The Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox populations in the Middle East as a “soft power” of peace and security in the region
The paramount importance of Greece’s geopolitical position on the map has been known for quite a while. Since the dawn of human civilization, Greece has been at the crossroads between three continents and, due to its privileged geographical position, has created the world’s pioneering civilization, considered to be the cradle of Western civilization.
The Greeks, due to their geographical position, became early on merchants and sailors, as well as outstanding warriors, creating great empires that endured in time. Their travels, explorations, campaigns and tests have shaped an adventurous and smart people who, in order to master the arrogance of their achievements, gave birth to philosophy and logic.
In their early years of prosperity, the Greeks had spread throughout the Mediterranean by establishing colonies. Ever since Alexander the Great, on the lands liberated from the Persian Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, a new world was created, the Hellenistic world, in which Greek settlers and local populations coexisted peacefully and amicably, side by side, and enjoyed together the goods of knowledge and material prosperity.
This “single space” in the eastern Mediterranean continued to exist even after the Roman conquest. Even when the Western Roman Empire dissolved in 476 AD, the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, which included the Balkans, present-day Turkey, the Middle East alongside with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya, endured as a single space until the assault that Islam unleashed in the mid-7th century AD.
For a thousand years, from the end of the 4th century BC until the middle of the 7th century AD, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans were a single area of Hellenistic and later Greco-Roman Culture, that is, namely, of Western Culture.
Despite the centuries that have since passed and the effects of the Muslim empires that conquered the region, namely the Arab Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, the supremacy of that world, which lasted for a thousand years, was not completely lost.
The pockets of Greco-Roman culture and Western civilization that remained active to this very day are today’s Greek Orthodox minorities in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan what is considered to be the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In addition to these, Roman Catholic minorities can be added to these populations either as remnants of the Crusades or of eastern churches that were later associated with the Vatican (Eastern Catholic Churches).
At this point, a separate category needs to be added for what is considered to be Oriental Orthodoxy, which should not be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church and which arose from the schism of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.
The Oriental Orthodoxy includes the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church. These churches gather within their ranks the ancient nations of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Syrian and Assyrian Church are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians, even though most of them today are Arabic speaking, the Coptic Orthodox Church includes the descendants of ancient Egyptians and the Armenian Apostolic Church that of the Armenians.
The believers of the Greek Orthodox Church, a subset of the Eastern Orthodox Church, are all descendants of the Greco-Roman populations of the Middle East, regardless of whether the overwhelming majority today is speaking Arabic due to the extensive arabisation.
The Christians of Syria
It is worth noting that once the war in Syria began to intensify and before Greece suspended the operation of the Greek Embassy in Damascus for security reasons (2012), thousands of the local Greek Orthodox population rushed to the Greek consular authorities and filled applications in order to receive Greek passports.
The Greek Orthodox population in Syria was estimated before the war to be approximately 1,100,000 people concentrated mainly in the Mediterranean provinces of Syria, Latakia and Tartus, in Aleppo and the west of the provinces of Hama and Homs. Greece has honorary Consuls in Latakia, Tartus and Aleppo. Fortunately, the Jihadists did not arrive in these areas.
Worldwide, the Greek Orthodox of Syria, along with their diaspora, number 4,600,000 – 4,760,000 believers.
Furthermore, approximately 500,000 Greek Orthodox live in Lebanon. The Greek Orthodox of Syria and Lebanon together are called Antiochian Greeks, adding 18,000 Antiochian Greeks living in Turkey, with another 10,000 living in Antioch itself.
The schism of this Church led to the creation of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which was separated from Greek Orthodoxy in 1724 and has since been in full communion with the Holy See as part of the Catholic Church worldwide.
Melkites are estimated to be 1,600,000. Their number in Syria, by 2010, was 234,000, with active pockets in Damascus and southwest Syria. 27,000 Melkites live in Jordan, 75,000-80,000 in Israel with 3,160 residing in Jerusalem.
In the Palestinian territories, until 2009, the remaining Christians were estimated at 47-50,000, of whom 30,000 Greek Orthodox.
The total number of believers in the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is about 500,000 and this number includes those living in Jordan.
All local Middle Eastern Greek Orthodox Christians and their schisms (excluding the Greek migrants of the past 2 centuries) are conscious as to their descendance of the Greco-Roman populations and the older Greek colonists of Alexander the Great.
It is a population of 2.5 million people in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan and over 6.2 million in the world. All of these people were considered to be Greek or even of Greek origin up to the beginning of the 20th century.
The Ottoman Empire itself dealt with them as if they were Greeks.
The Revolution of 1821
When the Greek Revolution broke out in the Peloponnese, in southern Greece, in 1821 against the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman government, in the context of preventive measures, launched a preemptive persecution of the Greek Orthodox population in Syria and ordered through the issuance of a firman (a decree of the Sultan) the disarmament of all Greek Orthodox in Palestine and Syria, which then included Lebanon.
