This year’s Greek Independence Day march to the Shrine of Remembrance was dedicated to the victims of the Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the people who attended would not have known this because while his Grace, Bishop Iakovos was praying before the Shrine’s Eternal Flame for the repose of the souls of the innocent victims of the Genocide, as well as for those who gave their lives fighting for the freedom of Greece, his prayers were drowned out by the sounds of people booing and hurling abuse at visiting Greek MP Giorgos Varemenos, for being one of those Greek parliamentarians who voted in favour of ratifying the Prespes Agreement.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Over 350,000 Greeks were killed during the Genocide. In an event commemorating the 100 year anniversary of this terrible crime against humanity, various Greeks of Melbourne disrupted a mass dedicated to their memory, in the name of patriotism.
I observed the members of our local Pontian organisations look on in disbelief.
They have borne the brunt of the campaign for recognition of the Genocide alone and largely unaided by the rest of the community. Now, in the name of patriotism, so-called Greeks were, through the use of expletives and verbal abuse, denigrating the victims of the Genocide and desecrating what is for Melbourne, a Sacred Space.
A few of the younger members of those organisations were in tears.
“Seriously? one girl exclaimed. “The thugs I can understand. But there are grandfathers out there making idiots of themselves. How can they be so insensitive? How many people have to die before these people develop a conscience?”
When I pointed out to one incensed old man who was screaming “Ουυυυ” and “Θάνατος” as loud as his wheezy larynx permitted him so to do, the irony of the fact that in disrupting memorial service dedicated to the Genocide in order to protest against the SYRIZA government, he was actually adopting SYRIZA MP Nikos Filis’ known disrespectful stance towards the Genocide, he shrugged and commented: “I don’t give a s…t about the Pontians. They can all die as far as I’m concerned.”
These then are the patriots who would save Macedonia, the land of refuge for Genocide survivors, from Mr Varemenos and his ilk.
Prior to the commencement of the March, members of the Pan-Macedonian Association of Melbourne, vocal opponents of the Prespes Agreement and all those who support it, handed out flyers containing the lyrics of the well-known patriotic song: “Μακεδονία Ξακουστή.”
They asked participants to sing it as they marched past the dignitaries, hoping that this oblique reference to their homeland would be subtle enough to trigger feelings of guilt in Mr Varemenos and Greek Consul-General Dimitris Michalopoulos, who is also the focus of local ire, because he is misguidedly seen by many to represent, not a country, but instead, a government that has betrayed the interests of its people. Some participants did sing Macedonia Renown, with varying degrees of gusto and their point was made, without disrupting the character of the event underway.
Similarly, in his sermon during the Thanksgiving Doxology at Saint Eustathios on the morning of the March, His Grace, Bishop Iakovos referred to the Macedonian Issue and the dangers that lie in governments not listening to their citizens, citing an old Greek proverb: “Φωνή λαού, οργή Θεού.” (The voice of the people is the wrath of God.)
Bishop Iakovos spoke calmly and concisely as Mr Varemenos looked on, uncomfortably. Evidently Bishop Iakovos, like many Greeks in Melbourne, has grave concerns about the Prespes Agreement and the way it was ratified. Yet, he did not turn Mr Varemenos away. He did not engage in a verbal attack upon him. Instead, like so many other hierarchs that have come before him, he unflinchingly delivered his homily. Mr Varemenos had no choice but to listen.
There was nothing subtle or calm about the howling, the shouting, the jostling and the swearing that undulated through sections of the crowd as the dignitaries assembled in front of the Eternal Flame, at the conclusion of the March, however.
Young children, woken up early and brought by their parents and grandparents in costume in order to spend a proud family day as Greeks together, began frightened, and started to cry.
As the screaming intensified, I witnessed mothers sweep their children up in their arms and run away from the Shrine. One young woman turned to another who was howling abuse in all directions and asked: “Do you really think that’s appropriate? Please, can’t you tone it down a bit? I’ve got young kids here.”
The protesting patriot, flushed by her Philhellenic exertions, turned to her, her hands clenched into fists and began howling: “F..k you and f..k your kids, you dumb f….g slut. Get the f..k out of here.”
