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The Ecclesiastical History of the Dodecanese during Italian Rule

The Ecclesiastical History of the Dodecanese during Italian Rule

The short period of Italian conquest is considered the most crucial period in the entire history of the Dodecanese. The new conquerors were entirely different from the previous ones and although they were of Christian faith their policies threatened much more the national consciousness of the Greeks. The main goal of the Italians was to permanently annex the islands to Italy and in order to achieve this they set out policies and practices which attempted to alter both political affiliation as well as religious.

Under this threat the Orthodox Church was once again forced to play an ethnarchical role. The Italians were against this role of the Church and attempted at first to limit it to a purely religious function. Initially the Orthodox Church focused on preserving its privileges. It was astutely aware that the final result of Italian policies was to subjugate the locals and convert them to Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, the permanent claim to union with Greece was to become a pivotal factor in the following struggle. Likewise, the ecclesiastical question of Autocephaly was at the centre of deeds and actions for a number of years. This issue left many wounds in the collective conscious of the local people.

Italy abandoned the liberal rights with which it gained it’s ethnical wholeness in the 19th century and began to see itself as a colonizing power. Towards the end of the 19th century it conquers Erithrea and Somalia and in 1933, Abyssia. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Italy moves to capitalize on the spoils available. On the 5th of November 1911, it annexes Tripoli and Cyrenea whilst having already declared war on Turkey.

Their involvement in Dodecanese history begins with the conquest (under General I. Amelio) of Astypalaia (26th April 1912), Halki, Tilos, Leros, Patmos, Kalymnos (12th May) and later the same month Karpathos and the rest of the Dodecanese islands.

Rhodes is conquered on the 4th of May 1912 with the local populace helping the Italians (whom they greeted as liberators) overthrow the Turks. Italy officially states that this was necessary in order to force Turkey to recognize their annexation of Lybia. Italy disembarks 15.000 soldiers on the shores of Kalithea (today’s Faliraki) and helped by the Rhodians march into the city from Rodini via the suburb of St. Anastasia. General Amelio announces on the 5th of May 1912 that ‘the customs and laws of this civilized world’ will be respected.

Metropolitan Benjamin of Rhodes (later Ecumenical Patriarch) visited General Amelio during which he was assured that after the end of the Turkish-Italian war the islands would be given political autonomy as was the case of Samos. However soon after it was realized that Italian occupation was not to be temporary. The Greek flag was forbidden to be raised on all churches as well as at religious ceremonies such as that of Theophany (6th January 1913).

Italian rule was soon realized to be heavier and more threatening than Turkish rule for the following reasons.

With the new conquerors the differences of faith were dogmatical.
The Italian civilization was more tempting to the locals.

The first reaction of the Rhodian people in the face of this new situation was to plead for the replacement of Metropolitan Benjamin because he was considered as Italophile. This initiated a dark period of tensions between the local church and the Church of Constantinople. The request of the Rhodian people however was met and Metropolitan Apostolos Triphon was elected by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The new metropolitan arrived in Rhodes on the first of April 1914 (ten months after his election) due to Italian dissent at the replacement of metropolitan Benjamin. He was allowed to enter Rhodes only after the Russian embassy interceded in order to set up a meeting in Constantinople between Metropolitan Apostolos and the Italian ambassador.

Metropolitan Apostolos was greeted with enthusiasm by the Rhodian people and immediately set out to overcome the following urgencies:

Tensions between Dodecanese and Italians
Catholic Propaganda
Lack of an organized resistance
Poorly educated clergy
Uneven educational system
Lack of funds
Monastic property and governance in disarray

To a lesser extent many similar problems were faced by the other Metropolitans of the Dodecanese and their efforts were concentrated on keeping a difficult balance. The results of their success in difficult circumstances would become evident in the following years.

