It’s well known that the Greek Orthodox population in Istanbul is infinitesimally small — estimates these days usually put the number at under 2,000. It’s also well known that most Greeks in Turkey were deported in the early 1920s as part of the forced “population exchange” with Greece under the Lausanne Treaty. But most of the Greeks in Istanbul itself were exempted from the population exchange, and as of 1924, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire still had over 200,000 Greek Orthodox residents. As the decades passed, that population declined, but even in the mid-1950s there were many tens of thousands of Greeks in Istanbul — I’ve seen estimates as high as 100,000. That all changed on September 6, 1955, when a Turkish mob launched a planned night of terror against the city’s Greek Orthodox population. Children were raped, churches were destroyed, and holy objects were desecrated. The cruelty of the Turks would have made the Bolsheviks proud.
Among the U.S. State Department documents I’ve been sifting through is a package on these horrific Istanbul riots, which was sent to the Secretary of State, with copies sent to President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. This includes a simple but gut-wrenching timeline of the catastrophe and a statement by a pan-Orthodox gathering of bishops in America calling on the U.S. government to intervene. You can read both of these below, and you can download the original file by clicking here.
CHRONOLOGY OF TERROR
September 6, 1955
5:50 PM: A flag is raised signalling the start of a planned night of terror. Quickly thereafter shops were broken into, looted and completely destroyed.
6:15 PM: Gigantic influxes of Turks rushed into the Greek sections of the city pillaging and destroying systematically all the commercial stores owned by Turkish citizens, of the Eastern Orthodox faith, while police officers stood by enjoying the vandalism. Stores belonging to non-Orthodox citizens remained intact and untouched.
7:30 PM: The suburb, Kararkoi, the banks were broken into and looted.
10:10 PM: First fires break throughout city.
10:15 PM: Bosphorus – Landing on island groups completely ravishing the islands. Stores, newspaper plants, institutions, and churches reduced to a scorched earth.
12: MIDNIGHT: Constantinople – Paran – The Greek airline terminal attacked and destroyed – A clock remaining as a witness was pointed out by a Turkish policeman stating “Why don’t you complete your job” – pointing to the clock. The frenzied mob cheerfully obeyed.
12:30 AM: 80 out of 85 Eastern Orthodox churches burning and completely gutted.
1:00 AM: Adolescents of both sexes were raped – young women seduced – elderly women criminally assaulted.
Numerous women committed suicide rather than face the shame of the nightmare.
And through the night the terror continued.
Out of 85 churches only 5 were spared – the rest completely destroyed.
Cemeteries desecrated – graves dug up – bones of Patriarchs and other Christians were scattered and trampled upon.
Archbishops, priests, and monks were attacked, beaten and burned alive! Altars of churches were defiled and holy chalices used for biological relief.
Holy relics and crosses of gold were looted and sold.
As the sun rose after the night of terror, thousands upon thousands of Christians were left homeless, destitute, hungry and fearful for their future.
Telegram transmitted today to His Excellency Secretary of State, Mr. John Foster Dulles, State Department, Washington, D.C. A resolution prepared by the undersigned archbishops and bishops and reverend clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church in America at a press conference held at the Greek Archdiocese, New York, New York, on September 28th, 1955.
We archbishops, bishops and clergymen of the Eastern Orthodox Church in United States, representing over 6,500,000 communicants who are American citizens, raise our voices in strong protest against the inhuman and unprecedented acts of violence and barbarism of the Turkish mobs against the Greek Orthodox in Constantinople and Izmir on September 6, 1955, the destruction of churches, schools, institutions, the homes and business places, usage of the sacred chalices for biological relief, the desecration of graves, the raping of innocent children of both sexes, and the many other acts of vandalism. We resolve in the name of emergency decency and humanitarianism that the government of the United States, the bulwark of human dignity, take appropriate action for the prevention of similar acts in the future and total rehabilitation of the destroyed churches, schools, institutions, and homes and commercial shops, and the safeguarding of our fellow communicants in Turkey.
Michael, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America
Leonty, Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Antony Bashir of the Syrian Orthodox Church
Archbishop Samuel David of the Syrian Orthodox Church
Bishop Bohdan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Archbishop Palladius of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Archbishop Ihor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Bishop Athenagoras of the Greek Orthodox Church
Bishop Germanos of Nyssa of the Greek Orthodox Church
Bishop Germanos of Constantia of the Greek Orthodox Church
Clergy representatives of the Carpatho-Russian and Rumanian Orthodox Churches
Archpriest Georg Grabbe representing Russian Orthodox Church
UPDATE: Readers interested in learning more about this tragic and important moment in modern Orthodox history should check out the 660-page book The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul by Speros Vyronis, Jr., published by Greenworks in 2005. I haven’t read it myself, but a friend tells me that it is “excellent and comprehensive.”