Saturday, October 27, 2018


“Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If any man walk about with strange doctrine, he cannot lie down with the passion. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.”
 — St. Ignatius Of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians.

I have a friend who is a descendant of a historically important Byzantine family, members of which have achieved sainthood in the Orthodox church. He also happens to be a priest who conducts missionary work among English-speaking Australians hitherto unexposed to Orthodoxy. His mission is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
 A week ago, should I have wanted to do so, I could have attended his parish to take communion. There I would have found a group of parishioners from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds reveling in the one common thing that unites them: a belief in a common set of principles. If I was in need of a sacrament or spiritual succour, I could seek his assistance. Now, that privilege is questionable, for the church he serves, is apparently no longer the one I belong to. His church falls under the auspices of the Russian Patriarchate of Moscow. My church falls under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian church has declared that it is in schism with what is considered to be the spiritual head of all Orthodox churches globally. As a result, to quote the Holy Synod of the Russian church: “Henceforth and until the Constantinople Patriarchate renounces its accepted anti-canonical decisions, for all clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church it is not possible to serve with the clergy of the Constantinople Church; and for the laity, it is not possible to participate in the sacraments served in its churches.”
The “anti-canonical decisions” mentioned to by the Synod, refer to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recent restoration to canonical status of the leader and members of an Orthodox church group in the Ukraine that was hitherto unrecognised by the Orthodox churches worldwide. This is symptomatic of a larger conflict that has been simmering between Moscow and Constantinople ever since the independence of the Ukraine decades ago, as to under whose jurisdiction Orthodox churches in the country lie. It is, in effect, a turf war.
 And what a convoluted, arcane turf war it is. Historically, the Orthodox Metropolis of Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, was founded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the tenth century. The Byzantine legacy is apparent in the most beautiful of its churches, Saint Sophia, modelled after its namesake. That Metropolis was moved several first to Vladimir in 1299 and then again in 1240 when Kiev was sacked by the Mongols, then to Moscow in 1325, after moving several times between Vilnius in Lithuania and Galych, while a separate Metropolis of Kiev was re-founded in 1458.
 In the meantime, the Ecumenical Patriarchate raised the Metropolitan of Moscow to the status of Patriarch in 1589, thus creating the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1686, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now situated within the hostile Ottoman Empire, transferred responsibility for ordaining the Metropolitan of Kiev to the Patriarch of Moscow. It is this right of ordination which is the major bone of contention between the parties. It should be noted that in 1700, Peter the Great abolished the office of Moscow Patriarchate and it was only reinstated in 1917, meaning that for most of its independent existence, the Russian Church has not had a Patriarch. Incidentally, as part of its policy of Slavicisation, Moscow also abolished the Patriarchate of Georgia in 1811, when Georgia came under Russian control, until 1917.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, to whose jurisdiction canonical Greek-speaking churches in Australia belong, argues that it never fully gave jurisdiction over the Kiev Metropolis to Moscow but only temporarily granted the Moscow Patriarchate the right to ordain its metropolitan to Kiev, a right that it has just recently revoked amidst controversy.

The Moscow Patriarchate argues that, because the Ecumenical Patriarchate made no claims over the Ukraine for over 300 years (when it formed part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union), because of the close connection between the Kiev Metropolis and its successor in Moscow, and because the 1686 document gives no expiration for the action, the Ukraine has been an integral part of the Moscow Patriarchate ever since. The Moscow Patriarchate alleges that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is actually intruding into canonical territory that does not belong to it, something which violates Canon Law. The Moscow Patriarchate also alleges although the Ecumenical Patriarchate claims that a church can only be made self-governing (autocephaly) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, until recently, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was arguing that a grant of autocephaly, of the type it envisages for the Ukraine, requires the unanimous approval of all the other orthodox churches worldwide, something that has not been provided in this instance.
 Apart from the issues of ecclesiastical law, there is also a fraught political situation on the Ukraine which all parties are responding to: Russia or Russian affiliated groups are in occupation of Ukrainian territory and inter-ethnic tensions are high. There are also three separate Orthodox jurisdictions vying for control over their Ukrainian parishioners: the Metropolis of Kiev, under the Moscow Patriarchate, until recently, the only recognised Orthodox jurisdiction worldwide and the largest group, the so called Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kievan Patriarchate led by Filaret Denysenko, founded in 1992 when it went into schism from the Metropolis of Kiev and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church led by Makariy Maletych. Owing to fears of Russian domination of the Ukraine, arguments over the Ukraine’s affiliation to the West, the Ukrainian government has actively supported the “Ukrainian” churches, hoping to create a ‘national’ church, away from Moscow’s sway. As a result, a low-key violent internecine war has been simmering, with the breakaway Ukrainian churches seizing Moscow-oriented church buildings, intimidating and inflicting bodily harm upon parishioners, allegedly with the connivance or at least with the indifference of the authorities.
