Constantinople was the capital of the eastern Roman Christian world since Emperor Constantine in 330 A.D. It was conquered by the Muslim Sultan Mehmet II on May 29, 1453.
In the fall of Constantinople, tens of thousands of Christians were raped, killed, enslaved or deported. The largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, Hagai Sophia, was converted into a mosque. Muslims covered the church’s four acres of beautiful Bible-themed gold mosaics with whitewash and Qur’an verses, and surrounded the church with Islamic minarets. The Turkish government has never offered to give ownership of the church back to Christians.
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Five centuries later, in 1930, Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, derived from the Greek name “stanbul” meaning “the city.”
Following World War I and the Armenian-Assyrian genocide, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk began to reinvent Turkey by modernizing and secularizing it. He led Turkey from 1924 to 1938. Ataturk’s tolerant attitude was also pursued by Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran, and Gamal Nasser in Egypt. Considered the father of modern Turkey, Ataturk declared the “Republic of Turkey” in 1922.
He abolished the position of the Sultan and set up a secular government, stating: “He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government. … Even before accepting the religion of the Arabs, the Turks were a great nation.”
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Ataturk ended the religious caliphate, thus preventing Muslim religious leaders from controlling government affairs. In an effort to cut ties with the fundamentalist past, he introduced the western use of last names, replaced Arabic Islamic names with Turkish names. Ataturk abolished use of Arabic and Persian script, replacing it with the Latin alphabet. He abolished turbans and fezes (the red felt cap with a black tassel) and required men to wear western pants and suits. Ataturk banned beards on men, and even required Muslim prayer leaders to be beardless. He replaced Arabic muezzin’s call to prayer and made praying a private affair. He abolished sharia courts, and made Friday a workday, instituting the “weekend” of Saturday and Sunday.
Ataturk outlawed polygamy and elevated the status of women, appointing the first female judges, and insisting on education of girls. He abolished women wearing of scarves,veils, chadors or burqas – the full-length body dress worn by Muslim women – and requiring women to wear skirts.
Ataturk stated: “If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development. We shall remain irremediably backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West.”
Instead of a caliphate, students were taught republican ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu. Ataturk empowered the military to be custodians of maintaining a secular government, with authority to remove politicians who drifted toward fundamentalism: “Mohammedanism was based on Arab nationalism above all nationalities. … The purpose of the religion founded by Muhammad, over all nations, was to drag (them into) Arab national politics. … (It) might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for a modern, progressive state.”
Similarly, Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser told a political gathering in 1958: “I met with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood and he sat with me and made his requests. What did he request? The first thing he asked for was to make wearing the hijab mandatory in Egypt and demand that every woman walking in the street wear a tarha (scarf) [audience laughter]. Every woman walking! [someone in audience shouted ‘Let him wear it!’]. … And I told him, if I make that a law they will say that we have returned to the days of Al-Hakimbi Amr Allah, who forbade people from walking at day and only allowed walking at night. And my opinion is that every person in his own house decides for himself the rules. And he replied ‘No, as the leader, you are responsible.’ I told him, ‘Sir, you have a daughter in the School of Medicine and she is not wearing a tarha. Why didn’t you make her wear a tarha? If you (audience applauded) … If you are unable to make one girl – who is your daughter – wear the tarha, you want me to put a tarha on 10 million woman myself? (sustained laughter)”
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Pro-western views were also embraced by Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran (1919-1980), who aligned himself with U.S. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, until he was ultimately betrayed by Jimmy Carter, who ushered in the Ayatollah.
Ataturk’s effort to transform Turkey suffered a set back after his death. Turkish leaders spiraled into being more nationalistic.
Turkey passed laws barring Greeks from 30 different trades and professions. In 1942, a capital gains tax was passed to reduce the number of Greek businesses. Politicians began speaking openly against the 100,000 Greek Christians still living in Constantinople.
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In 1950, Adnan Menderes became prime minister of Turkey. Menderes gave a speech supporting the return of the caliphate. He re-opened thousands of mosques which had been closed down, brought back the Arabic-language Islamic call to prayer and encouraged Muslims to follow Islam more fundamentally.
Menderes orchestrated a provocation whereby a Turkish university student was to place explosive charges in the Turkish consulate and in the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Thessaloniki, Greece. The plan was to blow it up on Sept. 3, 1955 and blame it on the Greek Christian minority. Menderes arranged for government trucks to block off the streets to the Greek neighborhoods, then provided shovels, pickaxes, crowbars, ramming rods and gas, to the 300,000 rioters.
Though the bomb never went off, the newspapers ran with the story anyway, blaming Greeks, thus justifying retaliation, and inciting fundamentalist Muslims to violence. In just a few hours, Greek Christian neighborhoods in Istanbul were pillaged with thousands of shops, houses, churches and graves destroyed.
Like the “Kristall Nacht,” Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis in Germany and Austria smashed and vandalized Jewish stores and neighborhoods, the “Istanbul Pogram” of Sept. 6, 1955, saw Turkish mobs lay waste to Greek homes, businesses and churches in a mad frenzy that lasted for nine hours. Greek women and young boys were targeted for public rape. Turkish author Aziz Nesin witnessed Greek Christian men beaten and forcibly circumcised in the streets by marauders. Sixteen Greek Orthodox clerics were killed.
Historian Spero Vryonis, Jr., author of “The Mechanism of Catastrophe,” recorded that rioters desecrated cemeteries and overturn tombstones, quoting a British journalist who witnessed one graveyard where: “The contents of every coffin spilled into the streets.”
