Tuesday, 18 July 2000

Easing tension in Aegean
brings hope to Greek Muslims


The new rapprochement between Turkey and Greece has been drawing the two neighbours closer to each other in a way that has surprised Greeks and Turks in equal measure.

As a consequence of generous mutual responses to last year’s earthquakes, Greece is advising Turkey about its application for EU membership; Athens and Ankara are now talking about co-operation in a wide range of fields that go beyond trade and tourism; travel between the two countries is becoming much easier; and for the first time in decades Turkish troops landed on Greek sovereign territory this summer to take part in a joint military exercise.

The unexpected outbreak of goodwill has brought hope to the hard-pressed Greek minority in Turkey and to the mainly Muslim Greeks of Turkish origin. Greece is in the midst of a bruising national debate about official identity cards, with church-organised street demonstrations in support of the demands of Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, who is close to identifying Greek nationality and membership of the Greek Orthodox Church.

But in recent years the government has become more sensitive to the needs of Greece's minorities, and is supporting plans to build a new mosque in Athens, the first since Greek independence in 1821.

Traditionally, Jews have had an easier time in Greece than the Muslim minority. Thessaloniki was long a centre of Ladino or Sephardic Greek culture, and despite the decimation of the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation of Greece, there are important Jewish museums on a number of islands.

But, until recently, Muslims found it difficult to gain acceptance for their contribution to culture and society. Now the thaw in relations in the Aegean is bringing hope to Muslim communities throughout Greece.

The island of Kos in the northern Dodecanese lies a few short miles off the Bodrum peninsula of Turkey: Turkish towns and houses are clearly visible, and in recent months, an increasing number of yachts with Turkish flags have been docked along the marina in Kos harbour, beneath the walls of the medieval Crusader castle. Kos has always had a sizeable Turkish population, and because the island only reunited with the rest of Greece after the second World War, the Muslim minority mercifully escaped the cruel exchanges of Muslims and Christians between Turkey and Greece in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Today the island has about 2,500 Muslims, many of them living in Platania. The village lies 2km from Kos town, on the slopes up to the Asklepion, the temple of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, founded just after the death of Hippocrates.

For generations the village was known as Kermetes, or Germe in Turkish. But in the wake of Greek-Turkish conflict in Cyprus, its name was changed to Platania in 1964 and the Turkish school became a Greek national school.

And yet the village has lost none of its Oriental charm and mystique. Many of the houses look like houses in once-Turkish villages in Crete, and the square, with its working Ottoman fountain, is surrounded by tavernas run by local Turks, serving traditional Turkish fare, including Arap, Moustafa and Neriman, Gin’s Corner and Serif.

Ali Karavezer (35), who helps run Serif, his father’s restaurant on the square, recalls more difficult times. After uncles and aunts migrated to Bodrum, Kusadasi and Smyrna (Izmir), his father considered sending the young Ali to Turkey, and later as an 18-year-old conscript he was sent to the farthest corners of Greece. His fellow islanders, who were Greek Orthodox, were allowed to stay closer to home.

“Now I don’t think we have many problems,” he says, as we watch army trucks on manoeuvre making their way through the narrow streets. “Things are getting better. This year was really good,” he says, and gives the credit for many of the changes to the Prime Minister, Costas Simitis. In recent months, his aunt was able to return from Bodrum to Platania to visit her 92-year-old mother for the first time in 12 years.

He says his family has lived on Kos for 1,000 years. Today his many Greek friends no longer see him as a Turk and “few people from Kos see us as second-category people”. A banner for Galatasaray hangs in the house, but Ali supports the Greek team Panathanaikos – the only point of disagreement with his closest friend, Niko, a Greek Orthodox who supports Olympiakos.

In a side street, the parish priest of Aghios Athanasios sits outside his church in the summer sun while the imam climbs the minaret of the mosque to call out the mid-afternoon prayers.

Down the hill, on the way back into Kos, the Muslim cemetery is an oasis of quiet, with neat graves shaded by strong plane trees. The older, Ottoman-era graves are marked by traditional, tall, slender gravestones, leaning in rows against each other, carved with inscriptions in the traditional Arabic-style Turkic script and capped with turbans, dated according to the Islamic calendar.

But the newer graves have surprisingly modern stones, with their names carved, surprisingly, in neither Ottoman nor Greek letters, but in the modern Roman alphabet, and the dates following the Western calendar.

Dotted among the graves are a few unexpected symbols: the star and crescent which serves as both a Muslim and Turkish symbol; or a photograph of the deceased (an unthinkable grave decoration in many Muslim societies).

A few fields farther down, the gates of the Jewish cemetery are locked. The last remaining Jew of Kos was buried here about 10 years ago. He was the only Koan Jew to survive the transportation of the local community, along with the Jews of Rhodes, to Auschwitz in 1944.