 It is this situation that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has tried to resolve, seeking to break the canonical impasse of churches at war with each other, by husbanding a situation where under a regime such as exists in Estonia, Ukrainians of whatever linguistic or ethnic affiliation can either choose to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, or the as yet ambiguous in nature Metropolis to be formed in the Ukraine under the Ecumenical Patriarchate and have mutual recognition of sacraments, in a safe environment, without the violence and hatred that has characterised religious life in the Ukraine up until now. Instead, it has waded into an ecclesiastical and political quagmire, where geostrategic interests seem to take precedence over ministering to the parishioners, a conflict that threatens to burst Orthodoxy apart at its seams.
 Australia is far removed from the Ukraine. Greek-Australian media has chosen to focus its attention on the canonical status of the Greek speaking St Savva of Kalymnos ‘church’ which, breaking away from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to affiliate itself with the Ukrainian Patriarchate that though hitherto schismatic, may possibly now have been rendered canonical thanks to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recent decision.
 Yet much more is at stake than the canonical status of a minor schismatic group. In Australia, underlining the Orthodox Church’s denouncement of ‘ethnophyletism,’ the conflation between church and nation, hundreds of parishioners visit the parishes of other linguistic traditions every week. Many play an active role in assisting in the life of those parishes and parish priests often do reach out over ethnic divides to seek assistance from orthodox of other linguistic traditions in the furtherance of their missionary work. Not a few Orthodox Australians in need have been assisted because of such inter-ethnic interaction within the church. As a result, parish life is made all the richer for the cultural exchange, the ensuing goodwill and sharing of ideas that follows. Although the Orthodox Church in Australia is largely organised according to one’s place of origin, in reality, parishioner’s lives transcend ethnic and linguistic divides. There has been significant intermarriage between Orthodox groups. In times of crisis, all Orthodox churches come together to formulate common approaches on social or other issues of concern. They constantly collaborate. In Australia therefore, the Orthodox Church truly is an icon of multiculturalism. All of these elements, particular to Australia, and especially, mutual recognition of sacraments such as baptisms and weddings are now placed in jeopardy, for according to church law, one cannot share a religious life with schismatics. The Russian church has decreed that if any of its adherents commune (that is pray or worship) with parishioners of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they must confess to their own priest and repent.
 Although local priests of all orthodox churches have been quick to press upon their parishioners the importance of remaining calm and allowing events to unfold, the schism of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they have been unable to hold back the disbelief, dismay and derision Australian Orthodox faithful feel at this rupture in world-wide Orthodoxy. In some cases, zealots on both sides are beginning to add fuel to the fire by casting racially-based invectives and slurs at each other. All of a sudden, parties on either side who considered one another sister churches, are now convinced of the other's intrinsic malevolence. From an in theory worldwide communion, a tribal ethos emerges, one that is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Orthodoxy and Australian multiculturalism.
 And before the altar, my friend, the priest, suddenly and unexpectedly torn in two by his ethnic background and religious jurisdiction, prays, as he does every Sunday: “for the unity of faith and for the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” As he does, so too do the churches of Russia and the Ecumenical Patriarchate resound with the same prayer, and the people on either side of the divide, watch and wait.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 October 2018

Saturday, October 20, 2018


Outrage emanating from our motherland, is reaching our shores of late. A large cement Christian cross, constructed on the rocky shore of Apelli, under the castle of Mytilene in Lesbos, in honour of the people that have died swimming there has been pulled down, after an advocacy group "Co-existence and Communication in the Aegean" based on the island claimed it was offensive to refugees who are not Christian.
 In particular, activist group sent a letter to the Harbour Minister and the Mayor of Lesbos, in which it was claimed that the Cross was placed there to prevent refugees from swimming.
 "This act is illegal, unsightly (reminiscent of a grave) but mostly offensive to the symbol of Christianity, a symbol of love and sacrifice, not racism and intolerance,” the letter claimed. A few days later, the cross was toppled.