The young mother turned and fled.
A father shook his head disconsolately. “My wife has taken the kids to the car,” he commented. “She says this is the last time we are bringing them to the parelasi. She is Italian. It took me years to convince her to let them come here, and look what happens. Thanks a lot for nothing.”
In contrast with the dignified approach of Bishop Iakovos, the mob was not able to confront Mr Varemenos with its convictions, simply because it was incoherent.
Having unleashed a general hatred and drowned out his speech, all it managed to do was to compel him to leave the Shrine, something which, some of the mob told me later, they consider a triumph.
What those persons who sought to use the March as a forum to abuse delegate politicians from Greece seem not understand, is that our March, as it has evolved, has less to do with Greece per se and more to do with the perpetuation of our own identity and culture as Greek Australians.
Members of our community, I among them, have every right to harbour misgivings about the Prespes Agreement. They have every right to feel aggrieved about the manner in which the Greek government seeks to present the Agreement as a triumph and appears to denigrate those who have a different view. They have every right to wish to communicate their feelings about the Agreement to the Greek government and its representatives, although as Australian citizens who do not vote in Greece, whether that government will take such sentiments into account is a moot point, especially when it has a track record of not taking the opinions of Greek citizens into account.
What they do not have the right to do however, is to subvert our own homegrown institutions, in order to insult, hurt or harm others, especially guests, and before the eyes of our own elected Australian leaders and representatives. Nor do they have the right, in the process, to defile the memories of Genocide victims.When we and our children don our national costumes and make our way down into the centre of Melbourne, more than just commemorating the heroes of old, we are engaging in a public assertion of our identity.
We are stamping our cultural identity as Greeks not just upon any part of the Australian landscape, but in the very place where the most hallowed of Australian foundation lore is propagated. What takes place as we march to the applause of our relatives and friends, pausing only to take a quick selfie, is an act of identity creation and transmission. It is one of the few Greek-Australian ceremonies that has developed as a response to local conditions, rather than adopted wholesale from our country of origin, and deserves to be cherished.It is trite to mention that our ability to use the Shrine as a place for the propagation of our own rites of identity is a privilege, not a right, gained by our ancestors by the valour they displayed in fighting side by side with Australian soldiers in World War II.
It is thus a place not to be taken for granted and definitely not to be abused.
Those who would jeopardize the perpetuation of the unique rituals that make us who we are through loutish behaviour therefore demonstrate that they have no love or care for our community. Quite the contrary, by purposely permitting their own political passions to prejudice the conviviality of our community, they appear not to wish to belong in our community. They would be best served returning to the country they left behind, there to abuse the objects of their ire to their hearts’ content. These people have not realised that while politicians and governments may come and go in Greece, our community will always remain in Australia. It is up to us to determine what form that community will take. It is up to the Australian politicians that witnessed the debacle of abuse at the Shrine, to determine just how serious a stakeholder in the broader multicultural fabric of Australian society, our community will be considered henceforth.
And it is for the mothers of children subjected to the abuse, to assess whether our community is a safe space for their offspring to participate in, moving forward.
As we were walking towards the car, at the conclusion of the March, my six-year-old daughter suddenly asked:
“Μπαμπά, τι είναι προδότης;” (Dad, what is a traitor?)
“Why do you ask?” I responded.
“Το φώναζαν εκείνοι οι άνθρωποι προηγουμένως.” (Those people were shouting it out earlier)
I felt sick to my stomach, both that my little girl had experienced the hatred of polarisation, but mostly, that this had transpired among my own people, on so special a day, on my watch.
A προδότης is someone who doesn’t love their country, I answered her, after thinking for some time.
“Τότε αυτοί είναι προδότες, γιατί δεν αγαπάνε την πατρίδα τους αλλά κάνουν φασαρία και κάνουν τα παιδιά να φοβούνται,” she opined. (Then they are traitors, because they don’g love their country but they also make a fuss and make the children scared.)
“Γιατί υπάρχουν κακοί Έλληνες;” (Why are there bad Greeks?)
And that, for me, is the greatest betrayal of all.