In September 2022 we commemorate the centenary of the culmination of the Asia Minor Catastrophe with the burning of the great center of Smyrna. What happened with the burning of Smyrna and the massacre of the defenseless Greek Orthodox Christians of Smyrna was the epitome of a systematic persecution that can only be called genocide. It was a genocide that began in 1894 against the Greek Orthodox and other Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire and unfortunately continued with the birth of modern Turkey and the Kemalist state. This genocide follows centuries of overt and covert persecution of Greek Orthodox Christians who unfortunately existed under Turkish rule since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
What followed the fire of Smyrna in 1922 was the forced exchange of populations from across Asia Minor, the uprooting of Greek Orthodox Christians from a land which since antiquity for 3000 years has flourished as bastion of Hellenism, a land which then became a citadel of baptized and Christianized Hellenism, a land which was a fortress of Romiosini, of Romanity, a land which was and still is another Holy Land for all of Orthodox Christianity. A Genocide had taken place, a Genocide not recognized by some, a Genocide ignored by others, a Genocide ignored by others.
On the Sunday preceding the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), the Church consecrated the day in honor of the martyr bishops of this period of genocide in Asia Minor: Saint Chrysostom, the Metropolitan Bishop of Smyrna , Saint Ambrose, Metropolitan of Moschonisia, Saint Prokopios, Metropolitan of Iconium, Saint Gregory, Metropolitan of Kydonia, and Saint Euthymios, Metropolitan of Silon.
When given the opportunity to leave Smyrna several times by Western diplomats, St. Chrysostom refused to leave, saying he must stay with his flock of Christians. Delivered to an angry Turkish mob who shaved his beard as a sign of great disrespect, Saint Chrysostom was beaten, had parts of his body cut off and his eyes gouged out. His sacred body was never found. He was burned with the city of Smyrna, without even being given a proper burial by his persecutors.
Saint Ambrose of Moschonisia meanwhile was buried alive with nine priests in a pit outside Kydonia. Saint Prokopios of Iconium faced enormous and unimaginable pressure from the Turkish government. Saint Gregory of Kydonia was horribly tortured in prison and killed along with other priests and Greek notables in Kydonia, also refusing to abandon his flock and managing to bring thousands of his flock to the island of Mytilene for refuge. Saint Euthymius of Zelon was also tortured in prison, where he died and gave his soul into the hands of our Lord.
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This blood-soaked and crucified Asia Minor, through its clergy and laity, exudes the spirit of “joyful sorrow”, of harmonylipi (χαρμολύπη), of a spirit of the Cross-Resurrection (σταυροαναστάσιμο πνεύμα) which is of another world, of a kingdom which is not of this world, of crucified but which endures, trusting in the power of the Resurrection of Christ and looking to a hope that lies beyond that in a senseless, illogical, temporary and often evil world.
As heirs to a formidable heritage of Asia Minor, how do we modern Greeks cherish the example, the testimony and the martyrdom of our heroic ancestors of Orthodox faith and Hellenic heritage, our ancestors by blood and by spirit? How to honor their memory? How to imitate their example?
What an incredible legacy the Greek Orthodox Christians of Asia Minor leave us! What a legacy of a people who have provided us for generations with centers of Orthodox Christianity, centers of ecumenical councils and countless martyrs, ascetics, fathers and other saints of the Church – men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated: yet all simple, yet all humble, yet all faithful, yet all pious, yet all God-fearing, yet all loving, yet all hospitable, yet all prayerful, yet all disciplined, yet all patient, yet all ascetics.
How to honor the memory and heritage of Christians in a land that has witnessed the missionary journeys of the great Apostle of the Nations Saint Paul?
How do we honor the memory and the heritage of Christians in a country that has been blessed with epistles that are part of the New Testament: epistles to the Ephesians, epistles to Saint Timothy, the bishop of Ephesus, epistles to the Colossians, to the Galatians, to Saint Philemon?
How do we honor the memory and heritage of Christians in the land who witnessed the activity of St. John the Theologian in Ephesus, who witnessed the work of other Apostles of the Twelve?
How to honor the memory and heritage of Christians in the country that witnessed the presence of the Panagia?
How to honor the memory and the heritage of the Christians of Smyrna, Philadelphia and Tralles to whom Saint Ignatius the Godfather of Antioch, who was the little child whom Christ held in his arms in the Gospel, wrote epistles?
How to honor the memory and heritage of Saint Antipas, Bishop of Pergamon, mentioned in the Apocalypse of Saint John the Theologian?