 Here in the Antipodes, the demotion of the cross was met with derision and anger among many Greek-Australians. Yet the focus of their ire was not the group that advocated the removal of the cross, comprised of ethnic Greeks but rather, of the refugees themselves:
“…if you see this pic [of the fallen cross] and agree and not hate these f……s than get off my f…..n wall and take all of them with you to your home and feed them! I don’t want to listen to stupid excuses about them ... There’s a war happening and people are too dumb and stupid to see it! It’s a religious war!” quoth one incensed Greek-Australian.
“I will gladly drown them in the Mediterranean," asserted an indignant member of our community.
“How dare these illegal immigrants run amok as if they own our country. In 20 years time Ellas will be a MUSLIM COUNTRY and our people are still sleep walking to their own disaster and catastrophe…” was the considered opinion of another Greek-Australian.
 There is of course, absolutely no evidence to suggest that Muslim refugees or migrants, primarily from Syria, sought the removal of the cross. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they are responsible for its demotion. Instead, the general consensus within Greece is that the cross was toppled by the Greek advocacy group that formed the opinion of its own accord, that a) Muslims find the cross offensive and that b) it is preventing them from swimming.
 This rationale in itself is interesting and requires further examination. For in its attempt to appear tolerant and sensitive to the needs of muslim refugees and migrants, this group has engaged in blatant orientalism and stereotypisation, immediately placing muslims outside of the general community as persons who do not accept prevailing mores and attitudes. They have in fact, painted them as “the other” even as they, integrated as they are within Greek society, deprive them of a voice, by abrogating to the themselves, the role of being their advocates.
 It should be pointed out that the profile painted by their manifestly unskilled self-appointed advocates, is one that portrays all muslim refugees and migrants as intolerant, disrespectful of the prevailing culture, subversive and therefore dangerous. There is only a short semantic distance between Greeks demanding the destruction of religious symbols lest muslims take matters into their own hands, and this comment by an old Calendarist priest on social media:
“As we all see they "travel" light. Small bag the most and new smartphones. It's easy way to give orders to many people fast. Somebody tell them how to move, where to go, where to sleep at night (Aristotelous Square), which road to block and when. They move according to a plan.And when it's time they will attack, like ants attack a wounded insect…”
In both these images, the dehumanisation of muslim refugees and migrants, their portrayal as entities that have to be variously placated or feared, is eerily similar.
 The elevation of a cross on the shores of Apelli, contrary to whatever ideologically sterile co-existence groups may claim, is not an act of racism or hatred. It is intended as a gesture of honour and sorrow for those who did not make the perilous journey across the water, regardless of their religious faith, (though it should be noted that there are numerous christians among those fleeing the conflagrations of the Middle East) articulated in the cultural vocabulary of the people who erected it. Sadly, this was not respected or understood by the co-existence advocacy groups that appear to be responsible for toppling it, in the “name” of their muslim wards, but evidently, without their consent or authority.
 Furthermore, it is inordinately difficult to maintain that the existence of the cross was offending Muslims and preventing them from swimming. Most of the muslim refugees and migrants on Lesbos come from Syria, a land where before the war, thirty percent of the population was Christian and crosses were ubiquitous within the urban and rural landscape. Though there have reported incidents of migrants and refugees vandalising sacred sites and items within Greece, vile acts that deserve condemnation, to make the sweeping generalisation that all muslims in particular cannot abide or function under the cross is not only to promote the type of racial hated that co-existence advocates are levelling at those who erected the cross in the first place, but also, to display complete ignorance of the complex demography of the society from which these new arrivals have come.
 Obviously then, the problem with the elevation and subsequent toppling of the cross has little to do with the Muslim arrivals and their status in Greece and is rather, symptomatic of broader tensions within Greek society. A decade on from the economic crisis that tore the social fabric of the country asunder, Greece is undergoing a cultural and political polarisation, as various factions cling to cultural elements that they belief are vital to Greece’s regenesis. This is a process fraught with internecine strife, as Greece has become a society where persons who exist outside mainstream polar opposites, such as Athenian LGBTQ activist Zak can be lynched on the street, or where leftist and rightest affiliated groups can go marauding in the streets, causing damage to property and persons, with relative impunity.
