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Refugees Helping Refugees

A mighty handful of Byzantine Catholics brings joy to the lives of refugees in Greece.

On Sundays, even a refugee can be happy, or at least at peace.

What makes them happy? Ask the Byzantine Catholic community in the Greek capital of Athens – they know from experience.

On any given Sunday at Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Eucharist is celebrated in two rites, Byzantine and Chaldean, and in three languages, Greek, Arabic and Ukrainian. Faces are dark and fair. Priests are Greek and Iraqi; women religious, Greek and Ukrainian. Stories of persecution and war, economic collapse and revolution mingle with conversations about housing, the Olympics and unemployment. Despite such talk, however, these Eastern Catholics are happy to have found a home, albeit a temporary one, in the bosom of Greece’s tiny Byzantine Catholic Church.

The largest community of the parish is made up of descendants of Greek refugees who fled Turkey in 1922 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This Greek community had lived in Asia Minor for more than 2,400 years. They founded cities, including Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople), which for more than 1,100 years served as the spiritual, economic and government center of the Byzantine Empire.

The parish’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics are economic refugees, families who sought refuge in Greece following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the chaotic times that have followed.

The Iraqis have fled 10 years of United Nations-imposed sanctions, which have devastated their businesses and way of life.

Who are the angels of mercy, offering succor, hospitality and a generous smile? They are a mighty handful of clergy and religious sisters, the spiritual sons and daughters of the formidable Greek Catholic Exarch, Bishop George Calavassy (1920-1957). As the Greek Catholic Exarch of Constantinople, Bishop Calavassy established an orphanage, two schools, a parish church and a seminary to serve the tens of thousands of Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks fleeing the wrath of Turkish troops.

To keep open the doors of these fledgling institutions, the Exarch enlisted the support of an American priest, Father Paul Wattson, S.A., and a dashing Irish priest, Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle. In 1924 (two years after Bishop Calavassy and more than a million Greeks were forced from their Asia Minor homeland to settle in the small Kingdom of Greece), this dynamic duo founded “The Catholic Near East Welfare Association,” the prototype agency of CNEWA. From its beginnings, CNEWA has assisted this tiny community, which from the outset has embraced both Catholic and Orthodox Greeks simultaneously – no small feat, since the Greek Orthodox Church has, at best, ignored the tiny Catholic Church.

“The corporal and spiritual works of mercy [that] the Exarchate launched,” wrote Father Anthony Vakondios in these pages some 25 years ago, “have served to make the Greek Rite known in Greece and to convince their Orthodox brethren of the sincerity of the Exarchate’s purpose.”

The movers behind these endeavors are a group of women religious, the Sisters of the Congregation of the Pammakaristos Theotokos, founded by Bishop Calavassy in 1932. Mother Irene Calavassy, the Bishop’s sister and the community’s first superior, founded a nursery and primary school in Athens. With the help of women who arrived in Greece as refugees from Turkey, the schools developed and flourished. Their excellence has attracted many Orthodox families, who have consequently enrolled their children. These women are well educated and have received professional training as nurses, social workers and administrators.

World War II and the subsequent civil war that devastated Greece tested the resolve of Greece’s Byzantine Catholic Church, which numbered less than 2,000 souls. Church institutions, including those operated by the Greek Catholic Exarchate, were commandeered by the government, occupying armies and even Communists, to serve their own purposes.

Yet Bishop Calavassy and his mighty handful prepared meals for thousands of hungry people and distributed meals to orphaned children, the sick, the elderly and the imprisoned. They comforted the grieving, prayed with the sick and stayed with the dying.

The resolve of today’s mighty handful may not be tested to the same extent as their ancestors’ resolve, but nevertheless Greece’s Byzantine Catholic Church is engaged; the Pammakaristos Sisters operate one of the finest facilities for the handicapped and their hospital is first-rate. A 75-bed hostel houses female students as well as religious groups from France and Italy; often, finding a comfortable place to stay in Athens is a difficult chore.

