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Greek Orthodox community is Istanbul has dwindled to dramatic point

The tiny “Rum” – Greek Orthodox – community in Istanbul has dwindled to the point that survival is uncertain. The cultural  heirs of the Eastern Roman Empire have left the city following pogroms and expulsions. Members of the “Rums” as Turkey calls them spoke to The Times about how they are dealing with demographic decline.

“Though official figures say that about 3,000 Rum still live in Istanbul and on the Aegean island of Gokceada, the true number is thought to be significantly lower — some say as few as a thousand, most of them elderly,” the Times reported.

Times journalist Louise Callaghan spoke to Lazari Kozmaoglu, whose family runs the city’s last Greek butcher’s shop. “Everyone is gone now,” Kozmaoglu said. “When I was young, I used to get worn out saying hello to everyone I walked past on the street. Now it’s so lonely.”

Kozmaoglu himself died in the summer of 2020, leaving his business to his son Makis, who now runs the shop with brother Kozma and other family members. Despite the vanishing Greek community, the shop still does good business, though “most of their customers are foreigners or secular Turks with a taste for pork.”

The Kozmaoglu family is one of very few Greek families who stayed behind in Istanbul after the population exchanges which followed the First World War, the 1955 pogrom of Greek owned businesses in Istanbul, ongoing tensions with Greece over Cyprus, and now a renewed dispute over access to maritime waters.

Lazari Kozmaoglu’s daughter Despina told the Times that many of those from the Rum community she had gone to school with 30 years ago had left Istanbul, probably feeling that they would have an easier life in Greece.

“There is no one left from my class at school in Istanbul now. There are only 250 children left in the Greek schools all together. Right now I see no future for my children because everyone has left. They’ll be lonely here,” Despina said.

The Times also spoke to Minas Vasiliadis, who runs one of the last Greek newspapers in Istanbul. His family had emigrated from Turkey to Greece, but Minas returned in the early 2000s in order to help run a newspaper which his family owned.

The newspaper, Apoyevmatini, has a circulation of only 600, but “Vasiliadis regularly works until 3am to perfect the morning’s edition”.

“Honestly our main problem is the demographic. The average age is really high,” Vasiliadis says. “We run a lot of obituaries.”

Vasiliadis raised the issue that despite there not being many Greeks left in Turkey, the community’s structure still exists, particularly in the churches and other buildings still owned by Greeks who have emigrated. Ownership can become tied up in court battles, with properties falling into disrepair.

“In this community you have a structure that has been there for hundreds of years. It was there to serve hundreds and thousands of people,” Vasiliadis said. “There are properties, schools and charities. We continue to have that kind of structure with only very few people. It’s impossible to continue like this. We have to solve the demographic problem or change the structure of our institutions. That is how we will survive.” thetimes via ahval

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