First posted December 22, 2015
On Tuesday, the number of asylum seekers to reach Europe this year passed 1 million. Nearly half of them did so via the beaches of this Greek island
As an institution, the Greek Orthodox church is often considered a bastion of nationalism and conservatism. Some of its priests have even suggested Muslim migrants pose a danger to Greece. But other churchmen have taken the same view as Dimou, who died of lung cancer on 2 September this year, and have become actively involved in efforts to help refugees and migrants… “Just recently three women arrived at the village – two of them were pregnant. All three had lost contact with their husbands and their children. We took action and reunited the families,” he said. “It was then that one of the husbands stood in front of me and kissed me. Love has no religion. Saint Paul writes in the Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’.” (scroll down to ‘Love has no religion’)
Ummah does not mean the global community of Muslims; it means the global community of the compassionate, religion and race no bar – Ziauddin Sardar
We shouldn’t get used to seeing photos of children dead at sea
Lesbos is swept by wave of compassion as refugees continue to arrive by sea
In the hills high above the north coast of Lesbos, an incongruous mass of orange surges for hundreds of metres across a craggy plateau. It could be the crater of a seething volcano. But this is not lava. On Tuesday, the number of asylum seekers to reach Europe this year passed 1 million. Nearly half of them did so via the beaches of this Greek island – and the eerie hilltop is where the residents of Lesbos have piled hundreds of thousands of their discarded orange lifejackets. Elsewhere, the islanders are building a second graveyard to house the bodies of the drowned. This silent swath of orange – 3.7 metres (1 ft) tall in places, and rolling like the sea – is just as apt a tombstone for the scale and tragedy of the European refugee crisis.
Here in the north of Lesbos, where villagers with a telescope can see the refugees embarking from the Turkish shores in the distance, people nevertheless need no monument to be reminded of the human cost. “We are so close to Turkey,” says 83-year-old Emilia Kavisi, a former olive-picker whose house sits metres from the sea. “We can hear the noises and the screams at night.”
Emilia Kavisi, who has helped the volunteers since the start of the crisis. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
It is a vantage point that leaves islanders like Kavisi with strong views about Europe’s failure to provide safe passage to people who are coming – whether the continent wants them or not. “It’s inhumanity,” she says. “Cruelty.”
With a few exceptions, the residents of Lesbos have offered far warmer a welcome than the governments of the EU. Kavisi has become a symbol of the local response, after being photographed in October cuddling a refugee’s baby on the beach, and singing it to sleep. The picture became famous across Greece – but she did not do it for the fame, Kavisi says. She did it because her parents were once in the same situation. Like many on the island, they too once fled here from Turkey – when the Greeks were expelled in 1922.
“My father took only a pair of shoes with him, and this sewing machine,” she says, pointing at a contraption still sitting on her window ledge. “That’s why I felt so passionately about helping. I remembered these memories of my family.”
Kavisi’s generosity is part of a wider wave of compassion that has swept across the north coast in the second half of the year. Back in June, the inflatable refugee boats were usually met by a handful of local activists, if they were met at all. The people who disembarked then had to walk 40 miles to the registration centres in the south of the island. Six months on, the situation is much improved.
A kind of activist international has descended on this isolated coast, and together with the Greek community they have created a largely self-run humanitarian operation. Volunteers have divided the coastline into four zones of responsibility, with different charities – some of which have been created for this specific purpose – in charge of receiving the boats that land within their respective jurisdictions. They include doctors from France, activists from Wisconsin, and lifeguards from Spain. Next to a sea in which more than 700 have drowned so far this year, this is hailed as a significant development.
“It is incredible,” says Eric Kempson, a British woodcarver and local resident, whose family was once one of the only reception parties. “We started in February and had three months on our own,” he says. “Then in June we got our first volunteers. Now we have watchtowers along the coastlines. We know when the boats leave – we have a whatsapp group so that everyone knows where the boats are. And we have RIBs [rigid-hulled inflatable boats] to meet the boats and bring them into beaches, where we have medical teams and food teams ready there and waiting.”
