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Athens reaches out to Syria via Greek Orthodox community

Syria’s Greek Orthodox Christians hope the resumption of ties between Syria and Greece will help them recover from the war.
Catholic believers and clerics gather outside Greek-Melkite Patriarchal Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady to mark Palm Sunday in the capital Damascus in Bab Sharki, Old Damascus on April 14, 2019. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The appointment this spring of Greece’s former Syrian ambassador as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' new special envoy for Syria is being viewed as a sign of Greece’s renewed geopolitical interest in its southern neighborhood and of its desire to establish a greater role in a country to which it has deep historic ties. 

According to Ioannis Grigoriadis, head of the Turkey Program at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens, the decision is part of a wider attempt to refocus on the region brought about by the escalation of tensions between Greece and Turkey. 

Speaking with Al-Monitor, Grigoriadis said, “The Libyan-Turkish maritime agreement prompted a reaction leading to a complete reconsideration of Greek policy in the Middle East. As Greece’s economy continues to recover post-COVID-19, the Levant will be a new area of regional ambition for Greece.” 

As Greece looks for countries where it can increase its footprint while pressuring Turkey, Syria is a logical choice. Dimitrios Katsoudas, Greece’s secretary general for European affairs from 2007-2009 and a previous policy adviser who has held various positions within the country’s current ruling New Democracy Party, told Al-Monitor, “Greece has a strong will to participate both in Syria’s permanent pacification and to its reconstruction,” adding, “Greece, for historic, geopolitical and economic reasons, needs to hold a strong position in Syria, and our allies need to understand this.” 

Damascus businessman Charles Catinis is a living example of the historic ties between Greece and Syria and has been following the rapprochement between the two countries with a sense of hope. In a phone interview, he told Al-Monitor, “Greece was the last European country to close its embassy when the war started. Now when we need to renew our passports or obtain documents, we must travel to Lebanon to visit the Greek Consulate in Beirut.” 

Catinis is a third generation Greek national residing in Syria. He is one of about 400 people left living in Damascus whose families moved there in the 19th century when the city and much of Greece were still a part of the Ottoman Empire. 

“I was born in Damascus, as was my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Our Greek citizenship was passed along from father to son,” he told Al-Monitor. 

He remembers a time when Greece and Syria enjoyed good relations, helped by the presence of the Greek community. “We had a great relationship between Greece and Syria before the war and part of that was because of the shared culture and religion,” he elaborated. “We celebrated Oxi Day (the Greek national holiday marking the country’s refusal to surrender to Axis forces in WWII) and Greek Independence Day along with the church holidays.”

Today, Arabic-speaking Greek nationals like Catinis make up a tiny minority and are clustered mainly in Damascus and Tartus. However, Syria is home to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, the largest Arab Christian church in the Middle East. 

Before the war, an estimated 10% of Syria’s population was Christian, with Greek Orthodox being the largest denomination. Because of the conflict and widespread flight of Syria’s Christians it is hard to estimate their numbers today, but some figures place them below half of pre-war levels. 

Still, they are a sizable and prominent minority that did well as a community before the war. Russian intervention to save the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been cast, in part, as a move to defend Orthodox Christians in Syria and those who remained have generally stood by the regime as a guarantor of minority rights and stability. 

In this light, Katsoudas told Al-Monitor, “Greece has eventually come to recognize that the Assad regime has practically been the only one to protect the Christians. This is why now that the regime is restabilized in Syria, Greece tries to formulate a more concrete policy for the protection of Syrian Christians.” 

After living through years of their country’s international isolation, members of Syria’s Greek Orthodox minority who spoke with Al-Monitor welcomed the news of Greece’s diplomatic return. Basilios, a 22-year-old student of English literature currently living in Homs who asked Al-Monitor not to use his full name out of security concerns, stated, “Greece didn’t want to leave Syria. It was forced by NATO and the European Union. Greece is our good neighbor.” 

Grigoriadis told Al-Monitor that Greece’s reengagement with Syria will need practical follow-through, stating, “What is important now is if Greece goes on to invest diplomatic and economic resources in order to claim a stronger position in the Levant, and to some degree to reclaim the Greek historic legacy in the region.” 

That legacy may prove to be an asset as Greece seeks inroads in the country while navigating the concerns of US and EU allies who continue to impose sanctions aimed at marginalizing the regime. If Greece can find a way to assuage those demands it may be able to carve out a role for itself as a mediator between the EU and Damascus while positioning itself to take part in the eventual reconstruction of the country and leverage its position against Turkey. 

A basic starting point could be more assistance to the Orthodox community. 

Catinis says that since the closure of the embassy in July 2012, the Greek Club of Damascus has lacked a Greek teacher, which was previously provided by Greece. “The teacher and opening the embassy to allow Greek nationals to do their paperwork here in Syria are the two most important things Greece can do.” 

Farah, a 31-year-old primary school teacher living in Homs who asked Al-Monitor not to use her real name out of security concerns, said she is doubtful any government will be able to do much to help the Syrian people, but she could see some benefit from the renewal of Greek interest in her country if it instills the Orthodox church with the aim of helping Greek Orthodox Syrians stay in Syria instead of emigrating. 

She told Al-Monitor, “Greek Orthodox look to Greece like they look into a dream. But I want the church to teach the Orthodox that Syria is their country too.”

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