News – issue 33

In Pascha messages, Patriarchs address question of violence

Concerns about violence were themes in Easter messages issued by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Patriarch Pavle of Serbia.

“We hear about many group homicides and other hurtful acts committed by people against people,” said Bartholomew. He explained that Christ had shown to all people the way of love and giving, of justice and respect of life and joy of others, as the single way which leads humanity to true joy and fullness of life.

“He proved that the power of evil, despite its fierce aspiration to kill the ruler of life, failed. And he persuades us that in our days the powers of evil will again be defeated by the greater power of love. It is the only way leading to resurrection.”

Speaking against a background of violence in Kosovo between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, Pavle urged the church’s followers to focus on the hope offered by the events of Easter.

“Our dear spiritual children who by human hatred have been exiled from your homes in Kosovo and Metohija and other areas from your ancient homesteads to be scattered throughout the world, and you who have emigrated in search of a better life, rejoice today and do not grieve. All of us, together with honorable people throughout the world, have been deeply shaken by the latest pogrom against our people in Kosovo and Metohija, and by the destruction of our holy places. These are new wounds on the body of the crucified Christ.”

Churches and monasteries burned in Kosovo

In two days of anti-Serb rioting in Kosovo in mid-March, at least 20 Serbs were killed, 900 injured, 366 homes destroyed and 41 churches and monasteries burned. In response, angry crowds in Serbia attacked two mosques.

“In the ash heaps of our churches, we are finding the remains of frescoes dating back to the 12th and 14th centuries, incinerated crucifixes and medieval manuscripts,” said Bishop Artemije of Kosovo.

What at first seemed an isolated incident in Mitrovica following rumors that two Albanian children had drowned quickly revealed a well coordinated assault. “We have had similar attacks to these in Kosovo before,” said a UN spokesman Derek Chappell. “But the fact that these attacks took place at the same time all over Kosovo makes me think they were orchestrated by the same extreme groups.”

In only a few cases did NATO forces attempt to intervene, though in the days following military reinforcements were hurriedly sent to Kosovo.

Plumes of smoke rising from the small town of Obilic, six miles from Pristina, revealed a glimpse of the problems facing peace-keepers, where a 100-strong gang of trainer-clad youths busily set Serb houses on fire after looting goods. By then most of the houses were empty, the terrified Serbs having fled hours before. But the crowd had surrounded one house that was still occupied. A reporter noted “an atmosphere of sinister jubilation as the jeering crowd reluctantly parted to allow US peace-keepers to enter and escort a terrified man from the smoke-filled interior to a tank in which he was driven away.”

The scene in Obilic was a portrait in miniature of the violence that racked Kosovo for two days, as Albanians turned simultaneously on several Serb enclaves.

Kosovo Polje, outside Pristina, had no Serbs left. But in other areas, including Lipjan, Serbian men were returning to their homes to inspect the damage, and possibly to stay.

Among Kosovo’s lost treasures was the Holy Virgin of Ljevis Cathedral, just down the street from the UN administration’s offices. Mobs transformed the brick structure into a gutted hulk. Of particular value was a fresco of Christ, said Fr. Sava, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church in Kosovo, who wept upon learning that flames, smoke and soot left only a vague image on the wall. “The church meant so very much. In France there is Notre Dame … but for us that was the Holy Virgin of Ljevis Cathedral.”

A church was torched in the town of Mitrovica despite the efforts of French NATO peacekeepers, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to drive off the mob.

UN police and vehicles and NATO troops were attacked. “People were trapped inside the burning building,” said Derek Chappell. “Police came under repeated gunfire when they tried to rescue them.”

On March 18 Patriarch Pavle held a special prayer service and issued an appeal to Serbs to refrain from revenge after a flare-up of ethnic and religious tensions in Kosovo in which at least 22 people died.

In Moscow, Patriarch Alexey appealed to all the hostile parties “do not give way to the feelings of revenge, reject murder and violence, and stop the war! I ask the hostile parties to listen to the lawful arguments of each other. It is my profound conviction that the fate of Kosovo has to be decided only within the framework of the procedures established by the international community.” He called on “the world community … to protect innocent people and their right to live on the land of their ancestors. If the Serbs are forced to flee, all international efforts to manage the conflict may be considered as failed or beneficial to only one party.”

A selection of statements from Orthodox bishops and related reports.

Anastasios, Albania’s archbishop offers funds to restore church and mosque

Following the violence in Kosovo, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Albania, offered financial support for the restoration of a church and mosque.

“The burning of churches and mosques does not promote justice and peace, and certainly not progress,” said Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana. “On the contrary, it is a return to times and practices which led the Balkans to stagnation, divisions and tragedies.”

“We offer $600,000 for the restoration of a church and a mosque in Kosovo, or the construction of a youth center there that will promote peaceful coexistence,” he said. “This sum comes from the funds that … we have raised for the construction of the Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana.”

“Those who involve religion in the violence are violating the spirit of religion,” he added. “No matter how much one is in the right, he must respect the sanctity and the purpose of sacred places of worship. These should become centers of reconciliation and peace and not breeding-grounds for maintaining animosities.”