From there, the migrants are driven to the EU’s registration centres in the island’s south – and it is here that matters become more desperate. Syrians are given priority, leaving refugees of other nationalities sleeping outside in the cold, sometimes for several days. Moroccans, deemed to all be fleeing poverty rather than danger, are now not registered at all – leading them to mount an ongoing protest. Afghans escaping the likes of the Taliban are allowed to register, but often only after a week in the chill conditions – prompting some to lie about their nationality. “I am Syrian,” claims a new Afghan arrival who speaks no Arabic.
But still they come. The weather is worsening, the deaths are increasing, and so too are the arrests of smugglers and refugees on the Turkish side. Yet almost 71,000 people have still braved the crossing to the Greek islands so far in December – 35 times more than in same month last year, and double the 2014 total. On Tuesday, at least a dozen boats chug ashore on the beaches of Lesbos, each carrying around 40 shivering human beings. Some of them are on crutches, many of them carry babies. All of them hope for a welcome that befits the season of the nativity, the inspiration for which was himself – some priests are pointing out – once a needy migrant from the Middle East.
“I am happy to be here at Christmas, and to share in it,” says Nemer, a 24-year-old Syrian business student, in the moments after setting foot in Europe for the first time. “I am a Muslim, but I’m coming in hope – coming to behave as I’m supposed to in the countries that I’m arriving in.” Shortly afterwards, Nemer lays down his lifejacket – another candidate for the strange orange plateau in the hills high above him.
Kostas Koukoumakas ‘Love has no religion’: priests and pastors reach out to refugees
The puttering sound of a small engine was carried over the calm sea to a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. Soon an inflatable boat carrying some 20 people came into view. Within an hour, two more vessels had landed on the beach. Most of those on board were from Syria, Afghanistan and various African nations – just a few of the hundreds of thousands of people who have made the short crossing from the Turkish coast in search of safety and prosperity in western Europe this year. About 25km away in the village of Kerami Kallonis, a 57-year-old Greek Orthodox priest named Stratis Dimou, a tall man with sparkling blue eyes, received a phone call telling him about the new arrivals.
Dimou immediately left his home for the small building that houses “Agkalia” (“Hug” in Greek), the charity he founded in 2009 to help refugees and migrants. He prepared sandwiches and set out bottles of water for the latest arrivals, who would reach the village by noon on foot. As they entered the country illegally, Greek law forbids people from transporting them.
Father Stratis Dimou, a Greek Orthodox priest on the island of Lesbos, at the
charity he founded to help refugees and migrants. Photograph: Kostas Koukoumakas
Dimou, wearing an oxygen mask to counter breathing difficulties, said the charity had given away more than 60 tonnes of food donated by local people and helped more than 10,000 migrants and refugees. “Just recently three women arrived at the village – two of them were pregnant. All three had lost contact with their husbands and their children. We took action and reunited the families,” he said. “It was then that one of the husbands stood in front of me and kissed me. Love has no religion. Saint Paul writes in the Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’.”
As an institution, the Greek Orthodox church is often considered a bastion of nationalism and conservatism. Some of its priests have even suggested Muslim migrants pose a danger to Greece. But other churchmen have taken the same view as Dimou, who died of lung cancer on 2 September this year, and have become actively involved in efforts to help refugees and migrants.
The monk and the refugee
Father Chrysostomus Hatzinikolaou, a 41-year-old monk who lives in a monastic community on Mount Athos in northern Greece, has formed an unlikely friendship with Amint Fadoul, a Syrian lawyer who protested against President Bashar al-Assad and fled to Turkey in 2013. The two met when Hatzinikolaou was visiting the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery on Heybeliada, a small island off Istanbul, at the beginning of 2014. Later in the year, Fadoul found he could not renew a visa to stay in Turkey and decided to pay a trafficker €1,250 to get him into Europe.
As Christmas approached in December 2014, he boarded an inflatable boat near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast along with 36 other people from Syria, Iraq and Cameroon and began a dangerous journey to the Greek island of Samos. At one point, Fadoul looked at the map on his mobile phone and realised the boat was too far away to reach land with the fuel it had on board. “I believed that we would drown,” Fadoul, 29, recalled this year in a cafe in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. At 2.45am on Christmas morning, he sent a text to Hatzinikolaou asking for help. The monk was in his home village in northern Greece. He called a contact on Samos, who told him there was no way to mobilise a helicopter or rescue boat. “I couldn’t do anything but pray,” Hatzinikolaou said.