Back in Rhodes, metropolitan Apostolos soon aggravated the Italians by not allowing mixed marriages which were not consecrated in an Orthodox manner. The accelerating tensions culminated during the Easter protests of 1919. The movement requesting union with Greece was initiated by the Metropolis of Rhodes. Many secret preparatory meetings amongst the Dodecanese people took place prior to the protest events with Metropolitan Apostolos playing a decisive role. A referendum was decided and executed in such a way that Italian authorities were unable to avoid it. The result of the referendum was announced on Easter day (7th of April 1919) with the locals vehemently supporting it. Processions were carried out on all the islands with both religious and lay leaders present. This however led to the violent attempts of the Italian authorities to quell the protests in favour of union with Greece (resulting in the murders of an orthodox priest Fr. Papaloukas and a lady from the village of Villanova-Paradeisi).

After the bloody events of Easter 1919, metropolitan Apostolos was exiled to Patmos (1921) and then back to Constantinople with the charge that he did not participate in the ceremony welcoming the new Italian governor of the Dodecanese. Metropolitan of Karpathos Germanos was also exiled to Castelorizo in 1922. After many difficult trials and negotiations metropolitan Apostolos returns to Rhodes in 1924.

During this twelve-year period, the Church albeit against many difficulties, maintains its privileges. The Metropolitans carry on with their ethnarchical duties the success of which depends the very survival of the Church. They are the presidents of the Council of Elders and the school boards and are able to organize the educational system. The Church of course meets the main burden of the cost for education which is drawn mainly from church property. As an example of the emphasis that is given to education many famous schools are founded during this period such as the Benetoklion Highschool, the Urban (Astiki) School, the Amaranteios School, the Kazoulion School for girls, the Preschool of Sts. Anargiroi etc. In 1916 there were 56 schools in Rhodes, 11 urban schools, 18 primary schools, 14 schools for girls and other mixed schools. The total pupil body was 2,912 with 89 teachers.

In 1922, after the calamity of Asia Minor, the whole situation changed with the treaty of Lausanne (1923) and Italian rule remained and was solidified in the Dodecanese. This allowed the Italian authorities to implement policies with a purpose of Italisation of the islands. Things only worsened for the local population after Mousilini’s fascist party rose to power (28/10/1922).

The new regime installed Mario Lago (Feb. 1923) as General governor of the Dodecanese with directions to speed up the process of Italisation. During his governance the Orthodox Church is recognized by law but loses all the privileges. The Metropolitans (Apostolos of Rhodes, Germanos of Karpathos and Kasou, Apostolos of Leros and Kalymnos, and Archimandrite of Kos Filimonas) are no longer presidents of the Elders council and the school boards and are stripped of all authority. In fact the Elders council, the taxation office and the mixed courts are suspended. All matters are transferred to the jurisdiction of the Italian civil courts. The priesthood is contained to merely their religious function and they must be of Dodecanese origin. No one is able to be appointed from Greece, Turkey or Egypt. The Church is forced into autocephaly in order to cut off all ties with Greeks from these areas. At the same time a Latin Archdiocese is established which had the right of officiating in all official ceremonies. Many Italian monks and nuns are brought and they establish new schools and philanthropic institutions. Furthermore, mixed marriages are officially accepted with the precondition that the newlyweds automatically accept Roman Catholicism. They are given as an incentive a monetary gift but all properties are recognized as Italian.

The main issue that arose from this period is of course that of autocephaly. The Italian authorities were adamant that the local Church be severed from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This would weaken the Dodecanese Church and make it susceptible to Italian propaganda.  Governor Mario Lago sends a document to Metropolitan Apostolos in which he underlies the need to declare the Dodecanese Church as Autocephalous “in order that it may be independent”. Negotiations began during the patriarchy of Gregorios 7th between the Italian Embassy in Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Metropolis of Rhodes. The Metropolitan of Karpathos was called to Constantinople from his place of exile and negotiations began with the Italians citing, as an example to follow, the autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus (which was then under English rule).