Back in Kos, close to the ancient Agora, the former synagogue is a beautiful Art Deco building, but it has been disused since 1944 and stands locked in bleak isolation in the midst of the bustle of “Bar Street”. The prospect for future generations of Muslims on Kos looks more promising.

This news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 July 2000.

Tuesday, 9 May 2000

An Irishman’s Diary: Cyprus

An Irishman’s Diary
Patrick Comerford

Sir Garnet Wolseley: first British High Commissioner of Cyprus

Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived in the port of Larnaca on July 22nd, 1878, with 1,500 British troops, to a warm welcome from Bishop Kyriannos of Kitium. A week later, Wolseley took up residence in Nicosia as the first British High Commissioner or governor and commander-in-chief. Wolseley was an Irishman through and through, and a curious link in the inextricable association between Ireland and Cyprus, two islands at the north-west and south-east extremities of Europe.

The Wolseley family gave its name to Mount Wolseley in Co Carlow, while Garnet's younger brother, Frederick York Wolseley, gave his name to Wolseley motor cars. Both brothers were born in Dublin in Goldenbridge House, now part of the famous convent and school in Inchicore.

Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913) might have been destined for a life in holy orders: his grandfather, no fewer than six of his uncles, and four first cousins were clergymen in the Church of Ireland. But instead he entered the British army and followed a career that took him to Burma, Crimea, India, China, the Gold Coast, Egypt and South Africa.

Suez Canal

For much of that career, his aide-de-camp was Lord Charles William Beresford from Portlaw, Co Waterford, son of the fourth Lord Waterford, who was also a rector in the Diocese of Armagh. Wolseley’s stay on Cyprus was short if not sweet: he left within a year to become Governor of Natal and Transvaal. Later, he commanded the British forces in Egypt, where he captured the Suez Canal. His victory at Tel el-Kabir earned him a peerage from Gladstone and gave an exotic name to a Dublin dairy, the TEK. Wolseley’s expedition to save Khartoum arrived two days after Gordon had been killed; he earned himself another peerage for his pains.

After Wolseley and Beresford left Cyprus, the British administrators on the island were soon joined by other Irish-born officials: the future Lord Kitchener mapped the island, and was an enthusiastic curator of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

The eventual departure of the British from Cyprus in 1960 marked the passing of just the latest in a long line of foreign rulers, including Ottoman Turks, Venetians, Genoese, French, Crusader knights, Arabs, Byzantines and Romans. But Cyprus never lost its essentially Greek character. In Greek mythology, this was the island where Aphrodite was born; philosophers know it as the birthplace of Zeno the Stoic; classicists treasure its Minoan remains; Biblical scholars know Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel here; the world of theatre associates it with Othello; while lovers of literature know its links with Lawrence Durrell and the Nobel prize-winning Greek poet, George Seferis, who wrote many of his love poems at Ayia Napa and on the coasts and bays nearby.

Wedding business

Perhaps it was because this was the island of love, rather than military expediency, that Richard the Lionheart decided to have his wedding here during the Crusades. But when he married Berengaria of Navarre on May 12th, 1191, in Limassol, he could hardly have realised he was the forerunner of a healthy sector of the Cypriot economy: in recent years the wedding-with-honeymoon package-holiday business has been a major growth area of the tourist industry.

The Anglican chaplain in Paphos can expect up to 400 weddings this year, while his counterpart in Ayia Napa, the Rev Robin Brookes, former Rector of Drumcondra, is expecting about 150. “Last year it was, at times, pretty exhausting, when there were eight in a week, two weeks running – which also means there will have been eight interviews and eight rehearsals, as well as the wedding service for real.”

This year, he says, “the first wedding of the season was on Valentine’s Day, the last is at the end of October.” One recent wedding almost took place in the Lito Clinic because the bridegroom had a ruptured appendix. But the crisis was dealt with in time for him to come and make his vows at the small Ecumenical Gatehouse Chapel, shared by Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics in the cloisters of Ayia Napa Monastery. “Another couple were totally on their own,” says Robin Brookes, “so that my wife Val and one of the tour company wedding reps had to act as witnesses.”

On Sunday evenings in summer, he leads a small congregation of holiday-makers in the Capo Bay Hotel in Protaras. But the congregation in Ayia Napa serves a population of “ex-pats” from disparate backgrounds, including Switzerland, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Britain and Ireland.

Irish parishioners

He was hardly surprised to find Irish clerical colleagues and parishioners when he arrived. They include a Baptist pastor from Northern Ireland stationed with the United Nations peace-keeping forces, and “Sue at the washing machine shop, who was in a Northern Ireland parish when the Archbishop of Armagh was the curate and youth leader!”