How to honor the memory and the heritage of Saints Boukoulos, disciple of Saint John the Theologian and first bishop of Smyrna, and of the old Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, successor of Saint Boukoulos, who went to martyrdom, refusing to blaspheme his king and Savior Jesus -Christ?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of saints like the Great Martyrs George (with Cappadocian roots), Anastasia of Cappadocia, Kyriake and Panteleimon of Nicomedia, Marina of Cilicia, Euphemia of Chalcedon, Theodore le Tiro of Pontos and Theodore the Commander of Galatia?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of martyrs like Christopher of Lycia, Tryphon of Lampsachus, Julitta and her 3-year-old son Kyrikos of Iconium, the holy 40 martyrs of Sebastia in Pontos and the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia who been killed while attending liturgy on Christmas Day?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of the pair of non-mercenary saints (the Agioi Anargyroi, Άγιοι Ανάργυροι) Kosmas and Damien?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of great Church Fathers and Saints like Saint Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderful, Saint Stylianos of Paphlagonia, Saint Basil the Great of Cappadocia with his family, Saint Gregory the Cappadocian theologian with his family, and Saint John Chrysostom, who died in exile at Comana de Pontos?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of the great monastic saints Theodosius the Cenobiarch and Saint Savas the Sanctified of Cappadocia (both of whom are deeply connected to the monasteries of the Holy Land under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem) and Saint Irene Chrysovalantou, the great miracle worker , from Cappadocia?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of Saint Mark Eugene, the Metropolitan of Ephesus, the lion who refused a false union with the Roman Catholic world on the eve of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks?
How to honor the memory and the heritage of all the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith under the Turkish yoke, including those of the Genocide of Asia Minor?
How do we honor the memory and legacy of the refugees, the 20th century saints who fled to a free Greece because of the genocide, Saints Arsenios the Cappadocian and Paisios the Athonite, both uprooted and exiled from Farasa of Cappadocia? How to honor Saint Iakovos Tsalikis, patron saint of the island of Euboea, who had fled with his family from Lévisi from Asia Minor, opposite the island of Rhodes, at the age of two?
How to honor the memory and legacy of Saint John the Russian, a slave who shared the common fate of our Greek ancestors, whose Prokopi relics from Asia Minor were transferred to the island of Euboea in an area known as the name of New Prokopi? It is Saint John whose miracles are many, whose powerful intercessions have been seen even during the recent forest fires on the island.
How to honor the memory and legacy of Christians who have been blessed for centuries with the miraculous icon of Panagia Soumela of Saint Luke the Evangelist, which is a spiritual treasure and comfort from the bloody land of Pontos, at Vermion in northern Greece?
I answer the above questions by asking the following set of questions for all of us to think about:
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by driving out or ignoring the Orthodox Christian life that beat their heart? It was believed by our ancestors that in order to abandon the Greek Orthodox faith, one would become a Turk. They linked their faith so closely to their ethnic heritage and daily life.
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by advocating for the removal of the cross from the Greek flag and the removal of icons from public places and classrooms in Greece?
Do we honor the heritage of Asia Minor by advocating and requiring people not to kiss the holy icons and holy relics of saints for fear of catching disease, when so many saints in Asia Minor gave their very blood to venerate and embrace these same icons?
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by advocating multiple disposable communion spoons (lavithes) for fear of catching disease through Holy Communion?
Do we honor the heritage of Asia Minor by cursing Christ, Panagia and the saints with our words?
Do we honor the heritage of Asia Minor by partying, enjoying our moments in bars and cafes – until the very late hours of the night – without even being able to set foot in a church or go to a religious service (whether morning or evening)?
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor when we can never stay for the Easter liturgy? Is it honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by rushing after the song of “Christ is risen”? All the while, do we even know that under the Turks, due to lack of priests as a result of persecution and martyrdom, some areas did not always have a priest to even have an Easter liturgy?
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by not keeping Sunday as the Lord’s Day? Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by not observing the feasts of Christ, Panagia and major saints during the liturgical calendar year?
Are we honoring the heritage of Asia Minor by writing off church fasts as obsolete and not for us? At one time, some of our ancestors considered, in their simplicity, that it was “Turkish” not to fast. Nowadays, do we all know better and we know everything, supposedly, that we ignore fasting?
Do we honor the heritage of Asia Minor by wearing the matakia, the little eyes, to ward off the evil eye? The Turks used to tear off the crosses of our ancestors and put the matakia on them instead. These matakia that the Turks put on their cattle, sending the message that the Orthodox were cattle. However, wearing the little matakia to ward off the evil eye is part of fashion and rage these days.
May the memory of all the victims of the fire in Smyrna and the Genocide in Asia Minor be eternal! May we learn and appreciate our history so that we do not forget what really matters in life and so that we can progress spiritually.