The Example of Greek-Turkish Dialogue in Post-9/11 America
Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America,
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
At the onset of the twenty-first century, a new relationship is being forged between my own Greek Orthodox Christian community and the Turkish Muslim community of the United States. That such a dialogue occurs at all surprises some within and beyond these communities, not understanding that such a dialogue has a long and complicated history in Turkey itself. Still, the stereotyped, traditional conflict between the Greeks and Turks has always been more complicated than what is portrayed outside of Greece and Turkey. The fact that the nascent American version of this dialogue between two communities has developed largely following the events of September 11, 2001, is therefore somewhat coincidental; that it has evolved in a society coming to terms with cultural and religious realities largely ignored by the majority prior to those events has only created an atmosphere where our work is increasingly perceived as necessary within both communities.
When coming "face to face" in dialogue, it is always an honor to be with so many people of like mind, who, for the sake of peace and justice and the higher ideals of their individual professions of faith and spiritual law, seek what St. Paul calls "a more excellent way." Surely we "religious types" and others whose intellectual currency is the exchange of ideas between cultures, are in our day and age (a tense time of fear and resentment) unique stewards of a special and exceptional place in history. As representatives of our respective cultures and faiths, as representatives of what our individual culture's legacy has shaped each of us to be, we are the inheritors of a vast wealth of knowledge, beauty, and pain. Surely, even though we are inheritors of history's conflicts-which admittedly, sometimes color our more noble attempts to turn mere tolerance into understanding-we should be able to find some purpose and encouragement in that same history. This is not an easy thing in our time, in this age of constant media noise and lack of historical context.
The Greek Orthodox Christian and Turkish Muslim communities share a unique past; hence, our dialogue emerges from a complex, and, at times, painful history that Orthodox Christianity and Islam, Greece and Turkey have suffered and shared.
Yet we have come a long way. We have traveled a difficult road filled with many obstacles, physical violence, and the metaphorical obstacles of our intellectual insecurities that have perhaps hampered our higher aspirations even more than the former darkness of our historical conflicts. The influential and intellectually challenging Muslim thinker Fethullah Gülen puts it in another way, in broader terms, when he writes:
Negative feelings and attributes often defeat people, pulling them under their domination to such an extent that even the religions that guide people to goodness and kindness are abused, as well as the feelings and attributes that are sources of absolute good.
How truly these words reflect the experience for so many of us and for our ancestors. And struggling with religion's truths-perhaps too weighty for us to comprehend fully and therefore abused by all of us, each of us misapplying our own ideals to baser human endeavors-we have suffered. What we did not understand was that we were suffering together. In retrospect, our shared history contains hope for our shared destiny.
Allow me to depict an image from our shared past, to recount an event shared by Greek Orthodox Christians and Turkish Muslims that is often overlooked. However, it has silently brought a message to us through the ages. In Istanbul, there are two images in the Patriarchate at the Phanar, two mosaics. They grace the foyer at the entrance of the main office building. On the one side is a depiction of St. Andrew, the First Called of Jesus' Apostles and the first Bishop of Byzantium. With him is Stachys, Andrew's successor (from 38-54 CE) in a long line of bishops who have made Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul their home to the present. On the other side of that foyer at the Phanar is a mosaic that depicts the Patriarch Gennadios. He stands with his hand open, receiving a document being handed to him by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. It is the Firman, the legal document guaranteeing that the Orthodox Church would continue its traditions and mission among its people during Muslim Ottoman rule.
The first image depicts the beginning of one of our peoples' faith traditions. The next image depicts the inherent understanding of tradition that the progenitors of the Turkish nation had and would continue to keep. Our shared history is, obviously, something less than perfect. It is a human story about human people. Nevertheless, time and the tides of numerous historical fortunes have brought us to this moment in the United States. And we are together at this moment, in yet another time, in ways that could have only occurred because of this culture's strengths. Imagine what this dialogue might mean to our ancestors if they were to see us now-Turks and Greeks together, sharing freedom, sharing meals at banquets, working together in a common cause and, most importantly, hoping for a still better future.
I, a Greek Orthodox bishop, one born in the United States, whose spiritual ties are to that great city on the shores of the Bosphorus, have stood before Turkish audiences and the people of America's multi-cultural, multi-ethnic faith traditions, as an honored guest. We have been together at a table laden with the true food of human being-of human existence: understanding, mutual respect and hope.
Our future is contingent upon our acknowledgment of the past. History is always the greatest teacher. And after the long, difficult history of our interactions, we have something else that can and must help us become even greater witnesses: each of our own cultures and of the shared experiences we still remember. It is perhaps a difficult truth to embrace, but those who have been enemies quite often understand each other better than those who have never been part of their conflict. In the film, The Matrix Reloaded, one character says to another, whom he has just fought: "You never really know who someone is until you fight him."
At this point in our history, when the need to fight has long passed, we have an opportunity to look at each other in a unique and intense way, and seeing one another in truth and love, we may yet see ourselves in the other. And this then may become the key to our common future and works of righteousness done in shared hope for a better world.
So, perhaps we have even managed to give goodness to the world together, to save what was the best of our respective histories, and allow the future to be a mirror, worthy of the deepest truths of our faiths, in which to see the truest reflection of our humanity. Turan Oflazoðlu says, "What we need is to enrich ourselves with those aspects of foreign culture which are not congenial to our nature." We must seek the "other" amongst us and invite them into our lives. We must share our hopes our fears, our joys, and our sorrows. We must find ways of transcending our conflicts, both historical and intellectual, and create a new future together. My reflection on this dialogue is that, "We are the world in small." May we may now truly praise the Creator's gift of life in all its diversity, and walk together into the future in a new way. I hope that we will take the second step with the same sense of warmth and respect that we have experienced the first step. To quote the late, great prophet of reconciliation, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras- ἐλάτε νά κοιτταχOούμε - "come, let us look into one another's eyes."