Saturday, August 30, 2014


Something strange happens to me whenever I see the Greek flag, especially the variant without the stripes which has been the flag of that country for most of its existence and which now is taken to be the flag of the people, rather than the nation. I become suffused with a warm glow, my cheeks redden and the hairs of my arms stand on end. All at once, my brain becomes flooded with a myriad of thoughts, images and inherited memories. This flag, is the flag of my ancestors. It is a tangible manifestation of a faith in something higher than the paltry needs of daily existence that unites all of us. It is a symbol of the survival of the Greek people through centuries of persecution, degradation and even genocide, at the hands of a conqueror who treated them as second class citizens by virtue of their religion. As such, it is a reminder that no matter how desperate times can be, there is always hope of rebirth and justice. It is a manifesto of democracy and equality, kindness and compassion; ideals that are inextricably interwoven within the warp and the weft of the modern Greek identity. This is not the flag of a nation, but rather of a way of life and of a free people who take the values of fairness and liberty with them wherever they go.

When the flag of the Greek people flies, as it did on the 25th of March in Federation Square this year, I notice how the blue and white cross already exists within the Union Jack of the Australian flag, and marvel at how symbolic this is of the manner in which the aforementioned Greek ideals also exist within and form the foundation of the core values of Australia.

I am reminded of the times when Greeks and Australians fought or struggled together side by side, each under their own flags or eachothers, such as during the Gallipoli campaign, when Greeks nursed Australian soldiers on Lemnos, while 15,000 of their compatriots were ethnically cleansed from Gallipoli in order to make the area secure from attack by the Allies, or during the Second World War, when doughty Greek villagers, with limited or no knowledge of Australia, risked their lives to protect and harbor Australian soldiers, purely out of a sense of decency, compassion and heroism. When I look upon the Australian flag, then, I am filled with pride and wonder, not only at the place of my birth and home but also, in the way a place has been found for my own unique cultural identity within it.

It is for this reason that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent comments about flag flying are disturbing. Quoth he: "I don't know what the legal position is but frankly the only flag that should be flying is the Australian national flag," He went on to say "everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don't migrate to this country unless you want to join our team," clarifying his position thus: “If people want to be flying other flags — a corporate flag for instance — fine, but the Australian national flag should always be part of it.”

One must of course point out that the Prime Minister’s comments were made in the context of allegations that Australians were flying the flag of the heinous Islamic State here, a flag that has become synonymous with genocide, intolerance and some of the worst depravities ever witnessed this century, committed by beings purporting to be human. The support by small sections of the local community for the Islamic State and its bloody doctrine of intolerance and extreme brutality is of course gravely disquieting. For if Australian citizens not only condone the massacre rape and persecution of innocent people who just happen to be of another religion or ethnicity, but in some isolated cases, travel to the scene of the crime in order to take part, then it is logical to draw the inference that such persons do not share the values of tolerance, democracy and freedom of speech that characterize the Australian way of life.

Yet in the hype and hysteria surrounding the small section of the community that supports ISIS in Australia, comments by the Prime Minister that imply that no other flag but the Australian flag should be flown, and that even corporate flags should be accompanied by the Australian national flag are not helpful and appear to directly oppose everything that multiculturalism is about. For it is but a short step from these comments, abjuring Islamic fundamentalism, to creating suspicion and a climate of disapprobation against all expressions of cultural or ethnic affiliation. One would hate to deduce from the Prime Minister’s remarks that a result of the activities or opinions of a tiny minority, ethnic communities such as the Greek one, which has not only integrated itself harmoniously and without incident within the broader fabric of Australian society, making lasting contributions to it, while simultaneously proudly maintaining its sense of diversity, need to feel wary of ever again making manifest expressions of their culture, lest they be accused of being un-Australian.

The multi-cultural ideal was one where all persons could feel free to maintain and express their ethnic, cultural and religious identity as long as they did not impinge upon anyone else’s rights to do so. Rather than being a threat to “Team Australia,” multiculturalism purported to be of immense benefit to the country, enriching it socially and transforming Australia from a Anglo-Celtic colony to a thriving cosmopolitan modern nation. The fact that the Prime Minister of such a multi-cultural country is made so insecure by the deluded few who support the crimes of the Islamic State, so as to feel the need to issue an opinion which in effect calls for a blanket on the free flying of ALL flags, or at least their buttressing by an Australian flag suggests that multi-culturalism, at least in the way it is seen by the dominant group, is more fragile than previously thought and that, in keeping with the excellent theory of multiculturalism developed by George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou in their ground-breaking study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," we are once more, by virtue of some of our co-citizens’ inability to espouse humanitarian ideals, to be branded as foreigners and potentially subversive.

