Some 1,500 Orthodox Christian pilgrims gathered in Turkey this Sunday to celebrate mass at a monastery that has been closed for nearly 90 years.
The mass, held at Sümela monastery in Trabzon near the Black Sea coast, was allowed by special permission from the Turkish government who is trying to increase its respect for religious minorities in a bid to join the European Union.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, symbolic head of the 300-million-member Orthodox Church, presided over the event which marked the death, or dormition, of the Virgin Mary.
"Today believers in God celebrate. Those who believe in Christ, who worship the Virgin as the Theotokos, are celebrating today," Bartholomew said, according to Spero News. "Because even though today we celebrate the Dormition of the Virgin, she has never abandoned the world, but intercedes for us with the Lord, for the entire world."
"Dear friends, now is a great moment for the church of Constantinople (the Mother Church of that world to which it made known the Christian faith)," he continued. "Thanks to the courtesy of the Turkish government, to which we are grateful, after 88 years of lethargy we can all celebrate together, coming from Russia, Georgia Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and the rest of the world, the Dormition of our Lady."
Bartholomew also reached out to the Muslim community during his sermon, wishing them a happy Ramadan and calling for peaceful coexistence.
"The culture of coexistence is a legacy bequeathed to us. Let us make this legacy live and pass it over to younger generations so that no one suffers from problems linked to coexistence," he said.
Turkey's Orthodox community, which has dwindled to less than 3,000 from over 200,000 some fifty years ago, have often complained about being treated as second-class citizens in the country, which is 99.9 percent Muslim.
The minority group has been long harassed by the Turkish government through various sanctions including the expropriation of church properties and the closing of the church's main seminary, the Theological School of Halki, in 1971.
The school's closure has threatened the existence of Turkey's Orthodox community as it served as the main training ground for future patriarchs, who by law must be Turkish citizens.
Last month, the Turkish government offered relief by opening the way for Orthodox Christians from abroad to become citizens, although many Orthodox continue in hope that the school will one day be reopened.