The Ministry of foreign affairs of Greece intervened stating that the issue of autocephaly arises only when an Orthodox populace is freed and given political stature. Then and only then as a part of a new state can the local church request autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Under severe Italian pressure Apostolos of Rhodes answered that he is not the only Metropolitan of the Dodecanese and he cannot negotiate on their behalf. In response the Italian authorities called all the Metropolitans as well as the abbot of Patmos. In this meeting it was decided that autocephaly would be granted only if all privileges were retained and that a synod (with president the Metropolitan of Rhodes) be established. Negotiations continued but were interrupted by the death of the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregorios and the election of Constantine 6th as Ecumenical Patriarch. Details on this agreement between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Italian embassy and governor Lago underlie the attempt to preserve as many privileges as possible under Italian rule. Such as the jurisdictional matters of the holy monastery of Patmos and the right of election of Metropolitans directly from the Ecumenical Synod. In fact, a protocol of autocephaly was drawn up (14-10-1926) which contained the following chapters: Religion, the holy Priesthood, Metropolitan Court jurisdiction, governance of schools and communities, Ecclesiastical funds and eight articles of a law volume concerning the Dodecanese Church.

The successive deaths of Patriarchs Constantine and Basileios the 3rd brought Patriarch Fotios to reconsider signing this document until a referendum was conducted on the issue. This was not accepted by the Italians and the autocephaly issue was put on hold. The issue of Autocephaly for the Dodecanese Church was opposed by many Dodecanese citizens of other countries (Greece, Egypt etc.) and they rallied against it foreseeing that it would leave the local populace open to foreign intervention. The Italian authorities thought of enforcing one sided autocephaly but instead they began a new policy of bribery and flattery towards the Metropolitans. In June 1934 the Metropolitans meet in Rhodes and they send a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch threatening resignation if the matter is not solved once and for all. They ask for the support of the priesthood and the leaders of the communities not to accept their resignations in order that they can move to a declaration of Autocephaly. The Metropolitans depart to the monastery of Panormitis in Symi island and awaited the response of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The people however took matters into their own hands culminating in the ‘stone throwing war’ of Kalymnos.  This vehement reaction against autocephaly by the people put an end to Autocephaly for the Dodecanese. This of course caused serious reactions by the Italian authorities against the local Church and schools.

On November 1936, Mario Lago was replaced by governor De Vecchi due to his inability to enforce the Italisation program. It is characteristic of this dissatisfaction that the new governor criticized Lago that after so many years the local people still spoke Greek. When the Community council asked to meet with the new governor he responded saying “Gentlemen, from you I want adherence everywhere and by all otherwise I will shoot you, Now leave.” And so a dire new phase begins. The community council is negated and in its place the ‘Commissario’ is established. This new body by closing the library of Benetoklion High school and closing all Greek press and publications as well as all Greek organizations. The Greek language is prohibited in all public places as well as on the streets. These measures however concentrated the efforts of the locals against this strict Italian rule.

The Church immediately organized the catechetical schools as Secret Schools in order to preserve Greek language, culture and orthodox religion. The Metropolis of Rhodes was successful in obtaining permission for priests and theologians to teach religion in the churches and used this in order to teach the Greek language. Metropolitan Apostolos was able to convince many teachers to offer their services for free. The school of Byzantine music was established by Metropolitan Apostolos and organized by protosyggelos Papaioannou. This school was soon to become the centre for the resistance. Italian police worried by its spreading influence began systematic surveillance of its activities. Many church chanters taught in this school such as Moutafis. Melidonis and Papaioannou-Zigdis. Teachers of the higher Catechetical School also played an important role in this regard. They include: Anastasiadis, Pantelidis, Sellas, Pouzakis Kanaris, Papazachariou, Bakiris, Mailis, Kazoulis, Konstantinidis, Papathanasis, Topouzis, Petalas etc. When the second world war broke out all teachers with Greek citizenship are arrested and locked up in the moat of the old city and forced to live in difficult circumstances subject to unhealthy conditions.