Undoubtedly, this was not the Prime Minister’s intention. Yet his unfortunate comments convey sentiments that have the ability to undermine many integrated communities’ confidence in their own place within Australian society, conveying the suspicion that whatever their contributions to Australia, as ethnic minorities they are answerable and responsible for the actions of other such minorities. Unlike the flag of the Islamic State, which represents not a nation or a people but rather a band of murderers, the ethnic flags of the people who live in Australia form a small component of the broader mosaic of the Australian identity and the control of their display should not even be countenanced, let alone expressed in public. Instead, the requisite inquiries should be made into the reason why the deluded few Australians espouse doctrines of violence, religious repression and brutality in the first place Further, it should be far beyond the Prime Minister ever to seek to equate flag waving by the Greek community with a lack of commitment to ‘Team Australia.’ After all, we built ‘Team Australia,’ sometimes under circumstances of bigotry that we are all too happy to forget.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 August 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014


The recent theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery and other votive items dedicated to the Panayia from the monastery of Panayia Kamariani has shocked members of the Greek community, not only for the apparent brazenness of the crime, but also the unlikely amount of air time it received in the local media.
«Tάματα» or the dedication of votive offerings to icons, persist in the modern Orthodox tradition. Go to any local church. And chances are, you will find attached to the icon of the church's saint, small metal plaques with ears, legs, or eyes portrayed in bas relief, along with watches. Crosses and various other items of jewellery - offerings to thank the Saint for hearing the prayers of the faithful and interceding for the performance of a miracle. The plaques in particular are interesting, for as can be seen on the left of the picture included herein, they appear to be almost identical in form, to those on the right, which happen to predate them by approximately two thousand years.
Indeed the tradition of votive offerings predates Christianity. In ancient times, a votive offering was considered to be a gift to a god. It was believed that anything dedicated by a mortal became property of a god, which was retained within the god's temenos, this being the sacred wall established around the perimeter of a sanctuary and became a votive offering . This type of giving, particularly in ancient Greek society, was not based completely on private devotion, but was an extremely public act, one that in typically Greek fashion, required some form of public recognition.
In ancient Greece, τάματα were not necessarily small objects, though a plethora of these have been found. Archaeological and literary evidence suggest that even whole ships captured in battle from an enemy fleet were later dedicated by the victors as an offering of thanks to the gods. Treasuries such as the Siphnian treasury at Delphi abounded in such objects.
Since the Archaic period votive offerings were usually inscribed with the dedicator's name - a practice that persists among some Greek offerers of votive objects to the present day. The rationale behind the ancient Greek voting offering was that of a commercial transaction: One prayed to the god for assistance. The consideration for granting such assistance was the votive offering, whereupon, at the granting of the wish, the votive offering became due and payable.
From ancient Greece to Constantine the Great and the beginnings of formal Christianity, it is not difficult to see how the cultural tradition of the votive offering endured and persisted. According to the Sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church, after Constantine's conversion and subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he donated one of the crosses he carried into battle to the Church. This cross, is reputed to be preserved on Mount Athos.
Another of the most famous Orthodox votive offerings is that by the great theologian Saint John of Damascus. According to tradition, while he was serving as doctor and prime minister to the Arab Caliph, he was falsely accused of treachery and his hand was cut off. He prayed before an icon of the Panayia and his hand was miraculously restored. In thanksgiving, he had a silver replica of his hand fashioned and attached it to the icon. This icon, which is called the "Three-handed" is preserved at the Hilandarion Monastery on Mount Athos.
