In a journey that coincided with the third historic liturgy at Panagia Soumela in Trapezounda by the Ecumenical Patriarch, members of Melbourne’s Greek Australian community recently made a pilgrimage to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey).
Bishop Ezekiel of Dervis concelebrated with Patriarch Bartholomew and made the visit with accompanying members – Father Emmanuel from Perth, Father Stavros from Nunawading, Father Eustathios from Brunswick, and Melbourne’s Greek community members Stelios Koukouvitakis and Eugenia and Dennis Vandoros.
The journey, which took place from 9 to 22 of August, began in Constantinople. The group visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate and His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, engaging in a conversation about his life in Constantinople.
Mr Koukouvitakis says he remembers vividly the Patriarch’s last visit to Australia 10 years ago.
“Instead of welcoming him they threw lemons at him. Some newspapers called him the Turk Patriarch. He lives under captivity, he is more Greek than me or you,” Mr Koukouvitakis says.
“Think about what it would be like to be in some place where everybody is watching what you are doing. His life is not the best possible, but we are lucky because the Turkish government can’t touch him.”
The Patriarch has over 30 churches under his responsibility which he must keep open. If that’s not the case, the Turkish government will take control over them.
Today, there are only a handful of Greek Orthodox Christians left in Turkey and most are elderly.
“He has to stay there. He would never agree to leave the place where he and his grandparents were born.”
Mr Koukouvitakis believes he is very lucky to have met the Patriarch. He describes him as a simple man, who talks to everybody. He also hopes that the Greeks of Melbourne will see the Patriarch again in the future.
In Constantinople, the group of Australian pilgrims visited Hagia Sophia, once a church and a mosque and today – a museum.
Mr Koukouvitakis was disappointed to see the damage that had been done to the icons.
“I was proud as a Greek to see what our fathers built there, this great building and museum. However, I was annoyed when I went inside to see that they had turned the church into a mosque.”
The journey took them to Panagia Vlahernon, a church in the middle of Constantinople.
For the pilgrims, it was an exciting experience, as they met with many other visitors from Greece who all sang Upermaho (O, invincible champion) in Greek. For Mr Koukouvitakis it was a humbling experience.
From there, they visited the Theological School of Halki which has been closed down to this day by the Turkish government. As a consequence the church can’t train new priests, potential new patriarchs, who under Turkish law have to be born in Turkey.
The experience of being at the Liturgy in Trapezounda was ecstatic, says Mr Koukouvitakis. It is not the same as hearing about it or seeing it in photos.
“We were very excited to be at Panagia Soumela.
“Some churches had been turned into museums and to go in and venerate the icons you had to pay. Others were turned into mosques for Islamic purposes. Not even one Christian, they were all gone.”
He says the entire experience made him feel proud as a Greek but also very depressed about what the Greek people had lost.
Within his mixed feelings, there is a sympathy towards the Turkish people but also anger for what the Turkish government has done to the Greeks.
“With hate they destroyed icons in the church.
“I went to a place of my dreams, I’m happy for what my people did there, and I would go again. I saw a lot of things but I did not see any [Greek] life there.”
For another pilgrim, Eugenia Vandoros, the meeting with the Patriarch was a mind blowing experience.
“He can make whoever he speaks to feel comfortable, he can relate to anyone. It was mind blowing meeting him, I’ll never forget it.
“With the Divine Liturgy being by invite only, we felt privileged that we were able to attend. For me, it was very emotional,” Ms Vandoros says.
“I felt out of place, but I had this inner strength.
“We went to Cappadocia and visited its churches. Visiting these places and these churches and seeing icons that were vandalised and disrespected – coming from a Greek Orthodox perspective, it was the hardest thing to deal with. By the end of the tour it was like I couldn’t walk into another of these places, spiritually it was very hard.”
*Peter Dalambiras is a journalism student at Deakin University.
source: Neos Kosmos