'Love has no religion': priests and pastors reach out to refugees

The puttering sound of a small engine was carried over the calm sea to a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. Soon an inflatable boat carrying some 20 people came into view. Within an hour, two more vessels had landed on the beach. Most of those on board were from Syria, Afghanistan and various African nations – just a few of the hundreds of thousands of people who have made the short crossing from the Turkish coast in search of safety and prosperity in western Europe this year.

About 25km away in the village of Kerami Kallonis, a 57-year-old Greek Orthodox priest named Stratis Dimou, a tall man with sparkling blue eyes, received a phone call telling him about the new arrivals.

Dimou immediately left his home for the small building that houses “Agkalia” (“Hug” in Greek), the charity he founded in 2009 to help refugees and migrants. He prepared sandwiches and set out bottles of water for the latest arrivals, who would reach the village by noon on foot. As they entered the country illegally, Greek law forbids people from transporting them.

Dimou, wearing an oxygen mask to counter breathing difficulties, said the charity had given away more than 60 tonnes of food donated by local people and helped more than 10,000 migrants and refugees. “Just recently three women arrived at the village – two of them were pregnant. All three had lost contact with their husbands and their children. We took action and reunited the families,” he said.

“It was then that one of the husbands stood in front of me and kissed me. Love has no religion. Saint Paul writes in the Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’.”

As an institution, the Greek Orthodox church is often considered a bastion of nationalism and conservatism. Some of its priests have even suggested Muslim migrants pose a danger to Greece. But other churchmen have taken the same view as Dimou, who died of lung cancer on 2 September this year, and have become actively involved in efforts to help refugees and migrants.

The monk and the refugee

Father Chrysostomus Hatzinikolaou, a 41-year-old monk who lives in a monastic community on Mount Athos in northern Greece, has formed an unlikely friendship with Amint Fadoul, a Syrian lawyer who protested against President Bashar al-Assad and fled to Turkey in 2013.

The two met when Hatzinikolaou was visiting the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery on Heybeliada, a small island off Istanbul, at the beginning of 2014. Later in the year, Fadoul found he could not renew a visa to stay in Turkey and decided to pay a trafficker €1,250 to get him into Europe.

As Christmas approached in December 2014, he boarded an inflatable boat near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast along with 36 other people from Syria, Iraq and Cameroon and began a dangerous journey to the Greek island of Samos. At one point, Fadoul looked at the map on his mobile phone and realised the boat was too far away to reach land with the fuel it had on board.

“I believed that we would drown,” Fadoul, 29, recalled this year in a cafe in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. At 2.45am on Christmas morning, he sent a text to Hatzinikolaou asking for help. The monk was in his home village in northern Greece. He called a contact on Samos, who told him there was no way to mobilise a helicopter or rescue boat. “I couldn’t do anything but pray,” Hatzinikolaou said.

After the boat hit rocks, Fadoul fell into the water. “I swam with all my strength and finally I set foot on the shore. It was a miracle,” Fadoul said. Hatzinikolaou has now been able to help Fadoul in a more material sense. The lawyer has found shelter in a house owned by the monk.

Hatzinikolaou and Fadoul are both Orthodox Christians. But Hatzinikolaou says he would have helped Fadoul even they did not share the same faith. “Saint Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’,” he said.

‘We start to fear them’

It may seem obvious that if Christian priests followed Jesus’ exhortation to “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, they would help refugees. But in Greece, this is not always the case. Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, one of the highest-profile priests, has often spoken out against people coming to Greece in his sermons.

Anthimos claims Muslim refugees pose a threat to Greeks’ religious beliefs. “Not even in the Middle Ages would one witness what jihadists are doing these days. When we are told that there are extremists among the immigrants, then we start to fear them,” he said, during an interview in his office.

Reminded that holy scripture teaches love towards foreigners, Anthimos responded: “Exactly! To love them, not to be the victims along with them. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one that treated the wounded foreigner took care of his wounds, carried him to an inn and even paid his bill. But he didn’t let him into his home.”

Anthimos is not the only senior churchman to voice such views. The rhetoric of Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus is both xenophobic and racist, say critics. In May 2015, he distributed a circular to all churches in Piraeus condemning anti-racism legislation introduced by the Greek government and a decision to build a mosque in Athens.

Niki Papageorgiou, an associate theology professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said xenophobic attitudes had no basis in Orthodox theology, which values tolerance. But, she said, the Greek Orthodox church often sees itself as a guardian of Greek traditions and language.

“Some Orthodox priests, and also people close to the church, think that the Greek nation and the Orthodox religion are one and the same. This is the main reason the church is a conservative institution and the people within it are usually conservatives who fear opening up,” she said.

The Greek Orthodox church as an institution has few specific projects to support refugees and migrants. But Haris Konidaris, spokesman for the archdiocese of Athens, the central office of the church, notes that such people are among the thousands who receive assistance daily from soup kitchens organised by parishes throughout Greece.

Also, in June this year, the church-funded charity Apostoli, together with an international network of Orthodox Christian charities, renovated a centre for people arriving on the island of Chios.

One long-term church initiative to help refugees is a shelter for children who arrive in Greece without an accompanying adult. It is run by Apostoli in the Agios Dimitrios neighbourhood of Athens. Since the shelter opened in 2011, it has given refuge to 168 minors.

The western Balkan route traversed by many refugees and migrants goes through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. At the other end of the route from Lesbos, where Dimou helped the new arrivals, a cleric from a different Christian church has taken on a similar mission.

Tibor Varga is a protestant pastor in the Serbian city of Subotica, near the border with Hungary. He regularly visits an abandoned brick factory outside the city, where people camp out before attempting to cross the border and enter the EU’s borderless Schengen zone.

“I come to the factory two, three times per week, even daily if needed. I want to talk to the refugees and listen to their stories. I offer them food, clothes, blankets, all thanks to donations,” Varga, dressed in sports clothing and a baseball cap, said at the factory.

“My initiative is not organised, nor is it a part of a wider plan from the state authorities,” he said. Volunteers from the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières also visit the site.

Questioned about whether Orthodox priests in the area were helping refugees in the same way, Varga suggested talking to them. But other clerics declined to speak. Some said they needed permission from their bishop.

After a short pause, Varga went on: “Jesus has said: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him – if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’ So, even if I regarded these people as enemies, it would be my duty to help them.” Asked if he could be photographed in his church in the city centre, Varga gestured to the old factory and people washing themselves with water from a well.

“This is my church,” he said.