As is attested to by the robbery at Panayia Kamariani, Orthodox Christians continue to make votive offerings to this day, hoping to invoke the assistance and mercy of the Saints or Panayia, in order to assuage a multitude of fears and provide solace in a world that is still, despite our level of technological development, full of terror. Doctor Robert Teske, who studied the phenomenon of "tamata," among the Greek-Americans of Philadelphia in 1985, considered that the primary message that the votive contains and transmits would appear to be man's dependence upon and subservience to the will of God, and God's concern for man and occasional susceptibility to his influence. This notion is neatly packaged in the relation of the material or behavioural offering of the individual community member, to the symbolic locus of the offering's presentation, the Orthodox church. The Orthodox church building has long been recognized as a symbolic representation of the Divine Kingdom, and the pattern of its decoration "has the character of a clear and precise theological system." Within the context of such a large-scale, hierarchically arranged, symbolic representation of the Orthodox cosmology, votive offerings - especially those described above as being primarily representations of the individual - acquire a clear and precise significance. They constitute a means by which man is capable of inserting himself symbolically into an equally symbolic representation of the cosmos, a means by which man can express his place in the spiritual world and his relationship to other spiritual beings.
Notwithstanding the fervour of the prayers of the devout, the apparent commercial nature of the transaction has caused some concern to Orthodox hierarchs, who decry the faithful's attempts to purchase favours or merit.
Thus, Metropolitan Germanos of Ilias in Greece states:
"Several people are of the opinion that God and the Saints will grant their petition simply because they make a "tama". This is an error, because the Saints are not in need of our material goods, nor do they require a vow to be made before our prayers are heard by them. The Lord said "...when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:7-8). It is enough that we have a strong faith and a pure heart and live a Christian life, and that our requests should me made for our spiritual well being." Furthermore, the way that certain vows are made comes across as making a bargain with God. For example, "Saint Paraskevi, please heal me and I will bring you a gold candle", or "God please help me with my exams and I will bring you...". This denigrates God and lessens the personality of man at the same time, while also making manifest our lack of faith."
No less a personage than Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, who is close to being declared a saint of the Orthodox Church, had this to say about the practice of 'tamata:'
"I also see a new craftiness in the devil. He causes people to think that if they make a 'tama' to God and fulfill it, if they go on some pilgrimage, then they are alright spiritually. You see hordes of people going to monasteries and shrines with tall candles and extravagant offerings, ostentatiously making the Sign of the Cross, even weeping a little, and feeling content. They do not repent, do not confess, do not correct or change their way of life ... and this is quite pleasing to the devil. This is why careful attention is required if one is making vows. They should be of a spiritual nature to help with the purity of the soul and the holiness of one's life, because "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
In Doctor. Teske's field study of the Greek-American community of Philadelphia, he observed that:
"The clergymen of the community, who personally demonstrate varying degrees of appreciation for the practice, uniformly allowed that the Orthodox Church, while tolerating the persistence of the tama, does not encourage it, due primarily to the possibility of it being taken for a form of bribery. Such accusations and luke-warm tolerance have had an effect both upon the practice itself and upon the attitudes of those who favor it."
The loss of votive offerings from a church owing to an act of vandalism and desecration offends all of our sensitivities. To consider that there exists a practice whereby hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of these can be amassed to no apparent spiritual (according to the church) or material benefit, is just as disquieting. Perhaps, it is time that the practice of traditions of this nature, while tolerated and respected, be tempered so that the faithful can be more fervently directed towards charity, community assistance and mutual support, all which defy theft, and which are, after all, the non-contractual focus of the Orthodox faith in the first place.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 August 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014


