Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Mournful Pascha - Copts and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter under ominous threats

by Ralph H. Sidway

Orthodox Christians throughout the world celebrated Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, on May 5, and will continue the festal joy through the Ascension of Christ, which falls on June 13 this year. 

For Coptic Christians and Orthodox believers in the Islamic world, this year’s Pascha was held under the dark cloud of severely escalating persecution from Muslim mobs and extremist groups, as well as from official Islamic government bodies. 

John Sanidopoulos of MYSTAGOGY blog has just completed the translation and posting (in six parts) of a Greek article titled, Pascha Under Turkish Domination. This is an immensely important survey of several hundred years of history, which incorporates many Greek Orthodox source texts, as well as observations by non-Greek diplomats and travelers, regarding the conditions of Christians subjugated under Turkish Muslim oppression.

Parts One through Three relate a relatively benevolent period of about two centuries of Turkish Muslim domination (dating from 1519 through late seventeenth centuries), when the Orthodox were allowed to celebrate Pascha with relative freedom. But the three day celebrations allowed during this era were notable primarily for the lifting of the usual oppressive restrictions against the Orthodox (called “the slaves” in the source text) codified in the dhimma contract. 

By the mid eighteenth century, however, severe oppression was again being inflicted upon the Christians especially during the Great Feasts by their Muslim overlords, with severe consequences if the restrictions were transgressed. It should be emphasized that these restrictions derive precisely from the Pact of Omar and the classic application of the dhimma contract, which subjects Christians to humiliating conditions under Islamic rule. 

Posted below is the second half of the article (parts four through six as found on Mystagogy). The final paragraph is especially sobering, as it relates how the Muslims deliberately scheduled executions of the Christians to coincide with the great feasts of the Church in order to demoralize the Orthodox believers. 

Readers of Raymond Ibrahim’s work and observers of current events in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world will recall mass killings and bombings being perpetrated or threatened precisely during great Christian feasts such as Christmas (see here and here), both to inflict maximum casualties, as well as to demoralize the Christian targets. This article therefore further demonstrates this consistent practice across centuries of Islamic jihad against Christians.


A Mournful, Silent Pascha

Let us see now how they celebrated Pascha after the privilege of the three-day uninhibited celebration of it was abolished in the Queen City.

A historical document of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which was discovered many years ago in the Sacred Monastery of Sinai and dates to around 1772, reveals how the Turkish conquerors acted to smother the religious sentiment of the slaves during their great feasts and especially during the days of Pascha. In order to destroy the enthusiasm, consistency and hope that the traditional celebration of Pascha gave the slaves, they now put into practice decrees of oppression and exclusion which were issued from time to time and established how they should dress and how the Romans should celebrate these days.

For Constantinople in particular, the administration of the Ottoman Porte invited the Ecumenical Patriarch and gave him strict orders and instructions for the celebration of Pascha by Orthodox Christians in Constantinople.

They commanded the Patriarch to bring to his flock the orders of the Porte which stated that Christians, during the days of Pascha, should be dressed in poor clothing and not bright formal dress, nor beautiful and colorful outfits. These were only allowed for the tyrannical masters and were "prohibited dress" for the slaves.

As is apparent from the patriarchal document of 1772, the mandates of the conqueror stated that Christians could not celebrate their Pascha, as in olden times, with their dances and their songs in the streets, but they were to celebrate with mournful silence, with "quietness and modesty", remaining in their homes and avoiding travel and visitations to their sacred shrines in the City.

The Patriarch of Constantinople at that time (1772) was Theodosios II. It was to him that the Porte gave strict orders that Orthodox were not to celebrate Pascha with celebrations. Accompanying the decree was a stern warning of the dire consequences offenders would encounter.

The Patriarch, seeing that the climate was hostile for Orthodox Christians and being well aware that the conquerors for even the most trivial reason could alter the great feast into a dire ordeal, acted as a good shepherd. He issued a document with instructions for the slaves to avoid being considered offenders.

The Certified Document of the Patriarch

This historical document, written by Patriarch Theodosios II is addressed to the clergy, priests and hieromonks of the Great Church of Christ, and through them to the faithful people of Constantinople. It refers to the "stern command" of the Porte and urges among other things the following:

