» 08/22/2011 TURKEY Bartholomew visits the ruins of Christian sites on the Black sea by NAT da Polis The ecumenical patriarch celebrates the liturgy on Mount Sümela, which was a dynamic Christian community until 1923. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan delivers a message on freedom of thought and religion. Bartholomew calls for the return of properties seized from religious minorities.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I ended a three-day pilgrimage during which he visited a number of Christian sacred sites on the Black Sea, including the ruins of the monasteries of Vazelon and Peristeriota. Both structures were located on the old Silk Road and were once home to dynamic Christian communities, and the birthplace of important intellectual and spiritual figures, like Cardinal Bessarion.
Despite the Ottoman presence, Christians survived in Asia Minor until 1923, when modern Turkey was founded. After carrying out massacres against the country’s Christian communities, its rulers expelled survivors to Greece, Russia and Georgia. This was followed by a process of forced Islamisation as churches were turned into mosques and monasteries were left to go to ruins.
The pilgrimage began last Monday with a visit to the monastery dedicated to Our Lady on Mount Sümela, where for the second time since 1923a Byzantine divine liturgy was performed. The first time occurred last year. And like last year, hundreds of Orthodox Christians flocked to the site from Greece, Russia and Georgia, many of them the descendants of the people who fled these lands. Even though they speak the same Greek dialect and have the same customs of the people now living in the area, who welcomed them with warmth and hospitality, they are divided from them by religion.
Bartholomew’s homily focused on this issue. He told his audience that Muslims also venerate Mary as the mother of the prophet Jesus. In his address, the Patriarch repeatedly spoke about peace, saying that religion itself does not cause war.
Following the homily, Bartholomew also spoke about the crisis that is currently affecting the world. “We must put aside the obstacles that keep us from God and the Virgin Mary, who for us Christians constitutes the link between the human and the divine. We must give up passions and selfishness, which wraps power in a veil of illusion and self-righteousness and ultimately lead man to self-destruction. It is time to hold up what Our Lady taught us, namely selfless love for one’s fellow man and the unbeatable force of humility. These virtues typified the Virgin, also known as ‘Platytéra ton ouranon’ (more spacious than the heavens) and Lady of angels and men,” the patriarch said.
After celebrating Mass, Bartholomew continued his pilgrimage to various Christian monuments, now just ruins, to the sound of “Christ has risen”. He was accompanied by Dimitrios, archbishop of the Americas, and Panteleimon, archbishop of Yaroslav and Rostov, who was representing the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill I (who had been invited to co-celebrated Mass in these sites), in the presence of the mayor of the nearby town of Maçka Eroglu, which played host to them.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who is from the town of Rize, also on the Black Sea, spoke at the event. In his address, he rejected objections by extremist Turkish nationalists who were against allowing the Mass in such sites. He also used the occasion to describe his political philosophy.
“Dear friends, today Christians came to celebrate their liturgy,” Erdogan said. “Some wonder what we lost or gained from this. What I can tell you is that those who are certain of their faith do not fear freedom of religion, and those who believe in their ideas do not fear freedom of ideas and thought. Read Ottoman history, and you will see that freedom of religion existed, which the Ottomans used to their advantage in their dialogue with the international community.” In a direct appeal to extremists, he said, “for the love of God do not create fears and cause disorder in the country”.
In an interview with NTV, a Turkish TV station, conducted during the pilgrimage, Bartholomew thanked Turkish authorities for what they have done so far. Nevertheless, he stressed the importance of re-opening the Halki Theological School and returning properties seized from religious minorities in the past, to prevent the latter “from turning to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”