 In such a climate of intense foment, symbols, beliefs, opinions and ideas are all debated, disputed, derided and held up to question, as society struggles to re-evaluate itself. Symbols that connote the establishment, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, which in Greece, has been placed since the time of the Bavarians, in the anomalous position of being part of the State and thus is seen by many to project power for purposes that they consider to be malign, are variously re-negotiated, affirmed or in the case of the co-existence advocates, discarded. It is therefore not specifically the Muslim refugees and migrants of Lesbos that have a problem with the cross but rather, a section of Greek society itself. And when they destroy the cross in the name of others, what they are actually doing, is destroying it, or all they believe it connotes, for themselves. They are the iconoclasts of old, re-cast in modern form, destroying the symbols that offend their contemporary ideology, with the religious zeal that one would expect in a society at war with itself, and no longer capable of rational rebate, or dare one say it, peaceful co-existence.
 Given that up until now, the symbol of the Cross has been interwoven within most Greeks’ conception of the Greek identity, it is traumatic for many to contemplate that their compatriots would desecrate this holy and intrinsic symbol in this way. It is for this reason that they displace their anger and bewilderment, visiting it upon a party that is largely voiceless and subsists at the margins of the great Greek societal deconstruction. It is too hard for them to come to terms with the fact that the old certainties are over and the lack of consensus over what Greece as a country, a society and a people should be, is a process that however painful, must be negotiated.
In the case of many Greek-Australians, this displaced anger comes from another source: given that they are not physically present in land they identify with, the existence of others within it, occupying physically, the space that they occupy mentally, delegitimises their claim to their own identity and thus threatens their entire self-conception. The thought that others may come to share of or appropriate the identity they have taken such pains to cultivate at so great a distance from its source, is unbearable.
 The destruction of the Lesbian cross is thus a tragedy, for persons of all faiths and political beliefs. In their sectarian fervour to enforce their own ideological orthodoxy upon the members of their community through an act of violence, the co-existence advocates have in fact propagated the idea that one can only accommodate others by destroying one’s own position or cultural capital, that one can only assert one’s will by impinging upon that of another, by force. In their attempt to be “tolerant” they have in fact inverted the tenets of liberal democracy, paving the way for the perpetuation of fractious and socially corrosive strife that will prove inimical to the coalescence of community cohesion for years to come. And that, in my mind is much more dangerous, than fears of any ‘Muslim Invasion.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 October 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018


Although the sun had not yet completely set behind the leaden, brooding mountains overlooking the town, the arrival of cold was as sudden as the arbitrary opening of a refrigerator door. The wind sawed through skin with the subtlety of a blunt razor. Wrapping my scarf around my face as it tore at it mercilessly, I clutched at the wall and picked my way slowly, among the cobblestones.
“It’s not a minefield,” my friend looked back and laughed.
It may as well have been. When water pooling in the spaces between the precipitous cobblestone roads turns to ice in the Argyrokastro winter, it assumes the insidious form of a minute skating rink, one that is capable of sending the inexperienced pedestrian tumbling at the slightest hint of a misstep. I took a tentative step forward and then pressed myself suddenly against the wall, as I observed a car, its tyres having given up seeking to gain traction upon the lubricious thoroughfare, skid into one wall, and then the other in a zig zag fashion, and in that manner, a sort of dodgem car on a decline, slowly and rather loudly, bash and crash its way down the road and into the centre of the town.
“Welcome to Argyrokastro,” my friend teased, extending a hand to pull me up over the stones. “We’ve not long to go now.”
A pig, the same shade as the leaden slates on the roofs of the stone houses around me, was snuffling underneath an archway, through discarded rubbish on the side of the road. At our approach, he looked up anxiously, looked back down at the rubbish he was clearly rejoicing in and then trotted away self-consciously, as if seeking to distance himself from a particularly pleasurable but socially perverse pastime.
“Through here,” my friend gestured. In traditional Argyrokastro homes, one is compelled to pass through a gated entrance, before entering the main dwelling. The iron studs on the impossibly old portal, of Ottoman provenance, seemed to be the only things shaping rotting and falling flakes of wood into some semblance of a door. The sun had set now and the stone courtyard we had entered was sheathed in darkness. I stubbed my toe on something soft and yielding, and it began to assail the night air with bleats of protest.
“Must you persecute the goat?” my friend asked wryly. “Come inside.”
A door creaked open and I pushed my way inside, eager to escape the oppression of the glacial wind, only to be immediately pushed out again, by unknown hands.
“When entering an Argyrokastro home, it is a sign of proper breeding and respect, to remove your shoes,” my friend advised. “My people are townsfolk. We aren’t in a village, you know.”
Removing one’s shoes when the water of the road has seeped into them and turned to ice, rendering feet devoid of any sensation whatsoever, is a task of considerable gravity. Slowly, I liberated my feet from their frigid confines and, by primeval instinct, clumped into the central room where a fire was burning.
