the Christian quarters of the city, beginning with the Armenian quarter Hajnoz.” The nationalist commander Nurettin then ordered males between 18 and 45 deported inland for forced labor, most of whom perished. The remaining Christians, stripped of their citizenship, had to leave. Nurettin was also responsible for implementing the order on January 21, 1921, for 21,000 Greeks to be deported, as well as for the lynching of Archbishop Chrysostomos Kalafatis in Smyrna, and the liberal intellectual Ali Kemal. Nurettin, whom she classified as a “war criminal,” was not only never prosecuted after Turkey was established in 1923, but occupied a high level military position as well as a seat in parliament. “The example shows,” she said, “that the new state integrated war criminals and genocidalists without self-critical reflection as long as they maintained loyalty to the new power holders.”

The date of the event almost coincided also with the ethnic cleansing of Christians from Istanbul on September 6-7, 1955, known as Septembriana, when mobs plundered and burned the Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighborhoods, destroying their churches and cemeteries, torturing Greek priests, raping women and mutilating men. Catholic Uniate Georgians were not spared. Hofmann drew the lesson from Septembriana, that even urban, pluralistic societies may be fragile, and religious or ethnic hatred can rapidly lead to violence. With a view to the current situation in Germany, whose status as a country of immigration is being tested by the refugee crisis, she introduced the keynote speaker, Michael Asderis, author of a book on the history of Istanbul as seen through family history.

The Fate of the Undesired Citizens

Michael Asderis spoke about the “Romyi,” the Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire, so-called because they were the successors to the “Romans,” those who lived in the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The surviving Romyi from Constantinople had lost about 25 percent of their community to emigration after the First World War, and faced an uncertain future. At the Lausanne conference in 1922, Ismet Inönü, leader of the Turkish delegation, had declared Romyi and Armenians to be undesired citizens, and would have expelled them if he could have. In the conference it was decided to let those who had resided within the pre-war city remain. These so-called établis were however restricted in their movements; deprived of their elite, most of whom had emigrated, they were traumatized and at the mercy of the new political leadership.

For years they lived in precarious circumstances, from 1932 on they were excluded from employment as musicians, photographers, drivers, waiters, or in the service sector or construction. In 1941-42 they were corralled into the work battalions for non-Turks of draft age and subjected to discriminatory estate taxes on non-Muslims. Then, in the night of September 6/7, 1955, mob violence raged, leading to deaths, rapes, property confiscation and destruction. In 1964, Greek citizens were deprived of their property and expelled, not only the well-to-do, but also the poorer social classes. Asderis quoted a contemporary French historian who described their plight:

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“Hide and live in fear – that is the fate of many in Istanbul, Greeks or Armenians, who work in a trade that the law forbids them as minorities to engage in. It is common for them to conceal their identity even when they want to rent an apartment.”

Yet, Asderis went on, during the periods of discrimination, there were also moments of great hopefulness. With a peace treaty between Greece and Turkey in 1930, the établis increased in number, because those living in the city at the time, were allowed to stay, and some who had left could return as well. Even Greek culture revived, with musicians and theatre groups performing; but then came the work battalions and severe taxation.

With the emergence of the Democratic Party in 1950, hopes were raised again, as liberal reforms allowed more social and economic freedom for the Romyi. Again, cultural life was reawakened, with theatre as well as Greek language publications. Foundations were again allowed to function, and they restarted work in clinics and nursing homes. Romyi doctors cared for the needy, and in this period of growth all social classes benefited. But then again this wave of optimism was cut short by the 1955 pogrom. As a leading Romyi journalist Andreas Lambrakis put it, “It is apparently the fate of the Romyi, that every ten or fifteen years we are overtaken by a terrible, destructive blow.” Despite this, he said, the Romyi pledged to remain and to rebuild.

Tragically, however, they did not, could not. They were expelled if they held Greek citizenship, and their relatives with Turkish passports followed. One hundred thousand left, numerous committed suicide, more suffered psychological traumas. Asderis said that of the Romyi who had once made up half the city’s population, today only 1,500 are left. What Greek one hears is from tourists, he reported; it is as if this population never existed.

In the Roman Empire, Asderis said, “there was a special punishment for famous persons, the damnatio memoriae, whereby commemoration was condemned. Everything that recalled this person was to be erased. It seems as though this judgment has been declared on the society I come from.” And to illustrate the present situation, he noted two incidents: a Greek photographer visiting Istanbul was burgled, all his cameras and pictures stolen. He took it as an omen and fled. Then, on the 50th anniversary of the pogrom, an exhibit with photos was held, until nationalists broke in and ravaged the show.

åThe fate of the Romyi was shared by other Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire, and it is thanks to people like Dr. Tessa Hofmann and her association, who organize such moving commemorations, that the undesired citizens are not the forgotten citizens. At the Berlin event, the leading representatives of the communities laid wreaths and flowers at the monuments. That it was an ecumenical act is visible in the photograph showing the Greek Orthodox parish priest Father Emmanuel Sfiatkos and the Berlin parish priest of the Armenians, Rev. Gnel Gabrielyan.




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