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Turkish town where St. Nicholas gave gifts is pilgrimage site for Russians

Tom Kelly CC

John Burger - published on 12/21/16

Demre attracts small bands of Orthodox pilgrims, while Muslim residents keep memory of the "wonder worker" alive

Tom Kelly CC

For the people who live in the Turkish town once known as Myra,  it makes perfect sense.

“It’s true that Saint Nicholas dropped gifts from the chimney,” said one resident, Okan Ozel. “Because poor people from here are very proud people, they wouldn’t have accepted gifts if he had just handed them to them. That’s why he dropped them from a chimney.”

Myra, once a Greek Christian town, is now known as Demre. Ozel works at a cafe attached to the Church of St. Nicholas, now a museum. In spite of any debate over the myth of Santa Claus, the place where St. Nicholas lived and became known for his charity still manages to shed light on the 4th-century bishop. Erdal Karakos, a tour guide at the museum, said, “You call him Santa Claus, but the Orthodox call him the wonder maker. … He was a holy man.”

Residents tend to stick to the history of the man, according to the New York Times, and Ozel, a Muslim, is trying to keep St. Nicholas’ true memory alive. He regards St. Nicholas as an important historical figure:

He believes the government could be doing more to promote the special history of St. Nicholas and his place in worldwide Christian traditions. In Turkey these days, the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked hard to promote the country’s Ottoman history while, critics say, ignoring Turkey’s important place in Christian history.

Last year, Ozel and his friends tried unsuccessfully to put on a play about St. Nicholas at a local amphitheater. They could not find any financial support, either from the municipality or elsewhere. “People are just close-minded,” he said. “No one really cares. No one was interested.”

Tom Kelly CC

Recent events have made things difficult for Demre, which relies on tourism. “Hardly anyone is coming” to the town, the Times reported.

Turkey has an abundance of problems — frequent terror attacks, a swelling population of Syrian refugees, mass arrests after a failed coup — that have driven tourists away. The only foreign visitors to Demre these days seem to be a small number of Russians, many of whom revere St. Nicholas as the third-holiest figure in Christianity, after Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Russian Orthodox venerate Nicholas as a “wonder worker,” or miracle worker. The Times noted:

Russians and other Orthodox Christians come to Demre to pray for healing or to be saved from financial ruin. Many couples who are unable to conceive come and pray for children.

As the website of the Orthodox Church in America writes of the saint:

There was a certain formerly rich inhabitant of Patara, whom Saint Nicholas saved from great sin. The man had three grown daughters, and in desperation he planned to sell their bodies so they would have money for food. The saint, learning of the man’s poverty and of his wicked intention, secretly visited him one night and threw a sack of gold through the window. With the money the man arranged an honorable marriage for his daughter. Saint Nicholas also provided gold for the other daughters, thereby saving the family from falling into spiritual destruction. In bestowing charity, Saint Nicholas always strove to do this secretly and to conceal his good deeds.

“The Russians don’t get as scared as the Europeans,” Ozel told the Times. “There are police here, and they won’t even allow us to put trash bins outside.”

The newspaper’s profile of the town appeared in the Dec. 17 edition, two days before the assassination in Ankara of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.

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