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Love Thy Neighbour: The church and the refugees

Priests in the Balkans are among those helping the thousands reaching Europe's shores — even as some of their colleagues raise fears about the arrival of large numbers of Muslims

Kostas Koukoumakas Thessaloniki, Athens, Lesvos, Belgrade and Subotica
Father Stratis Dimou, a Greek Orthodox priest on the island of Lesvos, at the charity he founded to help refugees and migrants. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

At around 6 a.m. on June 1, 2015, the puttering sound of a small engine carried over the calm sea to a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Soon an inflatable boat carrying some 20 people came into view.

As the boat approached Eftalou beach on the north side of the island, passengers raised their hands to the sky and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is the Greatest!" in Arabic).

Within an hour, two more boats had landed on the beach. Most of those on board were from Syria, Afghanistan and various African nations. The crossing of around 10 km from the Turkish coast was the latest stage of a long journey. For the first time, they were setting foot on European soil.

About 25 km away in the village of Kerami Kallonis, a 57-year-old Greek Orthodox priest named Stratis Dimou, a tall man with sparkling blue eyes, received word of the new arrivals by phone.

Father Stratis immediately left his home for the small building that houses "Agkalia" ("hug" in Greek), the charity he founded in 2009 to help refugees and migrants. He prepared sandwiches and set out bottles of water for the latest arrivals, who would reach the village by noon on foot. As they entered Greece illegally, Greek law forbids people from transporting them.

Father Stratis, who wore an oxygen mask to counter breathing difficulties, told me the charity had given away more than 60 tonnes of food donated by local people and helped more than 10,000 migrants and refugees.

"Just recently three women arrived at the village — two of them were pregnant. All three had lost contact with their husbands and their children. We took action and reunited the families," he said.

"It was then that one of the husbands stood in front of me and kissed me. Love has no religion. Saint Paul writes in the Epistle to the Corinthians: 'If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal'."

...

People from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos on June 1, 2015. Photos: Kostas Koukoumakas

Scenes like the one on Eftalou beach have been repeated countless times on Greek islands in recent months as Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis in decades.

This year, some 800,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece by sea. In all of 2014, there were only 43,500 such arrivals. More than 3,600 people have died or been reported missing after trying to reach Europe by sea this year, according to the UN refugee agency.

In much of Europe, Christian churches and charities are heavily involved in efforts to help refugees and migrants. But in Greece, the Orthodox Church does not play such a prominent role and some priests have even suggested that Muslim migrants pose a danger to the country.

However, other priests have taken the same view as Father Stratis, who succumbed to lung cancer on September 2, 2015. He died on the same day as Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose death became a global symbol of the refugee tragedy after pictures of his body, washed up on a Turkish beach, were published around the world.

These clerics see it as part of their Christian mission to help those arriving from the war zones of the Middle East and South Asia and from the impoverished nations of Africa.

The monk and the refugee

Father Chrysostomus Hatzinikolaou, 41, is a monk who lives in a monastic community on Mount Athos in northern Greece. The monks who live there are considered introverted and conservative but Father Chrysostomus has formed an unlikely friendship with Amint Fadoul, a 29-year-old Syrian lawyer who protested against President Bashar al-Assad and fled his homeland in 2013 fearing for his life.

In May this year in a café in Thessaloniki, the monk, a tall figure in a black cassock with a steady gaze, and Fadoul, wearing a blue jacket and occasionally checking his phone, recounted the events that brought them together.

"In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one that treated the wounded foreigner ... didn't let him into his home."

- Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki

At the beginning of 2014, Father Chrysostomus was visiting the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery on Heybeliada, a small island off Istanbul, when he met Fadoul, who shares his Orthodox faith.

In the middle of last year, Fadoul got in touch with the monk and asked for help to try to move to Greece legally. He could not renew a visa to allow him to remain in Turkey.

Father Chrysostomus contacted the Greek authorities but no solution could be found. At that point, Fadoul decided to do what hundreds of thousands of others have done this year  — to pay a trafficker, in his case 1,250 euros, to get him into Europe.

As Christmas approached, at midnight on December 23, 2014, he boarded an inflatable boat near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast along with 36 other people from Syria, Iraq and Cameroon and began a dangerous journey to the Greek island of Samos.

At one point, Fadoul looked at the map on his mobile phone and realised the boat was too far away to reach land with the fuel it had on board.

"I believed that we would drown," Fadoul said.

At 2.45 a.m., he sent a text message to Father Chrysostomus, asking him to call for a rescue helicopter.

Father Chrysostomus took up the story: "I was at my village in Florina, northern Greece; it was Christmas Eve. I called someone I knew back in Samos and he told me that there was no way to mobilise a helicopter or a survival craft. Also, the authorities would ask me how I knew about the migrants and there was a risk of getting charged with complicity in trafficking. I couldn't do anything but pray."