Cathedral blessed in Cuba

The Orthodox Church reclaimed a physical presence in Cuba in January with the consecration by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the cathedral of St. Nicholas in the historic center of Havana.

“We are looking forward to working in the area of human rights and religious teaching in Cuba,” said the Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, one of the representatives of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at the dedication of the cathedral on 25 January.

The five-hour consecration was attended by Cuban President Fidel Castro and marked official recognition by the Cuban government of the Orthodox community on the Caribbean island.

Bartholomew described US sanctions against Cuba as a “historic mistake” but also said the free expression of religious faith was a “basic human right.”

The cathedral is decorated with mosaics and icons and has a hand-carved wooden altar. The cathedral was built by the Cuban government as a “gift from the Cuban people” to the Orthodox Church.

The island’s only previous Orthodox church had been the Church of Constantine and Helen in Old Havana but it was closed and turned into a children’s theater after Castro swept into power in 1959.

“I was struck by the realization of what happens when an atheist in the person of Fidel Castro recognizes the power of the church,” said Fr. Karloutsos. “The Cuban government is 45 years old, but the church is 2000 years old.”

The new cathedral will be used by Cuba’s estimated 2000 Orthodox Christians, mainly of Russian, Ukrainian and Slav background. Orthodox officials said it was the first new church of any faith to be built on the Caribbean island since Castro came to power.

Cuba became officially atheist after Castro’s revolution, but the government removed references to atheism in the constitution more than a decade ago.

Patriarch accepts Pope’s apology

In April, Patriarch Bartholomew accepted an apology from Pope John Paul II for Roman Catholic involvement in the sacking of Constantinople 800 years ago.

During a visit to Greece in 2001, John Paul apologized for the attack on the city, today’s Istanbul, which was looted and occupied by Catholic Crusaders in April 1204. John Paul said he sought forgiveness for “sins of action and omission” by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians, including “painful memories” of the Crusades.

Gravely weakened by the Crusader occupation, the Byzantine Empire ultimately collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.

In a speech on the 800th anniversary of the city’s capture, Bartholomew formally accepted the apology. “The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred,” he said during a liturgy attended by Roman Catholic Archbishop Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France. “We receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade. It is a fact that a crime was committed here in the city 800 years ago.”

Bartholomew said his acceptance came in the spirit of Easter. “The spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection … incites us toward reconciliation of our churches.”

Russian Orthodox optimistic about future Vatican relations

A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church has expressed optimism about inter-church relations in Russia following the visit of a Vatican official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, in February.

“In the course of the Moscow talks, the cardinal presented a standpoint which was close to ours,” said Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy director of the External Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Fr. Vsevolod suggested that the Vatican was now returning to its former view of Orthodoxy as “a sister-church rather than an enemy organization.”

Inter-church ties have been tense in Russia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, over Orthodox accusations that the Roman Catholics engage in proselytism, what Orthodox consider to be seeking Catholic converts from among traditionally Orthodox believers.

“We know well, and we also hope, that we can together work out ways to settle existing problems, which would genuinely ease the pains of our faithful and be accepted by them, bringing peace rather than just empty declarations,” said Fr. Vsevolod. He said the visit had demonstrated Orthodox Christians had “as many friends as enemies in the Catholic church.” But he added that assurances given by Cardinal Kasper appeared to be contradicted by the activities of Catholic missionary groups, as well as the actions in Ukraine of Greek Catholics, who combine the Eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome.

Patriarch Bartholomew appoints Non-Turkish Clerics

Patriarch Bartholomew has radically shuffled the council governing his church by appointing non-Turkish clerics for the first time in more than 80 years, church officials announced in March.

All 12 seats on the Holy Synod, based at the Patriarchate in Istanbul and responsible for leading the church and electing future patriarchs, had been held by Turkish citizens since 1923, when Turkey became a republic. Now half the seats belong to foreign nationals. The appointments include Archbishop Demetrios in the USA and Archbishop Gregorios of Britain. Four citizens of Greece were also named.

Bartholomew heads several Orthodox churches around the world, including the Archdiocese of America, but Turkey only recognizes him as the religious leader of its tiny Greek Orthodox minority.

The appointments come as Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek of Turkish citizenship, is faced with a dwindling pool of candidates with Turkish citizenship to fill clerical posts in Istanbul.

Turkish authorities keep close tabs on religious institutions in Turkey; the activities of the high-profile Patriarchate and its close ties with Turkey’s traditional rival Greece are of special concern.

Bartholomew has long sought to ease a requirement by Turkey that patriarchs be Turkish citizens, saying there were increasingly few people in Turkey qualified to succeed him.

Israeli wall cuts into Jesus’s birthplace

“We are being sealed off,” Abu Salem said, watching his backyard vanish under a new Israeli wall that is to cut into the town where Jesus was born to safeguard Jews coming to pray at a biblical tomb.

Israeli army crews laid the first 100 meters of the eight-meter high wall in early March. The barrier will scoop part of Bethlehem into an enlarged security zone being carved out of occupied West Bank territory fringing Jerusalem.

The barrier is the latest spur in a swathe of fences and walls Israel says is to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians regard it as a stratagem for Israel to annex land.