The use of the gatehouse chapel was a generous gesture, but was part of the long ecumenical tradition of the monastery. The original church had a double nave, serving both Greek Orthodox and Latin Catholic traditions, while the monastery has served as a conference centre for the World Council of Churches.

On the steps outside stands a sycamore tree where the poet Seferis was honoured after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Some of his most romantic love poems and songs were inspired by the bays and beaches around Ayia Napa, and Sto periyiali to chripho (“On the secret seashore”), set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, has lost none of its popularity for Greeks and Cypriots alike.

The island of Aphrodite continues to inspire and attract both lovers and poets.

This feature was first published in The Irish Times on 9 May 2000

Saturday, 22 April 2000

Jesus of history,
Christ of faith

Patrick Comerford

The Changing Faces of Jesus, by Geza Vermes. London: Penguin, 304 pp, £18.99 in UK

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredrisksen. London: Macmillan, 348 pp £20.00 in UK

The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong. London: HarperCollins, 458 pp, £19.99 in UK

Tomorrow morning, churches throughout Ireland will be full for Easter morning. Many will believe in the Risen Christ; others will have doubts but still cling to the hope of keeping or recovering some meaningful expression of faith; and some will be complete doubters, but will be there because Easter is yet another key date in the calendar of Western civilisation. The Yale theologian and historian, Prof Jaroslav Pelikan, says: “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries.”

The first Easter at the beginning of a new millennium is an appropriate opportunity to look at what is being said about Jesus by theologians, Biblical scholars and the historians of religion. It is over a century since Martin Kahler made a distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”. More recently, scholars have tried to distinguish between the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus” (Marcus Borg), the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of piety” (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza), and the “historical Jesus” and the “real Jesus” (John Meier).

Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann immobilised work on the historical Jesus for decades. But in recent years, the trail-blazing work of Ernst Kasemann has seen a new quest for the historical Jesus. The most noteworthy and controversial recent research on Jesus has been published by a group of scholars who call themselves “the Jesus Seminar”. The most brilliant members must be the Irish-born John Dominic Crossan of De Paul University, Chicago, and Marcus Borg of Oregon State University. The seminar and its methods have been subjected to strong criticism and its members have appeared on top-rating TV chat shows, featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and influenced Hollywood producers.

The controversy and publicity they have generated has stimulated publishers’ interest in Jesus, and contributed to the growth in the number of books about him. But the Jesus Seminar is not the only club for scholars working in this field. Others, perhaps, are making even more important, if less publicity-conscious contributions, including E.P. Sanders of Duke University, John Meier of Notre Dame, and N.T. Wright, lately Dean of Lichfield.

Prof Geza Vermes of Oxford was raised a Roman Catholic in Eastern Europe but as an adult returned to the Judaism of his ancestors. Highly respected for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he ploughed a unique furrow in the field of Jesus studies in 1973 with his Jesus the Jew. This was followed by The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1981), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), setting Jesus within the context of first century charismatic holy men and miracle workers in Galilee.

In their new books, both Paula Fredriksen of Boston University and Geza Vermes ask the question: Why was Jesus crucified? Despite the efforts of historical scholars to place Jesus in the context of his times, and the efforts of theologians to explain Jesus in the context of the faith of his followers, both believe the execution of Jesus remains a puzzle. If he was a pious Jew who really posed no threat to the established order, why was he executed in such a barbaric and public fashion? And if he was a real threat to the political establishment, why then, with the exception of Stephen and James, were his followers not pursued and executed also, instead of being left free to preach and spread the message of Christianity?

Both Vermes and Fredriksen link the decision to execute Jesus with the fracas in the temple at the Passover, when Jewish tradition expected the messiah to reveal himself. But neither author explains why the Christ of faith has remained such an enduring figure over the centuries and into a third millennium.

Some years ago, the broadcaster and former nun, Karen Armstrong, looked at the endurance of faith in one God in the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in her A History of God. Now, in her latest book, she looks at the emergence of militant fundamentalism in those three traditions, and the way fear and horror have often been the responses to progress and rationalism.

The violent impact of religious fundamentalists on the world of secular politics is a sharp contrast to the persistent endurance of quiet and questioning faith. Fredriksen and Vermes have tried to ask why that faith so often continues to focus on the figure - often the lonely figure - of one enigmatic Jew executed violently on the first Easter. But perhaps the answer to why that faith has endured with such persistence is to be found less in these books than among the ordinary, often questioning, people who will fill the pews in churches throughout the world tomorrow morning.

Patrick Comerford is a writer on theology and church history and an Irish Times journalist.

This book review was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday, 22 April 2000