Revival of Greek Identity in Syria: Interview with Operation Antioch

As stated from the Operation Antioch (OA) Facebook group, the “OA is a grassroots movement, which supports the notion that the Greek Orthodox and Catholic people of the Levant constitute a distinct Hellenic ethnos.” The Antiochians are an Arab-speaking Christian people, also known as Rum, who reside within the Levantine region, aka Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the Hatay region in Turkey. They are members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch or the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Greek historian Pavlos Karolidis says that they are the descendents of Greek settlers from Macedonia who migrated to the Levantine during the Byzantine Empire era.

PA: How and why did Operation Antioch start?

OA: Operation Antioch is the direct result of two things. The failure of Arabism and the ongoing Rûm Genocide in Syria at the hands of Islamic Terrorists funded and supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as their Western Allies. Our Activist network was born out of an evolving dialogue between several Levantine Rûm living in the Levant and a Greek-American Activist on the history, identity, and current situation of Levantine Rûm. Operation Antioch came “online” in late 2013 with a demonstration outside the Turkish Consulate in California, to protest Turkish support of Terrorism inside Syria. The demonstration, which was a coalition effort of Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian-Americans, was follow by OA Activists participating in a rally in Israel against the mistreatment of Christians throughout the Levant.

PA: Why is it important that there is a revival of Antiochian Greek identity and language? How was this identity originally destroyed or attacked?

OA: The revival of Antiochene Hellenism is about social justice and equality. It is a cultural revival, which embraces the region’s pre-Arab heritage and legacy. We believe that embracing this Hellenic heritage will bring about a much needed philosophical realignment back towards stability and tolerance, which the Levant so desperately needs at a time when extremism and religious bigotry flourishes across the region. For Rûm-Christians, it’s about the right to exist within our indigenous homeland. It is about fostering unity between all Levantine Greek Orthodox and Melkite-Greek Catholic communities, as well as promoting solidarity between all Greek Orthodox Christians. The adoption of Arabic by the Antiochenes began gradually after the Arab conquest, while the Arabization of our ethnic identity did not intensify until the Ottoman Caliphate. The Arabization of our ethnic identity truly began with the division of our Patriarchate into today’s Antiochian-Greek Orthodox and Melkite-Greek Catholic Churches. This was further cemented with the Arabization of the Antiochian-Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1899. These two events laid the foundation for Western Missionaries to nurture the concept of an “Arab” ethnicity amongst Antiochene intellectual circles in the 19th and 20th centuries.

PA: How has the ongoing Syrian War affected the Antiochians?

OA: The ongoing Syrian War has devastated our people. Since the conflict began, we have been labeled “sympathizers” and “infidels” by Islamofascists, and marked for extermination by such terrorist organizations as the FSA, al-Nusra, and Daesh. Numerous Rûm-Syrian villages have been abandoned by our brethren, forced to flee for their lives. Our religious leaders have been abducted and murdered, our churches desecrated and destroyed. Even the cultural sites of our ancestors, dating back to the Hellenistic period have been targeted for destruction. Those of us brave enough to remain, live in constant fear, as terrorists have even gone as far as to poison traditional Rûm beverages. Forced to endure inhuman living conditions, without food or water, our brethren are forced to depend on humanitarian aid from the Syrian State and International Organizations. Our only refuge has become Wadi al-Nasara, as our people become the victims of a coordinated Genocide against all Syrians of Rûm, Aramean/Assyrian, and Armenian descent. For us, our very existence is at stake.

PA: Although of a different historical heritage, is there any relations or communication between the Antiochian Hellenes and Greek speaking Muslims in Syria and northern Lebanon?

OA: There is no official relations or communication between the general Rûm-Christian community and the Greek-speaking Muslim community of Syria or Lebanon. Unfortunately, traditional attitudes still prevail in both communities. However, Operation Antioch hopes to change this. We have Muslim supporters, and even some from within the Muslim Cretan Community. Our activist network fully supports the notion of a shared ethnic brotherhood between Levantine Rûm-Christians and Muslim Cretans.

PA: Do you have any communication or support from the Greek and Cypriot Governments?

OA: We have absolutely no communication or support from either the Greek or Cypriot Governments.

PA: Have you made attempts to open communication with the governments of Cyprus and Greece? Is there anything they can do to help your project?

OA: We have not attempted to open communication with either the Greek or Cypriot governments. Although support from either government would be helpful, especially official recognition of our people as ethnic Greeks, and heirs of the Seleucid & Romaiic Empires. History has taught us that Greece has consistently failed to protect or assist ethnic Greeks living outside of its borders

PA: The movement to reclaim our ethnic Rûm identity is not a political struggle, but a cultural revival. It is an attempt to embrace a heritage and legacy, which is indigenous to the Levant, yet sorely forgotten. It doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of being Syrians. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The ‘Arab’ identity is one that has been forced upon the indigenous peoples of the Levant for over a 100 years. Fostered inside a naïve Christian intelligentsia by Western Missionaries. It is foreign and culturally alien to the Levant. In reality, Arabism is nothing more than secular Islamism.