ISTANBUL (Reuters)–“The ties of this land are strong. I was drawn back by the blue of the sea, the color of the sky,” he says. A Greek Orthodox Christian, Zografos, now 63, and his wife today tend to the 19th-century St. Nicholas Church, where his grandfather painted vibrant icons, on Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, an island off the Istanbul coast.
Heybeliada was home to a few thousand ethnic Greeks when he left, Zografos says. About 25 remain, part of a dwindling community of 2,500 Greeks in Istanbul, the capital of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire until the Ottoman conquest of 1453. İstanbul, a city of 13 million Muslims, is still the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox. “We are proud our patriarch is still here in the land where our faith began. This is holy land,” Zografos says.
But vast numbers of Christians have left their ancient homeland and now make up just 0.13 percent of Turkey’s population of 73 million people. Some 60,000 Armenians and 15,000 Syriac Orthodox also live in Turkey, and there are much smaller communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Chaldeans and others.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the secular Constitution. Turkey spurns the outright religious rule of some Muslim states. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to expand rights for religious minorities to meet the standards of the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join. But many Christians say they still face deep-rooted discrimination. Non-Muslims are tacitly banned from jobs in the state bureaucracy and security forces. Zografos finished primary school and began working at a hairdresser’s at age 13. After finishing military service at age 22, he could not earn enough to provide for his family. “It is hard for Greeks to find work. I knew I had to leave. There was never a chance to make a living here,” he says.
Andreas Zografos walks down the streets of Heybeliada, an island off the coast of İstanbul, after last Sunday’s service at St. Nicholas Church. A Greek-Orthodox Christian, Zografos, 63, and his wife today tend to the 19th-century St. Nicholas Church, where his grandfather painted vibrant icons. The island is known as Halki in Greek.
The EU has said that applications to open places of worship by non-Muslim citizens are generally refused in Turkey and that some groups say security forces monitor their worship. Attacks against Christians are infrequent but sensational. In 2006, a Roman Catholic priest was murdered. Earlier this year, a Catholic bishop was stabbed to death at his home in southern Turkey. The bishop’s driver was arrested, and the Vatican said the murder was not politically motivated. Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was slain in 2007. Three members of a Bible-publishing firm were tortured and killed the same year. No one has been convicted in these cases.
Most of Turkey’s Christians fled in the upheaval of World War I and the ensuing War of Independence. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred and 1.5 million Greeks deported in a population exchange. A treaty with Western powers in 1923 allowed Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities to retain special education and property rights. But decades of economic discrimination and sporadic violence reduced Christians to less than 200,000 by 1955, according to state statistics. Since then, the decline has been precipitous. Today 60 percent of Turkey’s Greeks are over the age of 55, according to the patriarchate.
Zografos’s departure coincided with a peak in tensions between Greeks and Turks in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup, though he says he was spared any fallout and left solely for economic reasons.
Most Syriacs, who speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, abandoned their homeland in southeastern Turkey more recently, fleeing violence between separatist Kurds and the Turkish army in the 1990s.
Turkey has confiscated billions of dollars worth of property belonging to Armenian and Greek foundations when they can no longer fill schools or churches. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled these seizures are illegal. Since 1971 the government has also kept closed the Holy Theological School of Halki, perched on Heybeliada’s highest ridge, called the Hill of Hope. Without a seminary, Bartholomew struggles to dispatch enough clergy to celebrate mass at the churches that do still operate.
At St. Nicholas, Zografos often fills in as a sexton, helping the priest perform basic rituals for the dozen or so elderly worshippers who still come to pray. He remembers Sundays in the 1960s when the congregation would fill the basilica-style church and spill into the narthex. “If I don’t do this, then who will?” says Zografos, who says he is not religious but feels a duty to serve his community. “Soon there will be just one or two of us left on the island. I don’t see anything else but the end.”