The Church once again rose to the situation giving food and clothing to the prisoners. Metropolitan Apostolos and the young deacon Apostolos were tireless in their efforts to support and comfort the local people in these difficult times. The success of the Dodecanese Metropolitans to gain valuable time culminated in the resignation of the Italian authorities in their attempts for Autocephaly. At the same time The Church strengthened Greek national consciousness, promoted Greek education and language and increased philanthropic endeavours in dire times. The Metropolis of Rhodes was at the centre of this success. Its jurisdiction at the time included almost half of the islands. Metropolitan Apostolos with his untiring efforts, foresight and fearless opposition to Italian policies played an integral part in this troubled history of Italian rule and subjugation.

After the treaty of Bantolio (8-9-1943) the Germans begin actions against their former allies the Italians. They ruthlessly kill them wherever they find them but the locals putting aside their differences aide and abet them against the risk of German reprisals. The Germans establish their dominance over Rhodes and immediately allow the free function of the Catechetical Schools against protest from the Italian police. They also allowed the publication of the religious magazine “Anagennisis” (with protosyggelos Apostolos as editor).

During this period however many damages and lootings occur in may holy monasteries and churches. Simultaneously many church officers are exiled and the Abbot of the Panosrmitis Monastery, Chrysanthos Maroulakis, is executed. Great famine came over Rhodes during the years 1944-1945 due to the need to feed the German army as well as a result of the blockage of supplies by the allies.

The reaction of the Dodecanese Metropolitans was immediate and they sent out a call for help to the international Red Cross (Geneva). In the memoirs of Metropolitan Apostolos (pp. 36-53) the tragic situation at the time is documented. People were dying of hunger in the streets, many left the city for the villages in the hope of finding food and disease spread. In the face of such circumstances even the communication lines of the German army were allowed in order to call for help.

The first telegraph was sent by Metropolitan Apostolos to Alexandrian Patriarch Christoforos and to Archbishop of Athens Damascinos, it read: “The people of Rhodes in agreement with the Red Cross are agonizingly awaiting sacks of flour….” The winter of 1944-1945 was harsh and this made matters worse. The German governor Otto Wagener, realizing the crucial aspect of the famine collaborated in the attempt to find relief. This action was to later acquit him when on trial in Rome for war crimes.

Metropolitan Apostolos was tireless in his efforts to find relief. He asked for help from neighbouring Symi which was under English rule, as well as from all Greeks of the diaspora and abroad. His planned trip to Egypt in order to secure aid from the wealthy Rhodian community was unfortunately aborted. Some help though was forecoming and his efforts paid off. He visited the villages of Rhodes and distributed much needed food. He was able to save many people from starvation and disease because of his relief work during difficult times.

The Dodecanese islands are soon after liberated. Vice-regent Damascinos arrives in Rhodes on the 5th May 1945 amidst great cheer and joy. Metropolitan Apostolos greets him with full hierarchical dress and bowing he demonstrates the humble thanksgiving of the Rhodian people. The address speech of protosygelos Apostolos “We the grateful people of Rhodes humbly welcome our mother Greece to our shores…” Damascinos replies, “I glorify the name of the Lord who with grat magnitude allowed me the great pleasure to visit the beautiful city of Rhodes this glorious metropolis of the Free Greek Dodecanese.”

The Church’s task is not over yet. There are still many problems with food and medical shortages. In K. Tsalachouris book “Pages of History” the orthodox Church continues to meet the peoples pressing needs organizing medical care with the local doctors and food supplies. Under Metropolitan Apostolos it has proven time and time again that it sacrificially serves all those in need. The Church was a true ark of salvation during the most difficult period for the Dodecanese in recent years.

Metropolitan Apostolos soon after retires from office, so does the Metropoltan of Kalymnos and the Metropolitan of Karpathos succumbs from the hardship over the previous years and passes away.  New hierarchs are elected and a new chapter for the Dodecanese Church begins. The remembrance of the efforts and the sacrifices of the Church leaders and their people during the trying times of Italian rule will however remain in the selective conscious of all, eternal be their memory.