Just as the Rohingya are facing extinction or what the UN has called “ethnic cleansing,” the Cham people faced a similar fate a century ago in Europe. Unlike the Rohingya of Myanmar, however, the Cham are Europeans, from a continent that sees itself as representing modernity, human rights and civilization. I studied the community for my upcoming study, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Institution Press, 2018) and their plight needs to be brought to the attention of the world.
Few have even heard of the Cham Muslims, whose very name, identity, and territory have been taken from them. The Cham are ethnic Albanians who speak their own dialect of Albanian and are indigenous to the area known as Chameria, which is on the Adriatic coast and mostly in the present-day northern Greek province of Epirus. During the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, their region was annexed by Greece, and the Cham found themselves cut off from Albania by the international border. Killings were immediately carried out in villages.
Thousands escaped, many dying of fatigue, starvation, and typhus, and a stream of Cham began to flee to places like the United States.
The Cham were seen by Greeks as Greeks who betrayed them by converting to Islam when Ottomans ruled Greece. Albanian language education was banned, and the speaking of the Albanian language was forbidden in both public and private.
A campaign to drive the Muslim Cham out of Greece and assimilate the Cham who were Orthodox Christians was initiated, with paramilitary groups attacking villages and, as the scholars Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani write, “terrorising the population, and hundreds of young men were deported to camps on the islands of the Aegean Sea. Large swathes of land were expropriated under the pretense of an agrarian reform.”
The final push was made by the Greek military in 1944 and 1945, resulting in as many as 25,000 terror-stricken Cham crossing the border into Albania. Massacres by Greeks in one village alone, Filat, killed 1,286 people. A Cham woman who was twelve years old at the time recounted the horrors of what she witnessed in Filat: “They ordered all of us — men, women, girls, and boys, a total of 3,500 persons—to assemble on the main square . . . separating the men on one side from the women on the other. They took the men off somewhere and killed them, some with knives and others with cleavers. . . . I saw the three boys who were all tied up. They sliced off their ears, gouged out their eyes, cut off their feet, skinned them alive and then left them quivering like hens in a sack. . . . The women and girls were stripped, raped, and murdered.”
The “cleansing” campaign was successful, and the Cham minority disappeared in Greece. Over a period of less than ten years, as the scholar Lambros Baltsiotis notes, “nearly all mosques and especially minarets, visible symbols of Muslim presence, were demolished.”
The Cham were even purged from Greek documents and public registry rolls. The Cham population in Albania now numbers around 250,000 and they have a further population of 400,000 in other countries. The Cham continue to seek a right of return to their lands and properties in Greece, an acknowledgment of what was done to them, which they have commonly referred to as genocide, and the ability to gain back their Greek citizenship. A memorial to the Cham was constructed in Konispol, Albania, in 1994 and in commemoration of the killings and expulsion, the Cham have annually organized a march from Konispol to the Greek border on 27 June. Complicating matters is the fact that Albania and Greece have technically remained in a state of war since 1940.
The Cham have a political party in Albania representing them, the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which currently has three seats in parliament. The Greek government asserts that the Cham had departed Greece on their own initiative, and elderly Cham born in Greece who wish to visit the land where they were born, as Robert Elsiein forms us, “are regularly turned back at the Greek-Albanian border. On occasion their passports are torn up in front of their eyes out of some irrational fear that these people, little old ladies for the most part, could destabilize the Greek state.”The Cham are referred to by Greek television anchors as “the pseudo-Chams” or “the self-so-called Chams.”The Greek government maintains, as its Foreign Ministry did as recently as September 2016, that “the Cham issue does not exist.”
The tragedy of the Cham and the Rohingya illustrates the dangers of ethnic and religious hatred. We pray that the Rohingya do not meet the same fate as the Cham in Greece. When Pope Francis recently met with some of the more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled across the border in the last few months in Bangladesh, he and the Rohingya wept. He told them, “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness. I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”
Like the Pope asked the Rohingya, we should also ask the Cham to forgive us as we weep for our common humanity.