Amint recalled: "In the midst of the night, the boat hit the rocks. We fell into the water. It was dark. I swam with all my strength and finally I set foot on the shore. It was a miracle."

He made his way to Thessaloniki and has found shelter in a house owned by Father Chrysostomus. He is learning Greek at the city's university and considering applying for political asylum in order to stay in Greece.

Father Chrysostomus said he would have helped Fadoul even if he were not a Christian.

"Saint Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Galatians: 'There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female'," he said.

"We start to fear them"

It may seem obvious that if Christian priests followed Jesus’ exhortation to "Love thy neighbour as thyself", they would help refugees. But this is not always the case.

Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki is one of the highest-profile priests in the Greek media. He has often spoken out against migrants in his sermons.

In his office, he told me that Muslim refugees pose a threat to Greeks' religious beliefs.

"Unfortunately, these days there are no voices of resistance against the assault that is taking place and whose aim is to lure believers away from the Orthodox Christian faith — and to execute them when they do not submit," he said.

"Not even in the Middle Ages would one witness what jihadists are doing these days. When we are told that there are extremists among the immigrants, then we start to fear them."

Reminded that Holy Scripture teaches love towards foreigners, Anthimos disarmingly responded: "Exactly! To love them, not to be the victims along with them. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one that treated the wounded foreigner took care of his wounds, carried him to an inn and even paid his bill. But he didn't let him into his home."

 
 Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki has spoken out against Muslim migrants in his sermons. Photo: Alexandros Avramidis


Anthimos is not the only senior churchman to voice such views. The rhetoric of Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus is both xenophobic and racist. In May 2015, he distributed a circular to all churches in Piraeus, condemning anti-racism legislation introduced by the Greek government and a decision to build a mosque in Athens. Seraphim did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

Niki Papageorgiou, an associate theology professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said xenophobic attitudes had no basis in Orthodox theology, which values tolerance. But, she said, the Greek Orthodox Church often sees itself as a guardian of Greek traditions and language.

"Some Orthodox priests, and also people close to the church, think that the Greek nation and the Orthodox religion are one and the same. This is the main reason the church is a conservative institution and the people within it are usually conservatives who fear opening up, or even see technology as a bogeyman," Papageorgiou said.

Angeliki Ziaka, an assistant professor of the history of religions at the same university, said openly racist priests represent only some tendencies within the church, but their outspoken comments mean they are "heard louder than those working in silence and producing significant beneficial work".

One priest who has taken a stand against xenophobia is 55-year-old Father Prokopios Petridis, the assistant bishop at the Metropolis of Nikea in Athens. Until 2009, he was a vicar at the church of Agios Panteleimonas in the Athens neighbourhood of the same name, which has a large immigrant population.

This area is also a stronghold of the far-right Golden Dawn party. At the end of 2007, a group of young people — who later turned out to be Golden Dawn members — came to the church and asked Father Prokopios to sign a petition demanding the expulsion of foreigners from the area.

"I answered that as a priest I could not do such a thing," Petridis said, surrounded by pet cats in his apartment, which is decorated with many Christian icons.

He went on to quote the Gospel according to St John: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

 
 Father Prokopios Petridis, who took a stand against xenophobia when working at the Agios Panteleimonas church in Athens. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

Far right extremists unleashed a fierce campaign against Father Prokopios. "The defamation and the verbal attacks started. They were threatening that they would come to Sunday mass to cause trouble," he recalled. "They attacked me verbally on the street: 'Leave this place. You brought the foreigners here!'"

Father Prokopios said he had just "tacit" support from his archbishop and no sympathy from the other priests at his church.

"I was totally alone but I had ordinary people supporting me," he said.

Giving shelter

The Greek Orthodox Church as an institution has few specific projects to support refugees and migrants. But Haris Konidaris, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Athens, the central office of the church, notes that such people are among the thousands who receive assistance daily from soup kitchens organised by parishes throughout Greece.

Also, in June this year, the church-funded charity Apostoli, together with an international network of Orthodox Christian charities, renovated a centre for people arriving on the island of Chios. Workers installed showers and modernised the electrical system at the centre, where 500 people have been living in accommodation originally intended for 110. They also distributed hygiene kits and school packs.

One long-term church initiative to help refugees is a shelter for children who arrive in Greece without an accompanying adult. It is run by the Apostoli charity in the Agios Dimitrios neighbourhood of Athens. Since the shelter opened in 2011, it has given refuge to 168 minors.

"Even if I regarded these people as enemies, it would be my duty to help them"

- Tibor Varga, pastor in the Serbian city of Subotica

Vasiliki Giamali, a social worker who manages the shelter, explained that the building belongs to a local parish. The shelter receives funding from the Greek government and the Athens archdiocese.