In the Bethlehem area, the cement rampart will separate thousands of Palestinians from farmland as it twists and turns to take in Jewish settlements a recurrent pattern elsewhere in the West Bank now under World Court scrutiny.

By looping into north Bethlehem to create a corridor from Jerusalem to Rachel’s Tomb, the barrier will isolate nearby Palestinian residents, mainly Christians, from the town center with its Church of the Nativity.

Previous Israeli blockades put many local merchants out of business. The wall may well finish off the rest and turn the district into a ghetto, local inhabitants say.

“We are being severed from our landscape. They seized part of my land to build this ugly wall. We cannot see Jerusalem any more. We cannot build any more. We cannot sell. We cannot move. We are frozen,” said Abu Salem, 63, a grocer as he gazed at workmen lowering wall slabs with a crane into place along a razed tract where some of his olive and fig trees had formerly stood.

Canadian church leaders oppose Ballistic Missile Defense strategy

Twenty Canadian church leaders from the country’s major denominations, including several Orthodox bishops, sent a letter in March to Prime Minister Paul Martin urging that Canada abandon any plans to join with the United States in its Ballistic Missile Defense strategy.

Orthodox signers included Metropolitan Sotirios (of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto), Bishop Seraphim of Ottawa (of the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America), and Archbishop Wasyly (Primate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada).

“The … squandering of resources in the vain pursuit of technological immunity from nuclear weapons is itself an offence against the will of the Creator,” said the church leaders. They urged the government to “reject the expensive futility of ballistic missile Defense.” They warned that counter-measures by Russia and China would lead to “a dangerous and cyclical Defense-versus-offence dynamic.”

Here are extracts from the letter:

“Nuclear weapons promise destruction so complete that only the language of human annihilation hints at the potential catastrophe that lurks in the 30,000 nuclear weapons still threatening this world. Tragically and ironically, having committed the folly of building these weapons in the name of security, humankind now scours technology and science for ways to avoid the devastating insecurity that the splitting atom promises. Proposed Security solutions like Ballistic Missile Defense fail to counter the nuclear threat and precipitate further insecurities.

“This is illustrated by current United States BMD initiatives: Expenditure of US$200 billion over the past 50 years has led to a meager result a proposed system that is designed to address only a handful of the 1000-plus nuclear tipped strategic missiles capable of striking North America. Even this minimal system lacks operationally tested capability. Russia and China are moving to counter any defensive capabilities that the proposed system might one day deliver, and the US continues to develop new nuclear weapon designs and threatens to resume nuclear testing. This sets the stage for a dangerous and cyclical Defense-versus-offence dynamic in the strategic environment. We deplore the ongoing militarization of relationships and continuing nuclear arms competition this entails…

“The Pentagon itself lacks confidence that the ground-based, mid-course interception system that Canada is considering supporting can ever be made to work, and so it pursues a space-based element that violates an overwhelming global consensus against the weaponization of space…

“The weaponization of space and related BMD developments are hollow attempts at technical solutions that only intensify the nuclear threat….”

Israeli Recognition of Irenaios

In April the Israeli government officially informed the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaios I, that it had recognized his election in August 2001.

The action followed years of intense diplomatic pressure from Athens. Tel Aviv had claimed that Irenaios maintained improperly close ties with the Palestinians.

Orthodoxy taking root in Tanzania

Orthodoxy is spreading rapidly in the Diocese of Bukoba in Tanzania. The Diocese’s mission efforts are focused on increasing the number of communities and faithful, deepening the Orthodox faith among the newly illumined and expressing the faith in good works.

In 2003, twenty new communities sprouted up, over 3,000 people were baptized and more than 1,000 people had their marriages blessed.

This mission diocese now has 140 Orthodox communities and 20 priests who are all supported by the Orthodox Christian Missionary Center’s Support a Mission Priest program.

As of last December, nine church buildings and a secondary school were being constructed and plans to build a hospital on recently acquired land had begun. Plans to build more medical clinics, two monasteries and an orphanage for fifty children are also in the works.

For more information visit the OCMC web site: www.ocmc.org.

Athens mosque given go ahead

In April Greece’s new government approved plans for Athens’s first mosque since the fall of Ottoman rule almost two centuries ago. A plan for an Islamic center just north of the city has long been dogged by controversy, as local people and representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church campaigned fiercely against it.

Despite that resistance, officials of the conservative government voted into power last month have confirmed that they have given the green light for the mosque, which will be financed by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

Athens is the only capital in the European Union without a mosque although there are estimated to be many thousands of Muslim immigrants in the city.

Dachau Liberation

Hundreds of Orthodox Christian prisoners at a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, were among those liberated by the US military. The freed prisoners gathered for a special Easter Sunday service a week after the American soldiers arrived. Their story is recalled in “Dachau: April 29, 1945 An Orthodox Christian Memorial,” which opened in March at the Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

During the Easter service in 1945, 18 Orthodox Christian priests conducted the liturgy. Having no printed texts, they recited Scripture from memory. The liturgical stoles they wore were made from towels and their red crosses that were originally worn by Nazi medical personnel.