"If her Fruit, Whom none may comprehend, on Whose account she was called a heaven, submitted of His own will to burial as a mortal, how should she, who gave Him birth without knowing a man refuse it?"

St John of Damascus.

Every time we enter the feast preparatory to the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos on 15 August, I cannot but help noticing at how reminiscent the traditional iconography of this event is of traditional representations of the Nativity and the preceding quote, by perhaps one of the greatest theologians of all time offers ample explanation of why this is the case. In the Dormition icon, the Most Holy Theotokos is seen lying on her bed, much as in the Nativity icon surrounded by angels, saints, friends, neighbors, and apostles arriving on a cloud, rather than shepherds and magi. This represents one of the more miraculous events surrounding the central miracle itself: The Theotokos prepared for her death, having been advised of this by the Archangel Gabriel who appeared before her, handed her a palm leaf, a symbol of victory, symbolizing, according to St Germanos her overcoming of corruption, while stating: "Thy Son and our God, with the Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and all the heavenly Spirits and the souls of the righteous shall receive thee, His Mother, into the heavenly Kingdom that thou mayest live and reign with Him forever."
Looking closer at the Holy Bier, we see Saint John the Evangelist, who bends his head near to the Theotokos, calling to mind the parallel biblical passage of John 13: 23-25 where the beloved disciple places his head on Jesus at the Last Supper. The bier itself, lined with a brilliant vermillion mat upon which the Theotokos lies is also reminiscent of the Nativity icon. In both icons, we see a parallel motif of life coming into a world of death. Candles burning brightly in front of the bier represent light in a world of darkness, proclaiming the theme of "life" and "light." Christ will give the Theotokos, who sleeps in death, new life which is metaphorically described as "light." Thus, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." (John 1:4)
The Theotokos prayed while reclining upon her bier and all of a sudden a thunderclap was heard. Almost immediately, all the apostles that were scattered to the ends of the world, except Thomas, were gathered together on clouds and brought to Jerusalem. This, along with all other events associated with the Dormition are expounded in the hymns sung at this time. The Matin Hymn, written by St Cosmas of Damascus relates: "Carried to Sion as it were upon a swift cloud, the company of the Apostles assembled from the ends of the earth to minister to thee oh Virgin." As his brother, St John of Damascus mentions in his hymn, also sung at this time, this gathering together of her Son's apostles was an event of profound theological significance: "It was right that the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word should see the Dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her: hence, they might be witness not only to the Ascension of the Saviour but also to the translation of her who gave Him birth. Assembled from all parts by divine power, they came to Sion, and sped on her way to heaven the Virgin, who is higher than the cherubim."Around the entire icon there is a glow of gold and reds, representing the burst of the new kingdom and the surge of life. It is a scene representing both earthly and heavenly members of creation, coming to see the fulfillment of Christ's word.
The resemblance of this Dormition icon to the Nativity icon is furthered by its background composition. Here, the Nativity background of lofty mountains, representing contact between God and humanity is replaced by a mountainous mandorla, a small one outlining a glow of divinity around Christ connected to the flow of the Spirit indicated by a bright ray and a large mandorla filled with the singing heavenly hosts angels. The larger mandorla encompasses the realm of heaven and the small mandorla the aura of Christ, bearing the soul of his Mother in a depiction reminiscent of the Theotokos' presentation at the temple as a baby and of Christ in swaddling clothes, in the Nativity icon. This records the moment when the Theotokos turned and said to the Apostles: "Cast incense and pray, because Christ is at hand, sitting on the throne of the cherubim." Holy Tradition records that the roof of the room opened and Christ descended from Heaven at the head of a host of angels and called her to him. After worshipping him, proclaiming: "Blessed is Thy name, O Lord of Glory and my God, Who was pleased to choose Thy humble handmaiden for the service of thy mystery," the Theotokos gave up her soul.