Since its formation in the early 20th century, the Greek Catholic Exarchate has concentrated its efforts on improving the lives of needy Greeks. The Exarchate’s Byzantine Catholics had to prove that, though they were in full communion with the Church of Rome, they were proud of their Byzantine Greek heritage.

Today, more than ever, Greece is at the crossroads of East and West; it has become a haven – if only a temporary one – for refugees seeking a better life in the West. Greece’s tiny Byzantine Catholic Church tries to do its part to assist these refugees, who come penniless but burdened with woes both physical and spiritual.

After Sunday liturgy at Holy Trinity, a quick glance or casual conversation with these Iraqis or Ukrainians would not reveal the woes they face during the week: They are dressed in their Sunday best; refugees mingle with former refugees; folks are at home.

The Ukrainians gather in the lower church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The packed church is decorated with traditional hand-embroidered towels, which hang from the icons. The crowd spills out into the hallway and winds up the stairs.

Chatter comes to an abrupt halt when several women enter the church bearing banners. The acolytes enter holding candles, a processional cross and a thurible. Led by a choir, the congregation begins a harmonious Ukrainian chant that contrasts with the Byzantine Greek chant sung by the parish’s Greek community. Two of the best voices belong to Raphella and Nicolette, young religious novices living in Greece on a religious exchange program.

“With the few Ukrainian words I know,” says Father Olzmaos Athenasios, a Greek priest who serves the community, “I make them happy.” His face lights up as he turns to the congregation. “I love these people.”

Meanwhile the Byzantine Catholic liturgy for the Greek community is winding down; the faithful line up to receive blessed bread and to kiss the crucifix held by the priest. But as the Greeks leave to enjoy a lengthy meal at home, Chaldean Catholics enter the sweet-smelling church. Father Fawzi Koro, an Iraqi who travels back and forth between Iraq and Greece, will be celebrating the Qurbana, the ancient eucharistic liturgy of the Chaldean Church.

During the week these refugees, all of whom have sought illegal asylum in Greece, must walk a thin line. For men the safest jobs are one-day arrangements as mechanics, house painters or construction workers. The women clean houses.

The adults manage, but the Eastern Catholics who share Holy Trinity – Greek, Iraqi and Ukrainian – are concerned for the children and their education. Iraqis and Ukrainians, as well as other refugee groups in Greece, hope that a law banning refugee children from Greek schools will be amended. Until then, Iraqi and Ukrainian refugee children “attend school” in rooms donated by the Greek Catholic Exarchate. Iraqi students learn in Arabic, Ukrainians in Ukrainian.

Byzantine Catholic Bishop Anarghyros Printesis, who was appointed Greek Catholic Exarch in 1975, is worried. While he and the Byzantine Catholic community do as much as they can to support these refugees, he wants the flow to stop. The Exarchate’s resources, and the resources of the nation, are taxed beyond their limits – Greece remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. He believes that if the U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq were lifted, Iraq’s evaporating middle class, many of whom are Christian, would remain in Iraq. But, until then, the Bishop shrugs, he and his mighty handful will continue to work to improve the lives of these Christians.

Every June, Holy Trinity holds a bazaar, the proceeds of which support the parish. Boxes of handicrafts are unpacked, food is prepared and the grounds are decorated with banners and lights. The room from where the crafts are displayed and sold once held bundles of clothes donated by Americans for war-weary Greeks. The sisters remember that era well and how they energetically sorted and distributed those bundles.

The fact that the sisters remember that time betrays their age. The Exarchate’s mighty handful of priests and religious is shrinking and the median age is rising. Pammakaristos Sister Dorothy Gad reflects on these statistics. “While there is much work to do,” she adds, “we have no new members to help us with it.”

Guided by a tenacious faith and a desire to improve the lives of those in need, Greece’s mighty handful of Byzantine Catholics will find the energy and the resources to carry on.

A long-time contributor, Marilyn Raschka filed this report from Athens.

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