In Jerusalem the Greek Orthodox were forced to hand over their weapons, wear black (to stand out from the Muslim populations) and work in forced labor to improve the fortifications of the city.
In the 18th of March 1826, a flotilla, made up of 15 Greek ships, under the leadership of General Vasos Mavrovouniotis, attempted to spread the Greek Revolution in the Levant (Middle East) and Greek forces landed in Beirut.
According to then-British Consul John Barker, stationed in Aleppo, in a memo to British Ambassador Stratford Canning in Constantinople, the Revolutionaries were thwarted by a local Mufti and a hastily arranged defense force.
Although initially repelled, the Greeks did manage to hold on to a small portion of the city near the seashore in an area inhabited by local Greek orthodox people, during which they appealed to the Greek Orthodox population “to rise up and join them”, and even sent an invitation to the chief of the local Druzes to also join the Revolution.
On the 23rd of March 1826, the local Ottoman commander, Abdullah Pasha, sent out 500 Albanian mercenaries to avenge the local population for taking part in the failed uprising.
Since the late 19th century, the emerging Arab nationalism, which manifested itself more strongly during the First World War, attempted to impose Arab identity on non-Arab populations as well. Tens of thousands of Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Assyrians then migrated to America. The majority of Greek Orthodox migrated to South and Latin America.
After the end of the First World War, Greece was unable to intervene in favor of its populations in the Middle East because of the military defeat suffered in Asia Minor (1922) by the army of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In addition to the military defeat, Greece also had to manage a massive humanitarian tragedy of 2,200,000 Greeks being persecuted from Turkey and arriving in Greece and over 264,000 dead Greek civilians.
In general, the arabization of the Greeks in Lebanon and Syria was limited to language. In Palestine, however, the Arab-Orthodox and Greek Orthodox were asked to choose sides, and those who remained and did not leave as migrants were pressured to accept if not the Arab identity, at least the Palestinian one.
Officially, for the Arab regimes of the region, all these populations are considered “Arab Christians” while they are not such.
Middle East Christians are the descendants of the ancient peoples and the Greco-Roman populations that inhabited it before the Arab conquest.
Among the Muslims there are “ethnics” that have been islamized, but among Christians there are no Arabs.
For decades these populations have not pre-occupied the West. It was as if they did not exist.
The Greek Orthodox, even though they belong to the West both in origin and lifestyle, are unknown in the West. The only foreign power that tried to reach out, and even before the Cold War, is Russia, which uses Orthodoxy as a means of approaching and manipulating these communities.
It is no secret that Moscow has been taking a keen interest on the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for decades and is trying to place “Arab” Patriarchs in it.
Moscow supports the arabization of the Greek Orthodox because it thus indirectly aspires to turn them into pockets under its own protection and support.
The Russian bases in Syria are located in Latakia and Tarsus not only because these two provinces are on the Mediterranean coast but because they also have large Orthodox populations.
The importance of these populations is not only that they are Christian and secular enclaves in an area plagued by jihad.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchates hold great areas of real estate.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchates are the Churches of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. That is why these Patriarchates are owners of massive pieces of land. They are the state churches of the Eastern Roman World that continued to exist after its collapse.
For instance, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem holds 25% of Israel and 1/3 of the Old City of Jerusalem and vast expanses of land in Jordan.
The land titles of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchates, former state lands of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), were recognized by the first Caliphate when it took over these provinces from the empire of Constantinople as well as from the Ottoman Empire later on.
This land is not “Arab property”, as some circles claim. It is Greek-Roman property. It is property of the Eastern Roman State that passed it onto its Patriarchates and to a certain percentage of the properties of the Grekoroman – Greekorthodox inhabitants of the area who had bequeathed them to the Church.
The Greek Orthodox populations, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchates and the enormous Greek Orthodox real estate are under the constant pressure of Arabization and the Russian factor.
Retaining the Grekoroman – Greekorthodox identity is vital for security and peace in the Middle East.
Hellenism was always considered to be the bridge over time that normalized contrasts on a regional level and has always taken up a role as a peacemaker in the region.
Hellenism learned through the centuries, and through the use of its history and its presence in the region, to balance between the West that it represents in the region and the East that has accepted it.
Unlike other Western powers, which when involved in the Middle East caused chaos, Hellenism, as a component of Levant can be viewed as the experienced soft power that is already there, has knowledge of the region and its people, and is part of the region and its people.
Greece’s acknowledged role as a pillar of stability and security in the eastern Mediterranean needs to consider its overall strategy for the region and should also include the pockets of the Greco-Roman world in the Middle East to act as bridges of peace and cooperation between the West and the East.