At the peak of the larger mandorla the six-winged angel known as the Cherubium predominates, much as angels predominate the Nativity icon. In iconography, angels are predominantly portrayed through the significant profusion of wings. These heavenly hosts represent the guardians of the Holy of Holies, so as to keep the Tree of Life protected until the end of time. This causes us to recall that of the trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The gift of true and everlasting life was retained by God, to be fully received only in the end of time, in accordance with the Book of Revelation. Here, in the icon, the Cherubium flutters at the top of the larger mandorla - symbolizing that Christ has brought new life and His Mother is the first to realize the new eschaton, the beginning of humanity's journey in the final days of the Kingdom to the Tree of Life. This is then is the supreme significance of Theotokos' koimisis. As the Vespers stichera marvel, giving voice to the grief of the Apostles who turn to each other in their grief: "O marvelous wonder! The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to heaven. Thy glory is full of majesty, shining with grace in divine brightness." Thus, at the very center of the top of the icon, we find a time lapse glimpse at the Theotokos being carried into the open gates of Heaven itself by the heavenly hosts, an experience that has become accessible to us by the dignified koimisis of Theotokos and which believers are called upon to emulate.
Underlying her role as intercessor and protector of all humanity, the Υπέρμαχος Στρατηγός of Byzantium and, according to popular belief, the guardian of the Greek nation during such times of tribulation as the German occupation, even as she ascends to heaven, the Theotokos' arms are wide and she bends toward the earth still caring for all those who are now the Mystical Body of Christ in the world. Thus believers comprehend her as the Platytera, one whose body held the God of the universe, wider than the heavens. She prays in early Christian style in the orans position, with arms extended. She is the one who will constantly draw all to her Son and eventually to the realm she now enters.
The Feast of the Dormition does not commemorate the Assumption, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, but rather, the koimisis of the Theotokos and the translation of her sacred body to heaven three days later, upon the arrival of the Apostle Thomas, from India. It was St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the fifth century, who related to St Pulcheria, the earliest traditions concerning the translation of the Theotokos' relics. At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice established the Feast for 15 August and it has been so celebrated by the Eastern Christians ever since.
Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, the mysterious character of her death, burial and ascension were not the subject of apostolic teachings extant but were preserved in the oral tradition of the Church, giving rise to the Orthodox belief that inaccessible to the view of those outside the Church, the glory of the Theotokos' Dormition can be contemplated only in the inner light of Tradition. The glorification of the Theotokos, Mother of all is a result of the voluntary condescension of the Son who was made incarnate by her and thus, became in his human nature, capable of dying. For believers therefore, the Mother of God is now established beyond the general Resurrection and the Last Judgment, having passed from death to life, from time to eternity, from terrestrial condition to celestial beatitude.
Δεκαπενταύγουστο (15 August) then, is a second mysterious and wondrous Pascha, since the Church celebrates before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of its eschatological consummation. Χρόνια Πολλά to all eortazontes.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 August 2014

