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For all that's changed, at Istanbul church, all is the same

After two weeks in two countries, it's time to come back home

John Kass

April 15, 2012

ISTANBUL

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At midnight a single flame is brought forth in the darkened and ancient church of St. George and quickly it is shared, candle by candle, until all is illuminated.

The faithful sing "Christos Anesti" as they've sung it for centuries, never changing, singing of Jesus Christ and resurrection, his triumph over death, and of salvation offered to those who believe in him.

Everything is new. It is the beginning of the new day. Western Christianity celebrated the holiday last week, but it is Easter Sunday for the Orthodox, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leads them in song.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not telling you what to believe or what not believe. The world is of many different faiths, and there are those who chose to put their faith in science, progress and themselves alone.

But what I am telling you is that this is the way it is here now, and the way it was at the beginning in the ancient city of Istanbul, once known as Constantinople. And I tell you that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew still holds on, bravely, the 270th in an unbroken succession that dates directly back to the apostles.

Only some 2,000 Greeks remain here, and I can only imagine the resurrection hymn being sung by multitudes in Agia Sophia a few miles away, the great domed church of the Orthodox, now a museum, still standing after 1,500 years and large enough so that the great cathedral of Notre Dame could fit comfortably inside of it.

After the liturgy at St. George, in the patriarchate called the Phanar, they leave the church, carrying the light, to go return home to continue celebrating with family. It's time for me to leave, too, after an amazing two weeks in Greece and Turkey, and see my family again.

But as I leave I want to tell you that I'm so very fortunate that the Tribune sent me on this trip to witness two nations in extreme transition. And I'm thankful for Tribune photographer Chris Walker, who took such beautiful photos and video, offering his perspective on all of this.

What did I learn?

That Greece, the homeland of my fathers, is in economic agony, at a dangerous tipping point, with the middle class in despair, the politicians having spent all the money and the middle class having lost confidence in their corrupt political institutions. This has allowed fringe groups on the far left and the far right to gather strength. Greece serves as a warning to America.

And Turkey is in the midst of what amounts to a revolution, a peaceful democratic revolution led by Islamist politicians, an amazing story poorly understood in the West.

Greece is tired, exhausted with worry. The people have been through so much chaos in modern times that it is heartbreaking to see it happening again. And still there are those like my cousins, and like the woman from Chicago with the sweet shop, who won't give up.

Turkey is confident and growing, a bustling economy, still trying to enter the European Union, but also looking east to rebuild relationships with old Middle Eastern foes, worrying U.S. officials and our Israeli allies. And Turkey is also trying to cobble together a constitution to protect the fragile new freedoms against the old anti-religious secularists and the generals who ran things for decades.

I know that some on the left are galled by my comparisons between Greece and the U.S. But politicians of each nation learned that the way to power and wealth is to bribe the people with their own money. America can borrow and print money. In Greece, the money is gone.

The two weeks overseas have gone by too quickly. I could write a dozen more columns about what we've seen.

Like one I didn't write about the gorgeous, old world elegance of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens. If Greece were run like the Grande Bretagne, it wouldn't only thrive, it would flourish.

And another I didn't write, about the eight Kurdish brothers running the bustling pilaf stand in Istanbul, the cars pulling up late at night, the way we pull up for hot dogs at our favorite joints.

At least I visited a Turkish barber shop, got a haircut and a fantastic shave, and also the famed "flaming ear" treatment of Istanbul: The barber lit matches and singed off my ear hair, with grace and without discomfort.

"This is how we do the ears in Turkey," said courtly barber Omer Aksoy. "So what will you tell the people in America?"

That they must visit Omer Aksoy, and bring their ears, or their trip to Istanbul will not be complete.

But most of all I'll remember Rizes, my father's village in Greece, and going up the mountain with cousin George and Chris Walker, and lighting a candle in the old church before looking down at the green valley and all the family memories below.

Now it's time to come home.

Kalo Pascha. Kali Anastasi.

Happy Easter.

jskass@tribune.com