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Commentary: Bishop’s courageous protest in response to evil

By Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos

As seen in The Philadelphia Inquirer March 23, 2016Also available here.

Since November, our Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago has undertaken a major lobbying effort to gain official recognition by President Obama of the genocide taking place in Syria and Iraq. On Thursday, that became a reality with a historic announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry. That followed a unanimous bipartisan vote by the House of Representatives and previous support from the European Union, Pope Francis, and others.

Some may dismiss this act as merely words, devoid of significance. But words do matter, as does the courage to officially recognize acts of evil for all to see.

Before and during the Second World War, the Nazis’ persecution and genocide of Jews, while hidden and unknown from a majority of the world, was known to some political and religious leaders but largely ignored. This willful ignorance contributed to the pain of the Holocaust. For most of the world, “Never again” was the rightful response to the horrors witnessed after the defeat of Germany. But not all waited or remained silent.

Wednesday marks the anniversary of one religious leader’s protest of the Nazis’ evil policy, unique as the only formal protest of this type during World War II. It was an act of courage that is largely forgotten.

Following the failed attempt of Italy to invade Greece, the Germans overran the country, sending much of the government into exile. Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, did not flee but chose to remain with his flock.

Learning of the mass deportation of all 56,000 Jews from the northern port of Thessaloniki by the Nazis, the archbishop was well aware that these citizens of his nation were headed to concentration camps. The Nazis then went to Athens with the demand that Chief Rabbi Elias Barzilai provide all the names of his Jewish community. The rabbi sought help from Damaskinos.

The prelate took action, unwilling to be complicit in another tragedy within his nation. He counseled the Jewish community to flee to the mountains with the Greek Resistance. He chartered civilian boats to evacuate Greek Jews by night to the islands. He signed thousands of falsified baptismal documents to provide religious cover to Jews and directed clergy nationwide to provide sanctuary. And finally, the most personally courageous act: He formally protested with a letter to Gen. Jurgen Stroop, the same commander who had brutally put down the Warsaw ghetto revolts and would later pay for his crimes following trial at the end of the war. His letter is the only documented protest of the Holocaust by a world leader during the war. He wrote:

“According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities.

“In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion or dogmatic difference.

“Our Holy Religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28) and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences.

“Our common fate, both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune, forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race.”

The archbishop expected dangerous consequences. The letter was sent abroad and printed in newspapers worldwide, providing the citizens of the world with the opportunity to know of the crimes against humanity being committed and witness the stand of those behind enemy lines facing true evil.

Stroop demanded that the archbishop renounce the letter or face execution. As the firing squad gathered, and recalling the execution of Patriarch Gregory V during the 1821 massacre of the Greek population of Constantinople, the archbishop’s response was, “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” Shocked by this bold response, Stroop canceled the execution.

Few of us will ever have our lives threatened for writing the truth. However, on the anniversary of Archbishop Damaskinos’ protest, we have the opportunity to learn from his example and formally acknowledge the crimes against humanity we see happening before our eyes today.

In the Middle East, the Christian minority population is now experiencing the same type of evil faced by the Jews. Rather than hiding these crimes, terrorists committing these atrocities are showcasing them on the Internet.

Just as Archbishop Damaskinos could not simply watch these crimes and do nothing, it was important that our national leadership take action to properly identify the evil we see today. The overwhelming evidence provided by the criminals themselves clearly displayed the internationally agreed definition of genocide. As such, nothing short of official recognition was logical. Anything less would have been a betrayal of justice.

The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago has been proud to stand up and call for this official recognition. We are honored to be recognized by leaders in Congress as a leading voice in this national lobbying effort. Just as the Holocaust cannot be dismissed as “collateral damage” of World War II, so these crimes cannot be dismissed. They must be officially denounced, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice when possible.

History’s dismissal of the courage displayed for the world against the true nature of evil, to reveal truth regardless of danger to oneself, to accurately identify for the historical record the evil that exists before us, must be corrected. It is our hope that the American public will be able to recall the historic acts of Archbishop Damaskinos and our pride that our political leaders have shown the same courage.