After the boat hit rocks, Fadoul fell into the water. “I swam with all my strength and finally I set foot on the shore. It was a miracle,” Fadoul said. Hatzinikolaou has now been able to help Fadoul in a more material sense. The lawyer has found shelter in a house owned by the monk. Hatzinikolaou and Fadoul are both Orthodox Christians. But Hatzinikolaou says he would have helped Fadoul even they did not share the same faith. “Saint Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’,” he said.
‘We start to fear them’
It may seem obvious that if Christian priests followed Jesus’ exhortation to “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, they would help refugees. But in Greece, this is not always the case. Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, one of the highest-profile priests, has often spoken out against people coming to Greece in his sermons.
Anthimos claims Muslim refugees pose a threat to Greeks’ religious beliefs. “Not even in the Middle Ages would one witness what jihadists are doing these days. When we are told that there are extremists among the immigrants, then we start to fear them,” he said, during an interview in his office.
Reminded that holy scripture teaches love towards foreigners, Anthimos responded: “Exactly! To love them, not to be the victims along with them. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one that treated the wounded foreigner took care of his wounds, carried him to an inn and even paid his bill. But he didn’t let him into his home.”
Anthimos is not the only senior churchman to voice such views. The rhetoric of Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus is both xenophobic and racist, say critics. In May 2015, he distributed a circular to all churches in Piraeus condemning anti-racism legislation introduced by the Greek government and a decision to build a mosque in Athens.
Niki Papageorgiou, an associate theology professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said xenophobic attitudes had no basis in Orthodox theology, which values tolerance. But, she said, the Greek Orthodox church often sees itself as a guardian of Greek traditions and language. “Some Orthodox priests, and also people close to the church, think that the Greek nation and the Orthodox religion are one and the same. This is the main reason the church is a conservative institution and the people within it are usually conservatives who fear opening up,” she said.
The Greek Orthodox church as an institution has few specific projects to support refugees and migrants. But Haris Konidaris, spokesman for the archdiocese of Athens, the central office of the church, notes that such people are among the thousands who receive assistance daily from soup kitchens organised by parishes throughout Greece.
Also, in June this year, the church-funded charity Apostoli, together with an international network of Orthodox Christian charities, renovated a centre for people arriving on the island of Chios. One long-term church initiative to help refugees is a shelter for children who arrive in Greece without an accompanying adult. It is run by Apostoli in the Agios Dimitrios neighbourhood of Athens. Since the shelter opened in 2011, it has given refuge to 168 minors.
The western Balkan route traversed by many refugees and migrants goes through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. At the other end of the route from Lesbos, where Dimou helped the new arrivals, a cleric from a different Christian church has taken on a similar mission.
Tibor Varga is a protestant pastor in the Serbian city of Subotica, near the border with Hungary. He regularly visits an abandoned brick factory outside the city, where people camp out before attempting to cross the border and enter the EU’s borderless Schengen zone. “I come to the factory two, three times per week, even daily if needed. I want to talk to the refugees and listen to their stories. I offer them food, clothes, blankets, all thanks to donations,” Varga, dressed in sports clothing and a baseball cap, said at the factory.
“My initiative is not organised, nor is it a part of a wider plan from the state authorities,” he said. Volunteers from the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières also visit the site. Questioned about whether Orthodox priests in the area were helping refugees in the same way, Varga suggested talking to them. But other clerics declined to speak. Some said they needed permission from their bishop.
After a short pause, Varga went on: “Jesus has said: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him – if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’ So, even if I regarded these people as enemies, it would be my duty to help them.” Asked if he could be photographed in his church in the city centre, Varga gestured to the old factory and people washing themselves with water from a well. “This is my church,” he said.
Kostas Koukoumakas is a freelance journalist based in Thessaloniki, northern Greece. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.