The Church of Agios Voukolos (Aya Vukla in Turkish), to me, is beyond words when describing its beauty and meaning. Constructed in the mid 1800s by the local Ottoman Greek, and possibly even the Armenian community, the church stands as a symbol of a time which has been literally left to the ashes of war.
Built in honor of Smyrna’s first saint, who was also a student of Saint John the Evangelist, the church stands as a symbol not only of religious beliefs, but also as of specific value to the city itself. In other words, it is a shared ecumenic heritage that should be celebrated by all those who identify with the city despite religious affiliation.
On August 17th, 2014, after 92 years of the Catastrophe of Smyrna, I had the honor and privilege of attending the church’s first liturgy. However, the amazing part of it all was who the liturgy attracted. Out of the roughly 200-300 people in attendance were Orthodox Christians from different ethnic churches (American, Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Syrian, and Ukrainian), the Monsignor of the Catholic Churches of Izmir, as well as the local Turkish community from both Sunni and Alevi backgrounds.
The liturgy was conducted by the city’s newly established priest Archimandrite Kyrillos, along with notable Orthodox Christian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who is most famous for his several introspective books on the Orthodox faith.
In addition, the mayor of Izmir, Aziz Kocaoglu, attended the service to offer his support and encouragement. The liturgy concluded with a sermon by Father Kyrillos in Greek, translated into Turkish, where he expressed his sentiments on the importance of such events, the recognition of the local Rum (Greek) community in Izmir, and the need to work together for a brighter future. The mayor then added mutual sentiments and explained how the future will indeed see a developing relationship that will acknowledge, celebrate, and embrace one another.
Soon after, a cocktail hour was held in the surrounding garden, where a trio of musicians serenaded the attendees with rembetiko.
In reflection to the entire day, I can’t express how happy I was to have witnessed such an event. One that brought new light to the community, that so many times is described as “extinguished”. For in fact, the light has shown brighter than ever before, and for the first time since 1922, people stood hand in hand as a multinational, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious community, similar to what I experienced growing up in the US.
Now, I know for some reading this, it will be met with much skepticism. However, I would like to underline very clearly that this event, along with several similar ones in recent years between both Greek and Turkish communities, did not come about as a spur-of-the-moment idea. It is the culmination of years of hard work (blood, sweat, and tears) by both sides who want to see a future working to embrace similarities as well as differences, in the pursuit of a genuine relationship that was never achieved in the 20th century.
The people who made the liturgy possible have my deepest love and respect, and I look forward to the future with my head up high. As in my film and daily life, “Hello Anatolia” is something I say everyday, because I’m always amazed to see what the day will bring. For this is what “the light” means; hope, love, and faith.