The Greeks today are Christians

Religion: Why Greek Christians Return to Turkey

There is still a lot to do for Dimitri Asanaki in his grandfather's garden. The orchard in the village of Agridia on Imbros has been lying fallow for half a century - since his parents had to leave the island in the 1960s. Now the property is overgrown with undergrowth and tall grass, trees and bushes have overgrown. Much has changed on Imbros since the Greek Orthodox population had to flee 50 years ago. Asanaki points to a mountain peak that is crowned by a spherical structure - a radar station used by the Turkish military.

There used to be a chapel there, he says: the Elias Church. Every summer, on the name day of St. Elijah, the villagers went to the mountain to worship. There were hundreds of churches on Imbros at that time. Thousands of Greek Christians lived on the island, as did the parents and grandparents of Dimitri Asanaki. Here at the front on the corner, that is his parents 'house, shows Dimitri's father Antonio Asanaki, behind it his wife's parents' house, there the houses of his uncles, aunts and grandparents - his family lived in practically the entire quarter, the 85-year-old explains with one of them Laugh.

Antonio moved to Greece with his wife in the 1960s and a few years later also brought his mother and mother-in-law to Athens. The two old ladies were among the last Christians on Imbros and didn't really want to leave. “But they couldn't stay here because the situation was dire and most of the Greeks had already left,” says Antonio Asanaki. “We promised them that they would come back because we expected it to get better at some point, but it turned out differently. They both died in Athens without seeing the island again. "

Greek Bans and Schools Closing: How Turkey drove the Christian population out

The international community had imagined things differently when they slipped Imbros and the neighboring island of Tenedos to Turkey with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Because the two islands are right in front of the entrance to the Dardanelles, Turkey's security interests should be taken into account. However, the Greek population was to be allowed to stay and was given the right to self-government as a religious minority in the treaty - a right that the young Turkish Republic withdrew from them a few years later.

The eviction began in 1964. “First the Greek schools were closed, then we were forbidden to speak Greek,” says Antonio. “That's why all families with children are gone - to Istanbul, to Athens, to America and Australia.” Some Greeks stayed at first, but eventually they had to leave. "Because the state has opened a penal colony on the island and let the convicts roam free," says Antonio and shakes his head with a worried expression. "Terrible things happened there, terrible things."

At that time, the Turkish state proceeded according to plan and calculated in order to expel the Christian population of the Aegean island - this is proven by a document of the National Security Council that only became public many years later. "Dissolution plan" was the name of decision number 35 of March 27, 1964, and it listed the measures that were to be taken to "dissolve" the Greek population of Imbros: closing schools, language bans, expropriation of the land, flooding through a reservoir, Establishment of penal colony and military base and finally the Turkification of the island through the targeted settlement of Muslim immigrants.

Why Erdogan tends to tolerate Christians in Turkey

The expulsion policy was an expression of the Kemalist state ideology, which used Islam as an instrument of social order and viewed non-Muslim citizens as a security risk. As decided, so it was implemented: of the almost 10,000 Greek Christians who lived on Imbros at the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 250 were left in 2000. Instead, 8,500 Muslim Turks now lived on the island, where there had previously been fewer than 100. To top it off, the island was officially renamed and given the Turkish name Gökçeada - "heavenly island". For the Greeks of Imbros, the chapter seemed closed.

She never thought that she would ever return, says Katerina Asanaki, Antonio's wife and Dimitri's mother. And yet she is now sitting on the terrace of her house in Agridia and looking over the roofs of the village to the reservoir in the valley, where there were once olive groves. For five years the family has been running a small pension for the many returnees who come from Athens, America or Australia.

The expulsion policy ended in the 1990s, says Antonio Asanaki, but initially the expelled Greeks did not trust Turkey and stayed away from the island. That only changed in 2013: A Greek school was opened on Imbros for the first time in half a century - a signal that Greek life is possible again on the island.

This was enforced by Laki Vingas, a businessman of Greek descent who cleaned doorknobs in Ankara. “I deliberately did this in Ankara, not in Brussels or Athens or Berlin,” he says. “I didn't go to other countries to claim our right to schools, instead I went from door to door in Ankara and tried to convince the authorities. "Are we citizens of this country or not?‘, I said. "

Vingas was successful. The Islamic conservative ruling party AKP of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fewer reservations against the Christian minority than its Kemalist predecessors because of its own religious background and pursues a less repressive policy against it. Christian communities under the AKP have got back at least part of the property that had previously been confiscated from them by Kemalist governments. This summer Erdogan personally laid the foundation stone for the first new church in Turkey since the founding of the republic. Vingas got his approval.

The Greek primary school in Imbros opened in 2013 with four children whose families had moved to the island especially for this purpose. In the meantime, kindergarten, middle school and high school have been added, almost 50 children of Greek returnees are attending schools - and the trend is rising.

This is how the Greeks are building their new life on the island

Dimitris Yorgiu was one of the first to return to Imbros with his wife and four children. He saw no future in Greece because of the economic crisis and now runs a restaurant in Panagia, the largest town on the island. It was of course a risk to move to the island five years ago, says the 45-year-old; after all, he had not been to Turkey since he was seven. “We opened the first Greek store in this city in 49 years, and the Turkish authorities helped us,” he says. "The mayor welcomed us and said that the island needs us and our culture."

Yorgius' eldest daughter has since graduated from high school on the island and is studying in Greece. Later she wants to teach Imbros as a teacher. The family has put down roots and wants to stay - and they are not alone. More than 500 Greeks are now living firmly on Imbros again. Around 15 Greek children have been born on the island since the return began. The returnees have restored dozens of churches, and the bells are ringing again in the villages. Twice a year the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who was born on Imbros, comes by.

In Agridia there is now a Greek café again on the village square, where the returnees sit together after half a century with strong, black coffee. Niko, 58, tells of a life abroad since he had to leave the island as a child because the school was closed. He was gone for almost 50 years, 20 of which he worked in German factories - his car, which is in the village square of Agridia, still has a German license plate. The Turkish state helped him. “The house was signed over to me quickly and without any problems.” Half a century later, Niko is living in his parents' house again.