• The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 lead to Peter Papathanasiou being baptised twice in the Greek Orthodox Church. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Peter Papathanasiou looks back on the time a high priest ordered the immediate baptism of all the babies in his town, and he was dunked in holy water. Twice.
By
Peter Papathanasiou

5 Apr 2017 - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2020 - 2:52 PM

When you think about controversial border regions, a few examples immediately spring to mind. The Berlin Wall divided the German capital from 1961 to 1989, while the Korean Demilitarised Zone continues to separate North and South Korea. Today, the US-Mexico border remains prominent in the news.

If you ask a Greek this question, they’ll likely bring up Cyprus and 1974. A military coup by Greek-Cypriots sought to fold the island into the Greek state. Turkish forces – ships and tanks – then proceeded to enter Cyprus, take control of the north, and divide the island in half along what became known as the ‘Green Line’. The region is so-called because of a line drawn on a map by a British general with a blunt green chinagraph pencil.

The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus came at the height of summer, in July. As luck had it, I was born in Greece a month earlier, in June.

Many people in the country were understandably fearful. The Hellenic fleet, complete with submarines, was deployed. Airports and borders closed. The mood was particularly tense in Florina, the town where I was born. It was near two international borders and over the years had been claimed by numerous conquerors: Romans, Slavs and Byzantines.

The Turkish invasion was felt even more acutely by my family. My adoptive mum had travelled from Australia for my birth, and planned to return with me there thanks to her generous brother and his wife. But with Greece in lockdown, she was stuck. And scared.

On the day of invasion, our family huddled around the radio. War cries called on the Greek army to turn the Turkish invaders into mincemeat. She used to tell me the experience cast her mind back 30 years to when Germans appeared on motorcycles flying bright red swastika pennants through Florina’s tight streets.

In the late afternoon, a high priest announced that all infants should be immediately baptised. Dying unbaptised was a ticket straight to hell. The local churches would be opened for two hours.

“Let’s go,” mum told her family without hesitation. “I’m not risking the baby.”

Dad, who had stayed in Australia, had wanted the baptism there.

A few people gently sobbed as they cradled their young. They would not have woken that morning expecting a quickie baptism for their precious newborns.

And so, my two mothers – adoptive and biological – carried me to the nearby church in a wooden fruit box. By the time they arrived, the line of people spilled out the front door and snaked around the corner.

Parakalo, please!” the local priest said, “Only one person inside at a time, just the godfather or godmother”.

There was much debate. My biological mum said she’d already baptised two sons, and didn’t need to go again. My adoptive mum said she would be at the baptism in Australia. Being baptised twice was – apparently – okay, provided the name was the same.

In the end, the two determined women decided to enter the church together. They avoided looks from others standing patiently in a sombre single file. A few people gently sobbed as they cradled their young. They would not have woken that morning expecting a quickie baptism for their precious newborns. Big celebrations would have been planned.

Had the adoption agency said yes, I would never have existed
Peter Papathanasiou was born in Greece in 1974. Following a proposition by his biological father, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle and taken to Australia. Had his aunt's trip to a Greek adoption agency gone to plan, things would have been very different.

The priest’s stovepipe brimless hat appeared at the door again.

“And boys to the left, girls to the right!”

Even with such pandemonium, the good Father still remembered to prepare two fonts. In the eyes of the church, baptism creates blood relations. Should all the babies have been baptised in the same font on the same day, they would have been brother and sister before God, and unable to marry each other. In a small place like Florina, that could one day pose problems.

My mothers approached the altar. The priest raised a questionable eyebrow above his thick eyeglasses.

“Ladies, please, I asked for only one person at a time,” he said. “Who is the mother?”

“She is,” the two women said in unison, pointing at each other.

The priest looked confused, and even more displeased.

My biological mum leant in. “It’s a long story,” she whispered. “And we don’t want to hold up the queue.”

Running out of time, the priest was in no mood for a discussion, especially with me smeared in olive oil, wriggling like an eel through his ageing fingers. He turned me eastwards, blew in my face three times to chase away evil spirits, made a sign of the cross, uttered four exorcisms against temptation, and dunked me three times into the tepid water.

“The servant of God Panagiotis is baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!”

My adoptive mum exhaled, job done.

We returned home. In our absence, the family had prepared a small meal of entirely local produce: lamb with oregano and lemon, chargrilled eggplants with wild honey. My brothers had collected fresh eggs. The radio stayed on all night. There were no further announcements, only martial music.

A year later, in November 1975, my second baptism took place. It was an incredibly advanced age to be baptised, nearly 18 months, so much so that the printer made an error with my birth date.

Over the next month across Cyprus, churches were gradually transformed into mosques. Refugees from the northern side of the island poured south across the ‘Green Line’. A quarter of a million souls, one third of the country, were driven from their homes. Mass rapes and shootings of unarmed civilians, bodies burned in village kilns. The countryside was scalded with napalm. Fortunately, Florina was spared.

In August, important men met. On the last night, the diplomatic conference ended at three a.m., unresolved. Fighting resuming 90 minutes later. Eventually, the borders and airports reopened.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to pay 90 million euros ($A135 million) to compensate Greek-Cypriots who suffered discrimination during the events of 1974.

My biological mum finally took me to Australia in November 1974. A month later, images appeared in the newspaper of Cypriot children in a refugee camp setting and decorating their Christmas trees using dry branches standing upright in empty artillery shells. A year later, in November 1975, my second baptism took place. It was an incredibly advanced age to be baptised, nearly 18 months, so much so that the printer made an error with my birth date.

Fortunately, the second Orthodox priest gave me the same name, Panagiotis.

And Mum never told Dad about the first baptism.

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