Frontline: Istanbul - A city becoming less Orthodox every day

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The Independent Online
IT IS Ramadan in Istanbul and the Islamic call to prayer echoes over the city. But on Sunday mornings, mingled with the Arabic chanting, the sound of church bells can be heard. In the middle of this sprawling city of more than 10 million Muslims, the Patriarch of Constantinople is celebrating Holy Communion, as his predecessors have done for almost 2,000 years.

The Patriarch is usually assisted by his two deacons. One of them, Father Tarasios, preaches in Greek but his first language is English.

"I grew up in Texas. One day I'm going to write a book and call it A Texan in Constantinople," he laughs. His grandparents emigrated from Greece to the United States, where Fr Tarasios became an Orthodox priest. "People ask me why I came here. In the US I had everything: my own house, a nice car. But what I didn't have was to be at the centre of Orthodoxy. Now I've become a part of everything I read about."

The Patriarch of Constantinople is the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox churches. But while he is spiritual leader to nearly 300 million Christians worldwide, today the Patriarch's own diocese of Greek Christians in Istanbul has dwindled to only 3,000.

Istanbul was once legendary for its mix of races and Greeks still call it by its old Greek name, Constantinople. But today the Greeks are leaving. "We don't even have enough people left to look after the churches," says Fr Tarasios. "I wish they'd stay, but I understand why they don't. They feel like second-class citizens here. They even have to be quiet speaking Greek in the streets, in case they offend somebody."

Fr Tarasios lives and works in the Patriarchate complex in the Fener, or Phanar, district of the old city, the historic Greek quarter.

Now the few remaining Greeks have moved to the suburbs. Only priests remain. "Fener has become an enclave of fundamentalist Muslims," Fr Tarasios says. "Sometimes they walk past the Patriarchate, shaking their fists. They throw rubbish into the courtyard.

"I'm often asked why the Patriarch stays in Istanbul and doesn't move to Greece. People don't realise how long we've been here - far longer than the Turks."

The Patriarchate claims the church was established in the city AD36 by St Andrew, one of the 12 Apostles. The Ottoman Turks did not gain control of the city until 1453.

As the only Orthodox priest in Istanbul with English as a first language, Fr Tarasios does a lot of translation work. In the afternoons he takes visitors on tours of the churches in Fener. Before leaving the Patriarchate, he must change into a suit. Under Turkey's secular constitution, religious dress is forbidden in public.

At St Dimitrios, a beautiful old church full of valuable icons, only four services are held a year. "There aren't enough priests to hold any more," he says. "There are only 50 priests left in Istanbul."

As we arrive at another church, two Muslim women shyly leave. They have come to drink Holy Water from the church, which is believed to cure infertility.

"Lots of Muslims come like this," says Fr Tarasios. "Newly wed couples come to the priests for a blessing, they believe it's more powerful than a blessing from an imam. You could say it's just superstition, but it shows they're aware of the Christian faith."

Fr Tarasios calls on Father Vassileios, the priest responsible for the churches in this area. There are no parishioners left and, of the services Fr Vassileios holds, most are funerals.

The Turkish authorities are causing problems for the Patriarchate. They closed down Turkey's only Orthodox theological school in 1971. "Without the theological school we can't train priests from the community here," Fr Tarasios says. "How will we train future Patriarchs?" Under Turkish law, the Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen.

At Christmas the Patriarch's cathedral was full. Before the Ottoman conquest the domed church of Hagia Sophia was the Patriarch's cathedral, but today the Patriarch has a new, smaller cathedral in Fener. Exchanging of gifts takes place on St Basil's Day, 1 January.

The last Greek families of Istanbul will start the day by dividing the new year's bread, a giant loaf. Slices will be cut for Christ, the Virgin Mary, for St Basil and for the Patriarch. Then the bread will be shared out. But every year, there are fewer Greeks left in Istanbul to share it.