Most-honorable clergy of our Great Church of Christ and all the most-pious priests and most-venerable hieromonks, who chant in the churches of the city, of Galata, Katasteno, grace to you and peace from God. 
It is known to all, that today I was invited before the most-glorious efendi of Istanbul, and having gone there I heard boldly read the issued royal venerable definitions, which dictate that during the days of Pascha, all Christian slaves are to spend them in quietness and modesty, without dances and songs and games, and not to walk gathered together in the streets, going neither to Baloukli nor to Egri-kapi and other holy water shrines, but to quietly rest in their homes and their lofts. 
The people are not to wear a high kalpak, fur with a long guard and other "unseemly" things which belong to those who hold us, that is, salvaria and mintani and other such prohibited dress, but to keep intact the royal venerable definitions given for garments.
Whoever dares to transgress any of these dictates, will be disciplined with the heaviest punishment. Hence, embrace it and in a few days, as we have written and as we have advised, you will spend these holy days quietly and modestly. Behold, even now that we have revealed the aforementioned stern command and proclaim to all Christians, small and great, young and old, men and women, to take care of yourselves during these holy days, according to the issued royal venerable definitions, and to (...) keep without wavering the dictates above, the royal venerable definitions which have been issued.
For whoever annuls any of these commands, they should know that they will be disciplined with the heaviest punishment.

The aforementioned patriarchal document began with the word "the Patriarch" as a heading and closed with the word "Constantinople", without the name of the Patriarch being written. From the date of the document however (1772), it shows that the Patriarch on the throne at that time in Constantinople was Theodosios II.

Theodosios II was elected Patriarch on 04/11/1769 and remained on the throne until 1773. He was appointed Patriarch during difficult times, as is written by the chronicler. He performed his duties with peace and gentleness. He was distinguished for his wisdom, virtue, goodness and simplicity. He was lovingly-just and endearing to the clergy and the people.

He was Cretan in origin and became an abbot in a monastery on the island. For some time he was the head-priest of the Sacred Church of Saint George in the Queen City. He was later ordained Bishop of Ierissos and Mount Athos from where he was promoted to the Metropolis of Thessaloniki and then was elected Patriarch.

The Orlov Revolt (1770) made the position of Theodosios as Patriarch of Constantinople very difficult. Orthodox clergy and the faithful people were considered suspects and dangerous at that time by their conquerors, which is why hard measures were imposed even for their religious duties.

Athens and the Villages

Greek Pascha, which was almost always celebrated together with time-honored customs and traditions, gave the slaves hope and optimism. The festive tumult of the bell, the hymns glorifying the victory of life over death which Christians chanted in Orthodox churches, the elevated mood enhanced by nature in the Spring, created on the night of the Resurrection of Christ and all the days of Pascha a vitality and optimism for the future.

The first "Christ is Risen" was welcomed with homemade fireworks, with noisy and triumphant acoustic elements. Armatoloi and Klefts gave to the feast with their armed presence an image of a living militant people and brought a spirit for revolution.

They celebrated with dances and songs, with food and drink and warm wishes of "Christ is Risen", "Good Resurrection to the homeland", "And to next year, with freedom".... Even the dances of the group paschal dances had a national, awakening content.

The tyrannical decrees of the conqueror that forbade Christians to celebrate in festive and beautiful colored costumes, were defied in many parts of the country. Pascha should be celebrated with brilliance even with the clothing of the slaves. This is why a Paschal song of the time said: "Today old women put on red aprons...". In Epirus, where this was sung, older women almost always wore black, as they do also in our present day.

Regarding certain Paschal customs of the Greeks in the time of slavery, foreign travelers to Greece at the time spoke of them. The English diplomat Sir Paul Rycaut2 wrote in 1679, that Christians at the Resurrection exchanged a brotherly kiss. They kissed three times on each cheek and on the mouth. Another Englishman, Thomas Smith,3 wrote in 1680: "On Holy Saturday the Christians eat only once, enough to keep them on their feet. At three in the afternoon Vespers begins and goes throughout the night, many having with them bananas, figs and the like with the purpose of using them to avoid fainting from hunger. At dawn the Liturgy begins with 'Glory to God in the Highest' and there follows 'Christ is Risen'."

It is also reported by a foreign English traveler in 1682 regarding the Resurrection kiss at Pascha in Athens, that before kissing, the Christians who were in a rivalry had to kiss in order to show they were not atheists or pagans.

On the Sunday of Pascha in Athens all the parishes celebrated the Resurrection Liturgy separately, but on Monday in only one church, at the cathedral, where all the Athenians attended church together with their families. On this day, according to the custom, the Metropolitan sent large candles to the influential persons of the city. The first priest also did this in each parish.

Lastly, we must mention that the conquerors were often planning in certain places on the major feasts of the slaves, the executions of Christians who were condemned for various charges, and in particular for not changing their Faith. In this way they succeeded in making the brilliant festival of Pascha "black", but it did not bend their morale.

2. The Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches, Anno Christi 1678, Written at the Command of his Majesty, London 1679.

3. An Account of the Greek Church, Oxford 1680.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos