ROME – At only 11 miles away from the Turkish coast, the Greek spearhead-shaped island of Rhodes is accustomed to seeing Muslims docking on its rocky shores. In the past, religious knights took arms against these strangers, but today a handful of friars warmly welcomes them with food and clothes.
When Franciscan Friar John Luke Gregory visited the port of Rhodes in 2015, he had heard already about the many refugees fleeing the war-torn countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan in search of a better life.
Yet nothing prepared him for the mass of people gathered at the port that morning.
“They weren’t tourists, it was an incredible and enormous crowd, and they all spoke Arabic,” said Gregory, a Friar Minor and head of the mission in Rhodes, during a news conference in Rome on Thursday.
There are only 130,000 people living on the island, yet after that summer was over more than 15,000 refugees and immigrants had come to Rhodes. Friar Giuseppe Ferrari, Delegate for Italy, described the Franciscans on the island as “a tiny minority in a much larger context.”
“The small island of Rhodes found itself in a paradoxical situation, and the Franciscans were left to bear the enormous circumstances on their shoulders,” Ferrari said.
The May 17 event was for the presentation of a graphic novel called Refugee, written by Julià Dinarès and illustrated by Anna Gordillo Torras, depicting the story of a young girl experiencing life as a refugee.
Upon seeing the hungry and needy crowd, Gregory told reporters that he immediately got to work, calling on members of his parish to look for food, clothes and blankets.
A native of Sheffield, England, he is fluent in English, but also in Italian, French, Spanish – and, most importantly Arabic, which he used to immerse himself in the crowd, providing help wherever he could.
He had to learn Greek in 2004, when he was appointed to be the Guardian and parish priest in Rhodes by the Custody of the Holy Land, a custodian priory founded in 1217 by St. Francis of Assisi and entrusted by the Holy See with the missions in Rhodes and Kos in addition to its traditional center in the Middle East.
When he first arrived, Gregory said the island seemed like “a paradise,” with the sea breeze scurrying through its trees, cafés and casinos. He spent his days administering to the small Catholic community on the Orthodox majority island, and eventually founded a parochial council comprised of 12 – 14 people.
“Lay people have a lot to offer, [so] it’s up to us to ask,” he said.
Rhodes has historically been a gateway between the East and the West, known not only for the tolerance and hospitality of its people, but also for the violent wars among the region’s cultures that have spilled blood on its shores and in its waters.
In the fourth century B.C., Persian fleets, originating from what is modern-day Iran, raided the Rhodian coasts. For centuries after the island stood at the heart of conflicts over the Mediterranean. In 654 A.D. the Islamic forces of the Umayyad Caliphate occupied Rhodes, beginning a cycle of invasions that continued for centuries.
The Christian presence on the island dates to 58 A.D. when St. Paul evangelized its people, but its present-day influence begins in 1310, when Rhodes was conquered by the Knights Hospitaller, today known as the Grand Order of the Knights of Malta.
After numerous enemy attacks, the protective wall built by the knights finally fell under the impetus of Suleiman the Magnificent in December 1522. Historical accounts say that the 7,000 knights fought against the Sultan’s 100,000 for over six months before surrendering.
Rhodes remained under Ottoman rule for four centuries.
The island’s inhabitants “are very resilient,” Gregory explained. “They have seen many such things throughout the centuries. It’s in their DNA. But their heart was bigger than their discomforts.”
Since 2015, the people of Rhodes have had their fair share of discomforts. Tourism, the main source of revenue on the island, dropped 40 percent after the influx of refugees. Fights and riots that would break out at times among the immigrants did not help either.
In August, European authorities decided that Syrians would take precedence in regularization. Other nationalities did not take it well, and Gregory said that “a battle” ensued. The 26 policemen on the island, left with no economic support from its bankrupt government, resorted to using fire extinguishers to control the crowd, he said.
Still, he said, the inhabitants of Rhodes continue to be generous toward their new neighbors, offering bread, milk and even baths. During the Sunday offertory at Mass, Gregory said, parishioners don’t bring money but pasta, rice, tuna cans and even toothpaste and shampoo for the thousands of refugees in need.
“Facing such a pretty dramatic situation, the first reaction could be discouragement,” Ferrari said. The friars, he added, inspire people to take things in hand and approach the refugees not with the promise of solving all their problems, “but to tell them that they are not alone, and to give them all our comfort.”
“We are few,” Ferrari said, but added that despite the challenges their small numbers create, “We don’t care!”
With his fellow friars and parishioners at his side, Gregory took charge of the situation despite insurmountable odds.
In the past, the harbor of Rhodes was the home of the Colossus, a giant bronze statue considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 2015, a new wonder stood in its place – so many boats and rubber dinghies piled on top of each other that they resembled “a skyscraper,” Gregory said.
Things got worse in the winter, when temperatures in the Aegean islands dropped substantially. On November 2, Gregory remembers visiting thousands of immigrants and refugees near the harbor. With nowhere else to stay, entire families and children lived in “a city of tents as far as the eye could see,” Gregory said, adding that they had placed aluminum sheets over their makeshift homes to keep warm.
Today, refugees have been moved to an old slaughterhouse. The friar said there’s no glass on the windows, and to make things worse the look and feel of the place has remained unaltered, with hanging hooks for carcasses, dug-out canals for blood, and even cutting utensils left scattered on the marble chopping blocks.
Things are a little better now, he said, since bathrooms have been installed and immigrants don’t have to wash and bathe in the sea.
Many still continue to come to the island, most fleeing refugee camps in Turkey. More die at sea, never reaching the European coasts. Gregory remembers that many times when he visited the shores with the parishioners, they found dead bodies of men, women and even infant children washed up by the waters.
“I would ask myself: What those last moments of their lives must have been like, far away from their homes, their loved ones,” the friar said. “How many have died at sea and we shall never know? Some wash up at the shore, but where are the others?”
Immigrants explained to Gregory what getting there from Turkey was like. They paid $1,000 to be driven by boat just outside the country’s territorial waters, then the driver would dive into the sea and swim back to shore. The immigrants, often families with children, were left alone – unqualified and unskilled – to navigate the rest of the way.
Since a highly contested refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union was signed in March 2016, Greece has not allowed asylum seekers to leave its islands, who are stuck in limbo. The Greek Supreme Court has recently declared itself in favor of invalidating this policy, passing the question to the political players.
“The policies of the EU, like the deal with Turkey, to keep refugees away from third-party countries, the Greek islands, must be replaced by an approach that provides equal responsibility for all member states in refugee matters,” said Irem Arf, immigration researcher for Amnesty International, in a late April interview with Agensir.
Gregory said that having seen the situation in Syria himself, he “understands why people want to flee,” but also acknowledged that the economic crisis in Greece makes the current situation unsustainable unless more funds are made available.
“All the money goes to Turkey, where the conditions for refugees are terrible,” he added.
The friar is now the Vicar General of the bishopless Archdiocese of Rhodes, and continues to address the needs of his community and of the newcomers every day. On April 20, a boat carrying over 200 immigrants turned over, killing at least three people, one of them a child. Soon after, 700 people landed on the nearby island of Mytilene. As unrest and war plague the nearby Middle East, the flow of migrants to the islands continues.
To make matters worse, the Aegean islands were hit by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake in 2017, which destroyed Gregory’s small church and buried precious supplies for the refugees kept in its crypt.
Still, the friar and his parish administer to the immigrants every morning starting at 7 am. Gregory describes them as “the poorest of the poor,” and, starting this year, he has added to their food pack a small box of chocolate on Easter and Christmas celebrations.
“I think these people never receive something pleasant, something that brings joy, something not essential,” he said.
Today, “the spotlight is off” regarding the situation unfolding in the Greek islands, according to Italian journalist Ignazio Ingrao, who moderated the event.
“Since the boom in the immigration crisis in 2015 the world has witnessed many acts of egoism as well as many acts of heroism and solidarity,” he added, especially in places that are at the periphery and unknown.
“This is the reality of Kos and Rhodes.”