Paying homage to the homeland

THESSALONIKI- In 1866, at the end of the Russo-Turkish war, Greeks from the Black Sea coast abandoned their ancestral homes to follow the departing Russian troops, taking with them just a few household belongings and the icons from their churches. In their new home in Georgia, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Tbilisi, their first task was to build a church, before even starting on their houses. A century later, it was the turn of their descendants, the Greeks of the Soviet Union, as they prefer to be known, or Russo-Pontics as they are often called in Greece, to be uprooted, this time emigrating to the original motherland of Greece. Their first concern, like their forefathers, was to build churches in their new settlements in Thessaloniki and other parts of northern Greece. For example, the church of Profitis Ilias in Nea Santa, Kilkis, has quite a history. Greeks from Georgia built it with their own hands, using rocks they brought with them from the Caucasus. The church is named after one built in 1866 in the village of Iraga, Georgia, as a symbol of their religious faith and which was to be the focal point of their new settlement. Master builders and laborers, all Greeks from Georgia, worked for four years (1994-1998) to build a faithful replica of the original church, using tons of rocks transported in the baggage holds of buses on the Tbilisi-Thessaloniki run. According to Achilleas Tsepidis, president of the Association of Greek Refugees Profitis Ilias, it was a long and dangerous operation that succeeded due to the unswerving faith of all those who took part in it. We are going to build a traditional village around the church, an exact copy of the one we lived in in the Caucasus, he said, adding, We also want to build a museum of the folk art and traditions of our ancestors. The association is considering naming the village after Andrew Athens, president of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE), in recognition of the help he continues to give ethnic Greeks who still live in the former Soviet republics. In parts of the world such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Moldova and Albania, Greek Orthodox churches have been reduced to crumbling ruins, either because of religious persecution or due to indifference on the part of the state authorities, and the local Greek populations are not able to repair them for use. The one exception is in Albania, where Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania has embarked on a struggle to restore the Orthodox churches and has already managed to open over 250 of them. SAE, meanwhile, is planning to fund a program to repair churches in the above-mentioned countries. Still, Gortyn has managed even though the nearest bank is about eight kilometers (five miles) away, and doesn’t seem too worried about learning to live with what Greeks call the evro.