Discussion Europe

“Islam is not a religion”: Greek Archbishop’s Insults on Islam Strengthen the Far Right

Written by Shahid Munir

In an interview earlier this year with “Open TV”, a free to air TV channel based in Greece, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II stated “Islam is not a religion but a political party and pursuit, and its followers are people of war.” He also said in reference to Sultan Mehmed II (also known as Mehmed the Conqueror) “they [Muslims] are the people of expansion, this is a characteristic of Islam.”

The comments have now been picked up and shared by right wing nationalists who have used his comments to bolster their own arguments against Muslims.

Ironically in the same interview, Archbishop Ieronymos II bragged about the Christian Clergies involvement in the Christian uprising against the Ottomans, proudly stating “There was no sign of revolution that did not start with a clergyman”

Ironically Ieronymos also described the involvement of  Archdeacon Athanasios Diakos and the clergy who took part in the Greek War of Independence, and highlighting there were crosses on all the flags.

Following the release of the interview, and the mainly negative headlines it generated internationally, Archbishop Ieronymos II issued a clarification about his comments “The Archbishop and our Church respect in practice all the known religions”. The statement continued “With all that the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Mr. Ieronymos, said about Islam, in the context of his recent television interview about the contribution of our Church to the Revolution of 1821, he meant nothing more than the perversion of the Muslim religion itself by one dragon of extreme fundamentalists, who sow terror and death throughout the Universe”

The Archbishop concluded his clarification by stating “both the Archbishop himself and all the metropolitans of the Church of Greece, respect in practice all the known religions and treat all their faithful with Christian love and solidarity, which knows no discrimination, through all their actions and initiatives, especially in the social and charitable fields.
Furthermore, the example of peaceful and harmonious coexistence and coexistence of Christians and Muslims in Thrace confirms the truth in the clearest way of speech.”

Sadly, Archbishop Ieronymos II’s original statements were almost immediately picked up by right wing organisations, in particular those who ferment Islamophobia. Archbishop Ieronymos II’s statement is made sadder by the fact that the Byzantine Church has tried in recent years to build positive relations with the Muslim world. No doubt such harmful rhetoric will cause damage to such efforts.

Arbishop Ieronymos II’s comments have been condemned by Muslim Organisations and Countries. In Greece, amongst other the Western Thrace Turkish Minority Consultation Council (BTTADK) responded with the following statement “We condemn the statement of the Archbishop of Greece, Mr. Ieronimos…we hope a more peaceful language to be used instead of anti-Islamic discourse in such difficult times of pandemic.”

The Foreign Ministry of Turkey issued a strongly worded statement “We strongly condemn the presumptuous statements of Ieronimos, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, against Islam during a television interview. Our divine religion Islam is a religion of peace based on an understanding of tolerance and compassion that ensures the coexistence of different religions and civilizations.

“Under the conditions of pandemic that has encompassed the whole world, while everyone should strive for developing an environment of mutual respect and tolerance, defamation of our sacred religion is regrettable.
It is exemplary for the religious leaders, who should serve peace, to poison societies with such groundless statements.

“These provocative expressions of Archbishop Ieronimos, which incite the society to hostility and violence against Islam, also show the frightening level Islamophobia has reached. Such malign ideas are also responsible for the increase of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe.”

Back Peddling?

We should also focus on the simple and plain fact that as Archbishop, Ieronymos II is used to public speaking and thus saying later his comments were meant at extremists raises the question of why the Archbishop didn’t say this in his original speech. Equally why did the Archbishop not discuss extremism in his own religious community? 

Archbishop, Ieronymos II has in the past spoken out against the right wing Golden Dawn Party in Greece when he said “The Church loves all people, white and black, and non-Christians. It loves all people. It also follows its path and does not need guards”

Compared to other extremists, the Archbishops response has been exceptionally poor to put it mildly.

In fact in his recent interview one could say that Archbishop, Ieronymos II has sadly echoed some of the right wing narrative and so his statement about love for all people including non-Christians does sound hollow.

In the interview, Archbishop Ieronymos II’s described the involvement of clergy who took part in the Greek War of Independence, and highlighting there were crosses on all the flags.

Whilst accusing Islam of being a religion of politics and expansion, Archbishop Ieronymos II proudly boasted as stated earlier of the Byzantine Church’s role in war an in symbolism of crosses. If that isn’t long term involvement in politics then what is? Thus it is a case of do as I say and not as I do, for the implication is that whatever the Archbishops faith does is just and good and whatever Islam and Muslims do isn’t. Thus further feeding an already frenzied right wing narrative against Muslims.

The Cross on the battlefield proudly defended, while claiming other religions are political

It is a fact that those who attack Islam and Muslims, when their incendiary speech is called out they then resort to the tried and tested approach of saying they meant their words about extremists. Often these public speakers are used to preparing and making speeches so this poor fall-back when called out simply highlights that the words originally spoken were aimed at Islam and all Muslims. Saying afterwards via a statement rather than in person simply places less importance on the clarification. It also highlights that public speakers who resort to saying their remarks were about extremists and misunderstood is resorting to a known formula perpetuated by right wing individuals and organisations who attack Islam and Muslims and when it goes awry they resort to the poor excuse of saying they meant extremists. Surely people on the fringes of right wing or left wing are not an example for leading public figures and especially clergy to follow.

It is sad that too often religious figures attack Islam and Muslims, choosing to ignore or distort written history and when called out they say they were referring to extremists as though only Islam has an issue with extremists and extremism. Also when called out they then talk of respect and care for other religions but such respect and care seems to be lacking when preparing speeches. It is incumbent upon religious figures such as Archbishop Ieronymos II to be careful with their speech because the impact upon individuals, and for religions, is great.

Also religious and public figures in particular should be careful because one’s own actions can just as easily be judged as can the actions of one’s own religious organisations. The Archbishop should be reminded that treatment of other religions in areas where the Archbishop is now in charge have been poor. Ancient Mosques in Greece have not been maintained and have often been converted for other uses. The ability to practise other faiths has been severely impaired with little help to religious minorities from the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Office.

The once thriving Jewish Community that existed under the Ottoman Empire in what is now the lands of Modern Greece barely exists. It is time for Archbishop Ieronymos II to put into practise his own words of respect, love, coexistence of other faiths and call for the preservation of historic buildings of other faiths and to allow other faiths to practise their own religion with ease and without fear. We look forward to Archbishop Ieronymos II’s furture words and deeds in promoting such endeavours. We invite Archbishop Ieronymos II to work with the Muslim Community to build better understanding as well as relations and extend the hand of friendship towards such endeavours. 

As a final word of advice to ourselves as well as Archbishop Ieronymos II and others, we convey these words of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ):

It is reported on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace and blessings be upon him) observed: He who believes in Allah and the Last Day does not harm is neighbour, and he who believes in Allah and the Last Day shows hospitality to his guest and he who believes in Allah [God] and the Last Day speaks good or remains silent.

Saheeh Muslim

Namely that it is better to speak good, treat your neighbours well and be hospitable than use incitement in speech which cause harm. 

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Shahid Munir

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