An old man was seated at the hearth, completely oblivious to my presence. His gaze was absorbed by the flames which flickered around the chestnuts he was roasting, like hellfire tormenting the souls of the damned. In their red glow, I could see his furrowed cheeks, drawn sharply inwards in support of a vast, aquiline nose far sharper than the honed peaks that lined the approach to Argyrokastro, centre of the Greek minorty in Albania. This was an olfactory weapon that could cleave even the most cutting of remarks in twain.
“Whose are you?” he rasped, spitting the words out from behind the gnarled stump of the solitary tooth that remained to him. His long, almond-sliver eyes, fixed in a perpetual squint bore into me like the probe of a particularly efficient inquisitor. In the West, it is customary to ask one’s name upon a first meeting or induction into the hearth. In the lands ancestral and Homeric, on the other hand, the family one belongs to and their tribal affiliation are the first things that need to be ascertained, if a complex array of obligations, social interactions and protections, are to be immediately invoked.
“He doesn’t belong to anyone you would know, uncle,” my friend cut in.
“No, I’m a stranger. I’m not from here,” I offered by way of tautological response.
“Where are you from then, stranger?” the old man asked, unconsciously running his tongue along his lips over and over again. An outstretched arm shot out from under the jacket sagging from his shoulders and encased my shoulders in a grip of tempered steel. “Where have you come from?” he asked again, peering intently into my eyes.
Where do you think he comes from, uncle?” my friend responded light-heartedly. “Have a guess.”
“Are you from Korytsa?” the old man mused. “No, your accent is thicker than that and your clothes are not the type of clothes that are worn around here.”
“You’re right, I’m not from Korytsa,” I confirmed.
“Are you from Giannena, perhaps?” the old man guessed. “You speak like them but you don’t move like them. There is something strange about that in you. I went to Giannena a couple of times before the War. That's before they closed the borders....”
“Uncle, he is from Australia,” my friend crowed with the triumphant air of one that has convinced Kylie Minogue to make a special guest star appearance at his house party, has advised all of his friends of her imminent arrival and has just had a confirmation call from her agent.
“Australia? What is that?” the old man let go of my shoulders and clasped his chin, perplexed.
“Australia, the southern continent,” I elaborated.
“The southern what?” the old man asked, agitated.
“Continent,” I explained. “Like Europe and Asia and America.”
“America, I know,” the old man spat back. “I am not stupid. My neighbour’s father’s uncle went to America and came back with cash with which they bought their shop and then Enver Hoxha sent him to the camps because he was an American imperialist enemy of the people, but I’ve never heard of this Australia.”
“Honestly, uncle? A big island below Asia called Australia that a lot of Greeks have migrated to? You’ve never heard of it?” I asked incredulously.
“No. I don’t know this Australia,” he answered. Then the arm came snaking out from behind the flaccid folds of the jacket again and took a firm hold of my upper knee. “What kind of place is this Australia?”
“Well, you know kangaroos, right?”
“Kanga -what?”
“Kangaroos, those animals with the big ears and long tapering snouts that balance on their tail, hop on their two massive hind legs and have a pouch in which they store their babies. They live there, along with platypi."
"Platy- what did you say?"
"You know, the platypus, a sort of beaver with a duck bill that also has a puch in which to keep their young."
“That’s it!” the old man screamed. Springing to his feet, poker in hand, he grabbed me by the arm and began to frog march me to the door, oblivious to his nephew’s protests: “Uncle, what are you doing? He is a friend. He is staying with us for the night….”
Pushing me out of the door and throwing my ice-block cold shoes at my face, the old man snarled: “I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but you don’t come into my house and insult my intelligence, making up stories of fantastical southern continents and mythical beasts with magical tails and duck bills. Others, more capable than you have come here before you from far away and have told lies that were far more clever than yours. Enver Hoxha is dead and we owe you nothing. There s nothing you can do to us that hasn't already been done. Now get out before I butcher you like a pascal lamb.”
Almost sobbing from borean induced hypothermia, I made my way into the bleak Argyrokastro night, my friend trundling after me, in search of a wine shop that sold anti-freeze. Taking hold of my arm, he enunciated through chattering teeth:“Do me a favour, Aussie. If anyone from here asks you from now on where you come from, just say Giannena, ok? For God’s sake, and the sake of our body temperature, just say Giannena.”
“Oi, oi, oi,” I gave the traditional Epirot exclamation of woe, by way of response. “Aussie, aussie, aussie, indeed.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 October 2018