Over a dozen Greek and Orthodox clerics were killed.Turkish rioters destroyed:
- 1,000 Greek homes
- 4,348 Greek-owned businesses
- 110 hotels
- 27 pharmacies
- 23 schools
- 21 factories
- 3 monasteries
- 73 of the 81 Greek Orthodox Churches in the city
Armenian and Jewish shops were also destroyed as Turkish police passively stood by, giving rioters space. The World Council of Churches estimated the damage at over 150 million dollars. The mob chanted “Massacre the Greek traitors” and “Down with Europe.” In one church arson attack, Father Chrysanthos Mandas, was burned alive. Greek cemeteries were desecrated with relics of saints burned or thrown to dogs.
Noel Barber, a journalist for the London Daily Mail, wrote on Sept. 14, 1955: “The church of Yedikule was utterly smashed, and one priest was dragged from bed, the hair torn from his head and the beard literally torn from his chin. Another old Greek priest (Fr. Mantas) in a house belonging to the church and who was too ill to be moved was left in bed, the house was set on fire and he was burned alive. At the church of Yenikoy, a lovely spot on the edge of the Bosporus, a priest of 75 was taken out into the street, stripped of every stitch of clothing, tied behind a car and dragged through the streets. They tried to tear the hair of another priest, but failing that, they scalped him, as they did many others.”
Another eyewitness was Ian Fleming, a reporter for the London Sunday Times, who later became well-known for writing the James Bond detective stories. Ian Fleming was covering the INTERPOL (International Police) Conference in Istanbul. His column “The Great Riot of Istanbul,” printed Sept. 11, 1955, described how “hatred ran through the streets like lava.” (Phillip Mansel, “Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire,” 1453-1944, Harmondworth, U.K., Penquin, 1995, p. 425).
Ian Fleming referenced the Istanbul riot as as background information in his James Bond spy novel, “From Russia, with Love” (1957).
The riots were reported in the Illustrated London News, Time magazine and Reader’s Digest, which described Istanbul as “a city gone mad.”
After the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom, over 100,000 more Greeks departed. The discrimination continued and in 1958,Turkish nationalist students campaigned for a boycott on all Greek businesses. In 1964, the Turkish government deported 50,000 more Greeks.
The New York Times printed, Nov. 26, 1979: “According to the most recent statistics, the Christian population in Turkey was diminished from 4,500,000 at the beginning of this century to just about 150,000. Of those, the Greeks are no more than 7,000. Yet, in 1923 they were as many as 1 to 2 million.”
Adnan Menderes was executed by the citizens of Turkey in 1961 for his part in these atrocities.
In August of 1995, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (NY) introduced U.S. Senate Resolution 160 calling on President Bill Clinton to proclaim Sept. 6 as a Day of Memory for the victims of the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom. (104th Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, Library of Congress, 1995-07-08): “Whereas, in September 1955, there existed a Greek minority population of 100,000 in Istanbul, Turkey; Whereas, on the night of September 6-7, 1955, a pogrom against the Greek community began in Istanbul; Whereas anti-Greek rioters attacked, pillaged, gutted and destroyed more than 2,000 Greek homes, 4,200 Greek shops and stores, 73 Greek Orthodox churches, 52 Greek schools, eight Greek cemeteries, all three major Greek newspaper plants, and dozens of Greek factories, hotels, restaurants, and warehouses in Istanbul; Whereas 15 Greeks were killed in the pogrom or died subsequently, and 32 were seriously injured; Whereas as many as 200 women were raped by rioters; Whereas the United States Consul General in Istanbul reported that police stood idly by or cheered on the rioting mobs; Whereas the State Department received confirmation of `elaborate advanced planning for widespread destruction of the property of the indigenous Greek community,’ involving careful preparations by many individuals; Whereas American journalist Frederick Sondern, Jr., writing at the time for Readers Digest, described the events of that night as … one of the wildest eruptions of mob fury and hysteria in modern times. …’; Whereas homes of Greek officers stationed at NATO headquarters in the Turkish city of Izmir were also attacked and destroyed; Whereas rioters attacked and burned down the Greek Consulate in Izmir and the Greek Pavilion at the Izmir International festival; Whereas Turkish authorities failed at the time to convict a single rioter, out of thousands, for any crime committed during the pogrom; Whereas five years later, after a military coup in Turkey, the former Prime Minister and acting Foreign Minister at the time of the pogrom were charged with, and convicted of, numerous criminal actions, including the instigation of the anti-Greek riots; Whereas the pogrom marked the beginning of the end of the Greek community’s presence in Istanbul, numbering about 2,000 in 1995; and Whereas September 6, 1995 will mark the 40th Anniversary of the pogrom:
“Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the President should –
- take all appropriate steps to observe and commemorate the loss of life and property, and the numerous injuries and offenses, which took place during the pogrom by proclaiming September 6, 1995 as a day of remembrance for the victims of these attacks; and
- urge all Americans to honor the victims of the pogrom in the appropriate manner.”
Turkey continued as a secular tolerant state until recently.
From 2003 to 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was Prime Minister of Turkey. Though democratically elected president in 2014, the Economist reported (2/4/16): “Mr. Erdogan made a telling remark. … ‘Democracy is like a train,’ he said, ‘you get off once you have reached your destination.’”
As of 2006, only 5,000 mostly elderly Greek Christians remained in Istanbul, the former city of Constantinople – ancient capital of the Christian world.
London’s Daily and Sunday Express reported April 22, 2016, “Islamist Turkey seizes ALL Christian churches in city and declares them ‘state property.'”
The New York Times reported April 23, 2016, “Turkey’s Seizure of Churches and Lands Alarms Armenians.”
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