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Battle erupts in Greece over school textbooks

Critics charge that a new textbook for children sacrifices national identity for political correctness. Greek education minister will not recall the book, but will allow changes after critiques by Orthodox Church.

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A work by 19th-century great painter Nikolaos Gyzis depicts a so-called secret school where, according to the legend, Greek children were secretly taught by clergymen in monasteries during the Ottoman rule. The controversial history book questions the existence of this sort of schools 

When the education ministry issued a new sixth-grade textbook on modern Greek history (1453 to the present) in September, few expected that an unprecedented intellectual and ideological war would break loose.

The battlefields in which the rewriting of Greek history is being fought are TV news shows (with impassioned debates), the press (with a barrage of opinion pieces) and parliament, where Education Minister Marietta Yannakou refused to recall the book but conceded that it can be changed.

The debate has drawn in the Church of Greece, with Archbishop Christodoulos charging that the role of the Orthodox Church in Greek history is obliterated by the book.

Asia Minor Greeks charge that the burning of Smyrna and the killing and expulsion of the Greek population is silenced for the sake of political correctness. And Pontic Greeks complain that the massacre of their forebears by the Turks is omitted.

Most recently, Yannakou asked the Academy of Athens, the country's highest intellectual institution, to issue an opinion on the book.

Professor Maria Repousi, a Thessaloniki University historian who led the four-member panel that wrote the book, told the Athens News that her opponents "criticise the book as being non-patriotic". "They say it tries to undermine the foundations of Greek identity," she stresses. At a recent news conference, she labelled her critics as "the nationalist bloc" and said she would accept no changes to the book demanded by them.

Though she insists the book has no factual errors, she admits misguided turns of phrase and says these types of changes will be made in the first revision.

That the 1922 burning of Smyrna by Kemal Ataturk's forces and the widespread killing and expulsion of the Greek and Armenian population are downplayed in the textbook has stirred an outcry in the public debate. "On 27 August 1922, the Turkish army enters Smyrna. Thousands of Greeks crowd at the port and try to leave for Greece" is the only reference.

"We said that this was an unfortunate wording that will be changed in the first correction of the book," Repousi says. She defends the book on the grounds that it "introduces a new method of history teaching and learning, which depends largely on using images as well".

"I feel pushed in a corner. It's not easy being at the centre of public attention, with name-calling," she says, noting the petition against the book on the website here.

The petition sums up the criticism of the book in five pages. It says that the Ottoman conquerors of Greece and their slaughter and oppression of Greek populations is prettified and cleansed in the name of political correctness.

It also maintains that the book muzzles "the significance of Orthodox Christian tradition in preserving the national conscience of the Greeks". It says legends and traditions of the "glorious Byzantine past influenced deeply the Greek revolutionaries", but are totally omitted.

"The heroism, self-sacrifice, martyrdom and national struggle that characterised the revolution were replaced by a dry list of numbers and events, stressing the socio-economic demands of various groups," the petition says. It also stressed that "the genocide of Christian populations is silenced and the historic dimension of the Asia Minor catastrophe is annulled".

Another criticism is that the Ottomans' act of seizing Greek boys from their families to serve in the Janissary corps is described as "recruitment"

Filed under greece, education, children, islam, Europe
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