Saturday, August 09, 2014


“O wily painter, limiting the scene,
From a cacophony of dusty forms,
To the one convulsion.”
Thomas Gunn
Growing up, my favourite Asterix character, from the eponymous comic series, would have to have been the bard Cacofonix, whose name evokes the emission of decidedly unpleasant sounds. The name Cacofonix is particularly more apt than its French original, Assurancetourix, for “Assurance tous risques” means comprehensive insurance and does nothing to reinforce the enduring image of an unbearably bad singer who causes thunderstorms through his music, and whose fellow villagers will go to extreme lengths to avoid being exposed to his dubious musical talents. Most notably, Fulliautomatix, the village smith, bangs him on the head at the merest hint of breaking into a song, with an anvil, while Unhygienix, the fishmonger is known to slap a not so fresh sea bass upon his countenance.
A ”cacophony of diversity,” this being a “cacophony of 251 tongues,” is the manner in which Craig Butt and Alison Worrall of the Age newspaper recently sought to portray the linguistic pluralism of Melbourne, where according to them, in an 11th July 2014 article entitled “Melbourne language study reveals a cacophony of diversity,” “more languages are spoken in Melbourne than there are countries in the world.” Unfortunately, it appears that instead of being enticed into luxuriating in the mellifluity of the plethora of utterances emanating from diverse tongues, the reader is possibly drawing the inference that, in no uncertain terms, rather than being an exemplar of linguistic and ethnic harmony, the concatenation of foreign tongues spoken results in some type of community dissonance. In fact, it is cacophonous, a Greek compound word that means “bad sounds.”
The old English word employed prior to cacophony being coined was babble, which some claim, derives from the legend of the tower of Babel, where God confused the tongues of the original monolingual inhabitants of this planet in order to blight them for their arrogance, in the process, inventing other languages. The Bible does not record whether the ensuing sounds emitted were cacophonous. The Ancient Greek myth that maintains that the god Hermes confused the languages, causing Zeus to give his throne to Phoroneus, also is also ominously silent as to matters of the euphoniousness of the sounds emitted by the new tongues created as a by-product of divine gerry-mandering.
Butt and Worrall’s choice of language is unfortunate, and one would hope that their clumsy choice of words is not intended to express the opinion that linguistic diversity, aurally at least, is a negative experience. Perhaps “a polyphony of diversity”, or a “polyphony of 251 tongues” would be a more apt and invariably less offensive term that conveys no emotion as to the co-existence of many languages in multi-cultural Melbourne.
Nonetheless, in the piece, Butt and Worrall goes on to make some interesting assumptions about the classification of languages. Under the umbrella of Northern European Languages, she rightly includes German, Dutch and Afrikaans. Yet under the umbrella of Southern European Languages we have French, Italian, Greek, Maltese and Spanish. Eastern European languages include Albanian, Serbian Romanian and Russian, even though Albania is far further south than France, a country that shared borders with Germany and is but a stone’s throw away from England and the languages of the “Southern group” belong to different sub-families, Maltese for example belonging to the Semitic family of languages. Should the reader comprehend this as a sub-conscious presentation of a ‘hierarchy’ of languages, with northern being the most superior, followed by the southern as semi-superior and the African languages at the bottom of the chart? Many bi-lingual readers certainly thought so, though I would hazard that again, nothing of the sort was consciously intended.
Once the reader surpasses these contentious points, they can appreciate the important issues raised by Butt and Worrall in the article, Identifying municipalities where various ethnic languages enjoy dominance in Melbourne (33.8% of Sunshine is Vietnamese speaking, 29.4% of Campbellfield is Arabic speaking, 20.8% of Keilor Park is Italian speaking and 14.8% of Clarinda is Greek speaking), they highlight that demographic change, occasioned by rising house prices can have an impact both on ethnic community cohesion and language. We have already seen this is our community which, emanating from a few core centres in Inner Melbourne, has become diffused throughout the metropolis. As a result, except for a few areas of dese concentration, the “Greek neighbourhoods,” where the majority of the residents spoke Greek and practiced elements of Greek culture openly are now a matter of history and lore. Younger members of the community can no longer afford to live in the areas where their parents reside and it is axiomatic that in moving to other areas, the opportunities afforded to employ a daily use of their ancestral tongue would be limited. A study of how such relocations impact upon their maintenance of their language would be revealing.
Butt and Worrall also make another important observation: Owing to the unprecedented high housing prices, emerging migrant communities are increasingly being pushed to the physical fringes of the metropolis. This may act as a double-edged sword – permitting the sort of cohesion that allows the ancestral language to flourish but also inhibiting assimilation, at least in the short term. Monash University population researcher Bob Birrell, referred to in the article, terms such a phenomenon as ‘segregation,’ and it is arguable that the Greek demographic exodus from the inner Melbourne suburbs in search of the quarter acre block are a major factor in both our integration and subsequent language loss.
Butt and Worrall make their observations from the perspective that language maintenance is important to ethnic communities, who use it as a way of maintaining their culture and identity. One would therefore assume that this is therefore important to multi-culturalism as a whole. However, there is no explanation as to how this linguistic diversity is important to monolingual Anglo-Celtic Australians, save for the stated view that economics and demographics may endanger such linguistic pluralism, somehow implying that it may be worth preserving.
Such an explanation is necessary because language loss among established ethnic communities can be encountered even in areas where there is a high concentration of residents from the same background. Factors such as intergenerational non-communication, the espousal of different economic and cultural values and how they impinge upon language maintenance and of course, the shift in priorities over a period of time, all play a role in language erosion. This is certainly the case with the Greek community, where in some municipalities of Melbourne, such as the city of Moonee Valley, the high concentration of residents of Greek background does not translate to the maintenance of a closely linked sense of community, any note-worthy form of infra-ethic socialization or functional language retention among latter generations, despite the existence of a number of Greek language schools and early learning facilities therein.
Butt and Worrall’s piece should constitute the starting point, at least in our community, for a proper debate about the state of the Greek language in Melbourne, across the generations. Priorities need to be identified and a unified course of action determined to either arrest language decline or at least agree on the basic acceptable level of proficiency, if it is determined that language maintenance is important, both to ourselves and mainstream society, for already there are emerging, cacophonous voices, both in Greece and locally, that maintain that such an endeavor is, at this time, a waste of resources. In an increasingly diverse and diffuse community, given to much chest-beating about our identity, the outcome of such a debate, should there ever be one, would be thought-provoking indeed. Until next time, therefore, let Hellenophony prevail, albeit cacophonously.
First Puvlished in NKEE on Saturday 9 August 2014

