12/27/2005, 00.00
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Three churches in Yesilkoy mark the passage of St Stephen

by Mavi Zambak

The three sacred buildings of Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics, recall the first martyr, whose body is said to have passed from the place. There is the custom of offering bread and roast mutton.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Some 20km away from the heart of Istanbul – so unique in the world for the intertwining of different civilizations which have alternated throughout the centuries, and for being still today a meeting point between western and eastern culture – it is possible to find, right next to the airport, on the   banks of the Marmara Sea, a peaceful and well-off town: Yesilkoy. In front of the small port and between silent beaches, the Capuchins have been the custodians of the Latin Katolik Kilisesi for nearly 150 years. It serves as a convent and a hostel and especially as a parish and reference point for Catholics of Latin rite as well as for Orthodox of Syrian rite.

The area in which the establishment is found has been called St Stephen since 1932. It was a vacation spot: isolated in the middle of the countryside, it was a paradise for hunters of goats and boar.

Now, an ever increasing number of families is building splendid, luxurious villas in this place, a few metres from the sea, to escape from the chaos of the Paris of the East.

Although the type of the population is changing, customs and traditions have not passed away, especially those linked to the person of St Stephen, whose remains are believed to be been there.

The tradition goes that while the relics of the Protomartyr St Stephen were being ferried by sea from Jerusalem to Rome, it was decreed that they should visit Istanbul too. As the ship they were on was making its way along the Marmara Sea, it was surprised by a storm and sheltered in a small port before the city. The residents killed some sheep and offered the roast meat, together with abundant bread and water, to the exhausted sailors, while Stephen's body was revered with profound devotion.

Whether this is merely stuff of legend or whether it really happened, the fact is that the history of crusades mentions this place and St Stephen in the "Latin" chronicles: "In 1200, the Franco-Venetian crusaders, arriving near Constantinople, paused to discuss the taking of the city. The council of the counts, barons and doges of Venice was held in the small, Greek church of St Stephen, in the convent some three leagues away from the city of Constantinople". Thus a small church and a convent were cited, perhaps a small monastery of Greek hermits. And now there is a Greek-Orthodox Church, completely rebuilt in 1844, dedicated to St Stephen.

A few hundred metres from this church, there is an Armenian Orthodox Church – rebuilt in 1826 and restored to pristine state in 1985 – as well as the Catholic church of the Capuchins; both have also been dedicated to St Stephen for centuries. Is this a mere, banal coincidence? Certainly, they form an ecumenical triangle, coming together on 26 December to celebrate the memory of the first Christian martyr.

To mark the transit of St Stephen's body on this beach, the Byzantine church has, since time immemorial, solemnly celebrated this day. Today there is still a grand Eucharistic celebration in the Greek-Orthodox Church (with the Patriarch Bartholomew I present together with all the Orthodox priests of Istanbul). When loaves of bread and reproductions of the great icon of St Stephen conserved in the Orthodox Church are offered to those present, several mountain goats are killed and their meat distributed among hospitals and other social institutions, to feed the poor and indigent, especially orphans and elderly people.

Whether it is true or not, people like to think that the "presence" of this saint on this soil, brings forth faith, charity and communion still today.

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