Although it may sound more like wishful thinking than historical fact, there was indeed a brave Greek priest who managed to hold an Orthodox liturgy in Hagia Sophia in 1919, at a time when the iconic cathedral was being used as a mosque.
It is commonly believed that the last Orthodox liturgy in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople took place on May 28, 1453, just one day before the fateful moment that the beacon of Orthodoxy fell into Ottoman hands.
But there was a brave Cretan priest who dared perform the sacred rite once again in the enormous cathedral, and he did so on the 19th of January in 1919. Eleftherios Noufrakis (1872-1941) from Rethymno, Crete was the man who performed this act of heroism out of his love for God and his country.
Inexplicably, Father Noufrakis’ name is not even a footnote in the modern history of Greece.
Thanks to a book by Antonios Stivaktakis called Archimandritis Eleftherios Noufrakis: An Emblematic Figure of Hellenism, the fascinating story of “Papa Lefteris” has now come to light.
Father Eleftherios — or Lefteris — was a chaplain in the military division which participated in the Asia Minor campaign. They had even arrived at the very gates of Ankara, before their later catastrophic defeat at the Sakarya River.
Yet there was a tiny sliver of hope, and of redemption, in those savage years of the military campaign. And it was all thanks to the lion-hearted Cretan from the Alones village of Rethymno.
Father Eleftherios was the chaplain for the Second Greek Division, one of the two divisions which were part of the allied expeditionary force sent to Ukraine in early 1919.
On their way to Ukraine, the Greek unit briefly stopped in Constantinople, which had found itself under the control of the Allies at the end of World War I, after both the Turks and the Germans were defeated.
One day, a group of Greek officers, comprised of Brigadier Frantzis, Major Liaromatis, Captain Stamatios and Lieutenant Nicholas, led by the intrepid Cretan priest, gazed upon the city of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia, from their ship.
They had a secret smile in their hearts, because the previous night they had made a great decision: They were to disembark in the city and celebrate an Orthodox Holy Liturgy in Hagia Sophia.
The impetuous — some might even say foolish — plan was the brainchild of Father Eleftherios.
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