Refugees Helping Refugees

Greece’s tiny Byzantine Catholic Church, extends hospitality to beleaguered Iraqi and Ukrainian refugees.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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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.”

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Tags: Iraq Ukraine Refugees Greece Byzantine Catholic Church