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June 11, 2021

How the Meryem of a Troubled Turk in Chios Became a Source of Great Veneration in Ierapetra, Crete

In 1821 Turkish troops were ordered to suppress the Revolution in Greece by any means. Among the hunted were two Greeks from Reisdere, a coastal village in Asia Minor not far from Smyrna (Izmir). They were seeking to escape Chios at the time, which had been hell on earth for the Greeks there, with a large amount of them slaughtered and the island burning with a consuming fire from one end to the other. After this, with men hard to find, despairing women wept and lamented as they too were slaughtered, abused, dragged through the streets and sold into slavery.

In such an atmosphere, the two Greeks from Reisdere took every precaution to not be noticed by a Turk and find a means by which they could cross the sea and get back home. Suddenly, a certain Turk approached them, guided somehow by the Mother of God, holding in his hands an icon of the Virgin Mary. With trembling hands he extended the icon to them and begged them to take it, saying:

"Take this Meryem." (Meryem is the Turkish pronunciation of Mariam or Mary.)

The two Reisderians looked at him with suspicion. They refused to take the icon of the Virgin Mary from the Turk. Seeing their reservations and hesitation, the Turk was then forced to publicly confess and tell them his story, which was as follows:

"I tried many times with an axe to cut it in pieces and throw the boards into the fire, but each time I went to strike it with my axe with all my strength, with hatred and passion, it always remained intact and showed me how much stronger it was than the iron of my hatred. I got scared! As I trembled I looked at the icon and saw the sweet face of Meryem smiling at me. I was overcome by the love of this Woman and realized how great and powerful your faith is. Take the icon, so it does not get lost, and put it in your church, to honor it the way you know how and as it deserves."

Upon hearing this, the two Reisderians crossed themselves and kissed the icon with reverence. Their joy was indescribable. They realized that not only were they being persecuted, but the Virgin Mary was too through this icon, and understood that she would now deliver them and not abandon them. They found a boat, crossed the sea to Asia Minor, and arrived in Reisdere. Arriving home, carrying with them the Panagia Eleousa, which is a copy of the miraculous Axion Estin icon whose original is at Mount Athos, the villagers were overcome with joy.

With news about the icon spreading among the local Orthodox Christians, in a short time the Church of Saint Nicholas became too small to accommodate all the pilgrims who came to venerate it. Therefore a second aisle was added to the church, and soon cells were built around it. The Panagia Eleousa became so beloved by the locals, that they started referring to her as "our Panagia". The fate of the icon of the Virgin Mary was now intertwined with the fate of this people.

The first major persecution against the Greeks of Asia Minor was in 1914, when their uprooting from the cities and villages off the coast began. The Christians were given three days to gather their things and leave their ancestral homes. The old icons of Saint Demetrios and Panagia Eleousa accompanied them on their road of exile.

The Panagia Eleousa icon arrived in Chios, and was placed in the church of the leper colony. The priest of Reisdere, Father Stamatios Syggros, found out about the location of the icon, took it from the church in the leper colony, and brought it with him on a boat to return with him to Reisdere.

The second great persecution took place in 1922. This time there was great looting and massacres, and the entire village of Reisdere was burned. Gone were their churches, schools, houses and fortunes, but also a piece of their hearts. Many Reisderians gathered at the house of the prominent Rigakis, while others went to Agios Demetrios. Among those who went to the house of Rigakis were two nuns who barely escaped, holding in their arms wrapped in a towel the icon of Panagia Eleousa. As they unwrapped the icon, everyone crossed themselves and prayed, saying:

"Our Panagia, save us!"

Eurydiki, the wife of Rigakis, suddenly took the icon and began to run. She left behind her husband and relatives. Following her was Maria Politakis. It seems that by some divine revelation they were informed that Turks were coming and wanted to pass their sword blade through the icon, so they ran to save the icon. They passed by the oven of their fellow villager Barumas, and enlightened by the Virgin Mary, they hid her inside the oven. They blocked the mouth of the oven with dry branches. Now if they got caught or killed, maybe the Panagia Eleousa would be saved.

Christians meanwhile were fleeing the slaughter behind them and passing by the area where the icon was hidden. They could be heard addressing their prayers to the Virgin Mary, even though they didn't know her wonderworking icon was in their midst.

Not long after all this, Barumas, in whose oven the Panagia Eleousa icon now hid without his knowledge, had a dream in which the Virgin Mary appeared to him, telling him:

"My icon is in your oven. Go get it."

Terrified and frozen by the vision, Barumas woke up, but dismissed the dream. The same dream was repeated over the course of three nights. On the third night, the Virgin Mary told him:

"Go get my icon and have no fear. I will protect you from dangers."

On the fourth night he finally decided to go check the oven in the middle of the night. As he walked along the road, there was silence, as everyone had been sleeping. Opening the oven, he found the icon, then he ran, directed somehow by the Virgin Mary, and arrived at the place where the Christians were by dawn.

Over the course of four days the icon remained in Pounta. For eight days the Reisderians were in the bitter waters of Mera, without food, water or covering. Giomelakis came out of the water to look for drinking water for his pregnant wife. At a distance he saw a small monastery. He went and hoped to find water there. He opened the door, and he saw the icon of the Panagia Eleousa smiling sweetly at him, as if waiting for him. He took the icon, and returned to the others as if he was a bishop holding the icon, and he prayed:

"My Panagia, do your miracle. Send us a boat to save us, and to save you too."

Somehow guided by the Virgin Mary, he put the icon down, gathered some undergrowth, and lit a fire, so that a sailor could see the smoke and save them.

Then Despina Theodorou went to the beach to see what Giomelakis was doing as he was feeding the fire, and suddenly she looked out at sea and saw what looked like the figure of a sailor. It was a small boat from Oinousses, who upon seeing the smoke lowered their sail so as not to be noticed by the Turks. The Reisderian Christians were taken on board and brought to Chios.

In Chios, Giomelakis with the Panagia Eleousa icon was hosted in the house of the revered Zafeirakis, who placed the icon in a special room, where it stayed for six months.

The Virgin Mary then led Giomelakis to Lemnos. After a year they took to the road to the place of the permanent residence of the icon of the Virgin Mary, in Ierapetra, Crete.

In Ierapetra the persecuted Reisderians changed their new home to a small Reisdere. Their "joy" returned to them again. But also for the Cretans, the arrival of the Virgin Mary was seen as a heavenly gift, which is why they love her so much.

The icon remained for a while in the house of Giomelakis, which had been transformed into a church, with the daily presence of many pilgrims. Later, it was transferred to the Metropolitan Church of Saint George.

In 1968 the foundation stone for the Church of the Panagia Eleousa was laid and in five years, in 1973, the love of the Christians had built the earthly dwelling of the Eleousa. This church, together with the nearby Monastery of the Axion Estin, celebrate their feast days on June 11th.