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ATHENS, Greece (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Church of Greece has been forced to issue a clarification a day after comments on Islam by the outspoken Greek Orthodox archbishop of Athens and All Greece sparked a religious and political firestorm.
"Islam is not a religion; it is a political party," His Beatitude, Ieronymos II stated in a Saturday interview with Open TV, describing the role of the Orthodox Church in Greece's struggle for independence from the Ottoman Turkish Islamic empire during the 1821 revolution.
The archbishop described Islam and "its adherents" as following "a political pursuit" and referred to Muslims as "the people of war" and "the people of the conquest."
"This is characteristic of Islam, it is also said by the teaching of Muhammad," Ieronymos II noted, explaining how many flags during the revolution featured Christian crosses because Orthodox clergy were heavily involved in the Greek war of independence.
Following outrage from Muslims in Turkey and Greece, the Athens archdiocese clarified the archbishop "meant nothing more than the perversion of the Muslim religion itself by the dragon of extreme fundamentalists, who sow terror and death throughout the universe."
"The archbishop and the metropolitans of the Church of Greece respect all religions and treat all their faithful with Christian love and solidarity, which knows no discrimination, through all their actions and initiatives, especially in the social and charitable field," the statement added.
Speaking to Church Militant, eminent Islamic historian Robert Spencer commended Abp. Ieronymos as "courageous to say this when other Christian leaders, notably Pope Francis, continue to propagate falsehoods and thereby spread complacency."
"Archbishop Ieronymos and I differ on whether Islam is a religion, but there is no doubt, from its scriptures, doctrines, and 1,400-year history, that it is a political system as well," said Spencer, the author of the bestselling The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.
"It is unfortunate to see the 'clarification' of his remarks from the archdiocese, but it is not all that surprising: The prelates were likely envisioning violent attacks from those Muslims who may have been offended at the archbishop's implication that Islam was not peaceful," Spencer remarked.
On Epiphany, Ieronymos II defied the Greek government lockdown policy and insisted on opening churches for public celebrations of the feast.
Pope Francis, in contrast, has been a strong advocate of lockdowns and even praised "most governments" who "acted responsibly, imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak" while slamming lockdown protestors as people who take the idea of "personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything."
Earlier, Ieronymos II blasted Turkey's Islamic takeover of the Hagia Sophia basilica, calling it an "insult and hubris," not just against "Orthodox Christianity, or even Christianity as a whole, but the whole civilized humanity."
Pope Francis remained mum on the illegal occupation of Hagia Sophia, breaking his silence only after sustained pressure to deliver a single sentence of non-condemnation, lamenting: "I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened."
Turkey's foreign ministry "strongly condemned the absurd statements about our religion," claiming that "our majestic religion, Islam, is a religion based on the logic of tolerance and compassion, which ensures the coexistence of different religions and cultures."
"These provocative statements by the archbishop, which push society into hostility and violence against Islam, show at the same time the frightening level Islamophobia has reached" and "are also behind the rise of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe," the ministry said.
Ali Erbas, head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, called on the Christian world to "oppose this sick perception," protesting "the baseless statements of the Greek archbishop Ieronymos, which are full of slander and target our beautiful religion, Islam, and Muslims."
The muftis of Thrace also issued a condemnation, stating: "The extremes of some who have committed reprehensible acts in the name of Islam have happened in other countries and we have been the first to condemn them precisely because they are against the Holy Qur'an and insult our faith."
"We have defended our homeland in World War II — like all Greek citizens — and none of us has ever participated in any act of violence," they added.
In 2016, Ieronymos II joined Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in signing a declaration with Pope Francis on the Greek island of Lesbos expressing concerns for mostly Muslim migrants fleeing to Europe.
Turkey has refused to apologize for its role in the Armenian genocide of over 1.5 million Christians during World War I, described by Pope John Paul II "as the first genocide of the 20th century."
"It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal Church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family, so that the warnings from this tragedy will protect us from falling into a similar horror, which offends against God and human dignity," Pope Francis said in 2015, marking the 100th anniversary of the massacre.
Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See after Francis referred to the slaughter as a "genocide" on a visit to Armenia in 2016.