Most of the residents go to a school for children from different cultures. At the shelter, psychologists and social workers teach them their rights and try to reunite them with their families.

"At the moment, we're providing shelter to 19 boys, aged 13 to 18," she said. "Most of them come from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan."

Ali Mohammadi, an Afghan in his early twenties who works as an interpreter, lived at the shelter for two years. His father, a government official, was killed by the Taliban. Mohammadi left the country at the age of nine along with his 10-year-old brother.

They lived for almost six years in Iran, working in a marble factory, but Mohammadi always dreamed of reaching Europe. In 2011, he crossed into Turkey and took a boat across the Evros river to enter Greece.

 
 Ali Mohammadi, an Afghan who lived at a shelter for unaccompanied refugee children run by the Greek Orthodox Church's Apostoli charity. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

Mohammadi, who is tall and slim with a long fringe that flops into his eyes, praised the shelter and said no one there ever put pressure on the children to covert to Christianity.

"Although it is an institution run by the church, nobody ever talked to us about Christianity. We were free to go and pray in makeshift mosques in Athens," he said.

Minor role for Serbian church

 The vast majority of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece have continued on to western Europe, travelling through Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary, which is part of the European Union's border-free Schengen zone.

 More than 155,000 migrants crossed into Hungary from Serbia in the first eight months of this year alone, according to the EU's Frontex border force.

 The Serbian capital Belgrade became a key stopping off point on this western Balkan route, with thousands of people camped in small tents in parks around the railway and bus stations.

 But, as in Greece, Serbia's Orthodox Church has not been at the centre of efforts to assist the refugees and migrants. Much of the help came from an ad hoc coalition of charities, businesses and volunteers.

 Like his counterparts in Greece, Father Branislav Jocic, assistant director at the Archdiocese of Belgrade's charity arm, noted the church offers help to needy people of many different backgrounds.

Father Branislav Jocic, assistant director at the Archdiocese of Belgrade's charity arm, in his church in the centre of the city. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

"Every day, at the church's soup kitchens, we give away 1,800 portions of food, not only to migrants but also to unemployed and poor Serbs," Father Branislav said.

He said the Serbian Orthodox Church is not wealthy enough to do more for migrants. "We do not deny any help but we do not have funds," he said.

Experts also point to differences in traditions and outlook to explain why the Orthodox Church tends to be less involved in work with refugees and migrants than, for example, protestant churches and charities.

"Protestantism is more open because of the pluralism within it. We see that in Germany, England or Nordic countries. The social work it develops is more organised and it has played an active role in the emergence of the modern society," said Niki Papageorgiou of the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.

Martin Dutzmann, a senior official in the Evangelical Church of Germany, said the call to serve the poor and oppressed was particularly strong in evangelical Christianity. German evangelical churches were also motivated by the memory of the Nazi era, he said.

"It is in our DNA to understand how these things work and not to want something similar to happen again. We feel that we have a responsibility to help," he said in Thessaloniki, during a trip to visit refugee camps in Greece and Macedonia.

Dutzmann also noted that churches in wealthy countries such as Germany had more funds at their disposal than those in the Balkans.

"We can afford to offer help," he said.

Pastoral care

 The area around the city of Subotica, 160 km north of Belgrade, is the last stop in Serbia for people following the western Balkan route. It became the centre of media attention after Hungary built a fence along the nearby frontier to stop refugees and migrants crossing into the EU.

Farridulah, a 16-year-old Afghan, at the abandoned brick factory in Subotica, northern Serbia, a temporary base for many refugees and migrants hoping to cross into Hungary. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

Tibor Varga, a protestant pastor in Subotica for 25 years, has made it his mission to help the migrants and refugees. We met at an abandoned brick factory outside the city, where people camp out before attempting to cross the border. Varga wore a baseball cap and sports clothing.

"I come to the factory two, three times per week, even daily if needed. I want to talk to the refugees and listen to their stories. I offer them food, clothes, blankets, all thanks to donations," he said. Volunteers from the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres also visit the site.

The conversation was interrupted by a phone call from a farmer, who wanted to donate eggs for the relief effort.

"My initiative is not organised, nor is it a part of a wider plan from the state authorities," Varga explained. He said he did not expect any state funding for his efforts.

Tibor Varga, a protestant pastor in the north Serbian city of Subotica who helps refugees and migrants. Photo: Kostas Koukoumakas

Asked if Orthodox priests in the area were helping refugees in the same way, he suggested talking to them. But other clerics declined to speak. Some said they needed permission from their bishop.

 After a short pause, Varga went on: "Jesus has said: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him — if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.' So, even if I regarded these people as enemies, it would be my duty to help them.

"Shortly before leaving, I asked if I could photograph Varga in his church in the city centre. He gestured to the old factory and people washing themselves with water from a well.

 "This is my church," he said.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

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