Saturday, August 02, 2014


He was warned not to go out onto the street, even for the weekly shop but his brother laughed and told him not to stop fretting like an old woman. Confidently, they walked out of their house and proceeded down the block , when suddenly they were set upon by masked men. They kicked them into a kneeling position and then held their heads down in the gutter. “Convert to Islam, or die,” they told his brother. The brother did not make a sound. Instead, he shook his head. The next moment was punctuated by an ear-splitting sound and when he opened his eyes, his brother’s brains were splattered all over the road. “Convert to Islam or die,” came the words again. “No,” he replied. A moment later, excruciating pain and then, void.

This is not Asia Minor 1922. It is Mosul 2012 and I met the surviving brother, an Assyrian Christian at a funeral in Melbourne last year. He sat alone, nursing the stump of his arm. It had to be amputated after the Islamic terrorists who killed his brother, shot at it and mangled it severely, leaving him to bleed to death on the street. These Islamic terrorists were, from the manner in which they spoke Arabic, foreigners. The victim, though ethnically not an Arab but fully conversant in that language, was in appearance, indistinguishable from all other citizens of Mosul. The only logical explanation of his targeting was that his neighbours and reported to the Islamists, the fact that he was a Christian. Realising this, he fled.

When ISIS terrorists entered Mosul from Syria, a month ago, they removed all the crosses from the churches. Then they marked the homes of the Christians with the Arabic letter ن (n), which stands for Nazarene, the term applied to Christians in the Quran. They were able to identify the religious identity of the owners of those homes by means of information provided to them by their non-Christian neighbours, people with whom they had lived side by side for decades. They gave the Christians a deadline of a few hours to either convert to Islam, leave, or pay the jizya, a poll tax directed against non-Muslims in Islamic practice (we paid it to the Ottomans before the Greek Revolution of 1821). The Christians of Raqqa in Syria, were also required to pay the jizya, in gold, and so the only alternative, other than the “sword” for the impoverished Christians, was to flee. Yet even in fleeing, the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Mosul were not permitted to take anything with them, either their wallets, phones or even their wedding rings. In many cases, urged on by clergy from Gulf countries, ISIS fighters turned off the water supply in Christians areas in order to create as much hardship as possible. As a result, tens of thousands of Christians have fled on foot to Kurdish controlled territory, completely destitute and without any hope of providing for themselves or their families.

Western media plays down the deliberate targeting of Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians in Iraq. They do so even though it is manifestly obvious that while before the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, there were 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq, now a decade later, there are only 50,000. While Western media attempt to show that the sectarian conflict in Iraq is a result of a struggle for power, they gloss over the fact that in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, Christians, who are the native inhabitants of the region, have been subjected to a regime of terror, ethnic cleansing and genocide, more protracted and just as terrible as that meted out to the Christians of Anatolia by the Ottomans, almost a hundred years previously.

The reason is chilling in its logicality. Firstly, western countries are secular. Religion in the west, as a unifying force and cultural identifier is no longer as relevant as it once was. Indeed, since in secular countries, popular consciousness has been cultivated to consider religion as being evil and the source of all conflict in the world, what does it matter if a bunch of Middle Easterners are being killed or terrorized for having the temerity to hold uncritically onto antiquated and discredited beliefs by another fanaticised religious group? Secondly, there is the fear that in highlighting the plight of the Christians of Iraq, there is a corollary highlighting of failure of Western policy in the region, one that is eternally embarrassing to those who speedily proclaimed some years ago: “Mission Accomplished.” Thirdly, there is the well-grounded fear that in placing emphasis upon the specific targeting of Christians, this will cause social upheaval in secularized, pluralistic countries, as concerned and incensed Christians target innocent Muslim fellow citizens by way of reprisal.

Yet what is not understood is that the persecution of the Christians in Iraq by rogue fanatics is an attack against the West. The Assyrian Christians have, since the foundation of their church been isolated and persecuted for their beliefs first by the Persians, then the Arabs, the Ottomans and now ISIS. They have had limited contact with the West and culturally, are a Middle Eastern people. To ISIS, and those who subscribe to the traditional view that Christians in the Middle East are unbelievers and thus can be treated unequally, however, their religion marks them out as westerners and an attack on them, is in fact, an attack on the West itself. Assyrian Christians know this and they wring their hands in anguish wondering why their western co-religionists do not strive to save them from this new Kristallnacht. The answer, that the West is no longer Christian but secular and that thus, they are alone, is too brutal to comprehend. The further question, which is what ISIS and its future successors will do when they realize that the killing and ethnic cleaning of Middle Eastern Christians and the looting of their properties does not hurt the West and instead makes them indifferent, also deserves to be posed. A final question, which is why there is not a resounding condemnation by supposedly democratic progressive Middle Eastern countries, who are recipients of Western aid, against the persecution of the Christians of the region, also must be addressed.

Seventy years after the Holocaust and the creation of the United Nations, as a supposedly highly developed, technologically gifted, global society, we are unable to stop the depravities that so horrified nation states, that they resolved to re-organise themselves into structures of mutual co-operation, so that these never be repeated again. Seventy years on, people are still being killed as a result of their ethnic or religious identity and we seem unable or unwilling to do anything about this. In the era of the triumph of secularism, Western democracies have either ignored or presided over the radicalization of sections of the planet along religious lines, with disastrous results for both global security and people’s lives. It is time that they acted effectively, before further lives and indigenous cultural traditions are lost forever. In this, the Greeks can play a unique role, as a bridge between east and west. After all, we have been through all this before.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 August 2014