News Summer 2002

Church leaders in the Holy Land describe their vision of peace

In April, at a meeting in Jerusalem with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, patriarchs and heads of churches in the Holy Land expressed their vision of a peace providing security for the Israelis and justice for Palestinians.

“We see that security of Israel is dependent upon justice for the Palestinians,” the church leaders declared.

“The Arab population in the region and elsewhere are now-a-days hostile to Israel because of the Palestinian cause. Since the Palestinian cause is the core problem of the Middle East conflict, the Arab world will become friendly with Israel once it is solved in a just way, accepting Israel’s existence in the Middle East. But in order to get to that point, justice must be implemented according to international legitimacy as represented by UN resolutions 242, 338, and 1397 which call for a political solution. This means that the principle of land for peace ought to be implemented. The Israeli occupation in all its forms must end and Arab land must be returned so the State of Palestine can exist within the 1967 borders. The Israeli settlements must be dismantled, the Palestinian right of return must be fairly addressed and there must be a shared Jerusalem for the two peoples. All forms of violence and counter-violence will end when a political solution is implemented and guaranteed by the United States and the European countries.

“The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not a mere question of violence. Violence is only a symptom of the root cause of the Middle East conflict, namely, the Israeli occupation of 1967 territories. The Palestinians today are satisfied to have their own state within the 1967 borders which amounts to 5000 square kilometers of the historic Palestine. Continuing to address only the question of violence will keep us all, Palestinians and Israelis, in an indefinite circle of violence. Enough blood has been shed from both sides. It is time now to start a new era of just peace and mutual recognition of each other’s human, civil, religious and political rights.

“The interfaith dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims will continue to be a tool for peace education and a catalyst for reconciliation…

“All kinds of military attacks and operations and spiral violence ought to be stopped immediately. Churches and mosques have not been spared by the Israeli military forces. A total cease-fire must be immediately declared on both sides … This means there must be a total withdrawal of the Israeli army without any delay from the re-occupied Palestinian territories, as President Bush said, easing the life of Palestinians in their daily lives and work, and at the Israeli checkpoints. At the same time a parallel political negotiation must take place immediately.

“We still see that Mr. Arafat is the elected president and the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and he is the only one who can deliver the peace agreement in this period of history.

“At this time we strongly believe that international protection must be imposed in order to secure the lives of the people.

“As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘I have a dream.’ Our dream is that these two peoples who represent the three monotheistic religions may live in just peace and freedom, in security and reconciliation.”

IOCC expands West Bank relief

In the face of mounting violence and desperate need among those confined to their homes by curfews, International Orthodox Christian Charities has enlarged its Holy Land program. “Now is when people need us the most,” said Nora Kort, head of IOCC’s office in Jerusalem. “A lot of needs have been emerging, especially in terms of food and medicine.”

Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah are in desperate need of basic necessities after months of escalating violence. Dozens of other communities have appealed to IOCC for emergency food aid. “Lots of hospitals are coming to us for medicine and small medical equipment,” said Kort.

The Greek government has committed $243,000 to IOCC’s short-term relief effort, in addition to $30,000 in IOCC emergency funds, to be divided among food, hygiene items and medicine.

IOCC has been making daily distributions of food and hygiene supplies to the most affected Palestinian communities.

IOCC’s assistance, said Kort, is going to “the poorest of the poor.”

IOCC opened an office in Jerusalem in 1997. To contribute to IOCC’s relief and development work in the West Bank, make checks payable to IOCC, Box 630 225, Baltimore, Md. 21263-0225, or visit www.iocc.org.

Former UN weapons inspector describes Iraq as a “defanged tiger”

The West is moving towards war with Iraq despite there being no evidence that Saddam Hussein presents a threat to the rest of the world, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter warned in July at a conference of Iraqi dissidents in London. Ritter said military forces are already being deployed for a conflict that, should it occur, could ignite the entire region in war. “I believe there will be a war unless there is a debate.”

Ritter urged the US not to go to war over speculation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “There has to be substantive facts and so far no one has presented those facts and therefore there is no case that Iraq represents a threat to the US or anybody else.”

Iraq, Ritter says, was almost fully disarmed by 1995, by which time “98 percent of its weapons were destroyed.” He said the US undermined the work of UNSCOM, using the issue to push Iraq towards conflict with the West.

Ritter, a UN weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998 and a former US Marine intelligence officer, said President Bush has made up his mind to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but said that beyond this goal there is no coherent strategy.

“Unless there is an end game,” said Ritter, “the war will be a small flame to the conflagration that is going to engulf the entire region.”

Ritter argued that political groups in the Northern Alliance that might take Hussein’s place are not “a real opposition” and would have “a zero life expectancy” in Iraq if installed after Saddam was toppled. “This is not something the US can build on. The opposition is merely a political foil used by those in Washington who are trying to foist the war on the American people for their own ideological reasons. In fact there is no viable opposition.”

Ritter accused the US of deliberately provoking confrontations with Iraq

In a new documentary film, “In Shifting Sands: The Truth About UNSCOM and the Disarming of Iraq,” the UN and UNSCOM in particular are portrayed as American pawns in its dealings with Saddam Hussein. In the film, Ritter says the US Government deliberately set new standards of disarmament criteria in order to justify maintaining UN sanctions against Baghdad and justify bombing raids. He recalls UNSCOM chief Richard Butler telling his inspectors, “You have to provoke a confrontation … so the US can start bombing.” (Butler has denied the allegation.) Iraq banned UN arms inspections in December, 1998, after America and Britain launched a series of air strikes against it.

Ritter said Iraq “cooperated to a very significant degree with the UN inspection process” and he blamed the US for the breakdown. “The United States orchestrated the events that led to the demise of inspections,” he said.

Ritter called for an end to sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August, 1990, saying he did not feel the country posed a danger any longer. “Iraq is a defanged tiger,” he said.

Orthodox leaders back Olympic cease-fire

A movement to revive the ancient Olympic truce under which wars were suspended during the Olympic Games has gained the support of half a dozen Orthodox patriarchs: Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople and the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Georgia and Serbia.

The patriarchs added their names to those of 100 other church and government leaders who have signed a formal appeal for a world-wide truce during the games, scheduled for Athens in 2004. “If the Olympic Truce can help us bring about even a brief respite from conflict and strife, it will send a powerful message of hope,” says the appeal.

In ancient Greece, the truce enabled athletes and spectators to travel to attend the Games unhindered, according to the International Olympic Truce Center, established in Athens in 2000 by the International Olympic Committee and the Greek government to encourage the truce.

The idea gained the support of Greece’s Archbishop Christodoulos and Pope John Paul II. In May 2001 they signed a declaration supporting “the many voices around the world” which hoped the tradition could now be revived.

The Olympic Truce Center website said both Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to observe the truce, adding that India and Pakistan had also been approached by the Greek government.

“This is an occasion for reaffirming the age-old spiritual current against war and conflict,” said Metropolitan Jeremie of France, another appeal signatory, who is also president of the Conference of European Churches.

“Even if no truce occurs, we will at least have made people aware that this was the practice in centuries past,” he said. “Religious leaders can exert a real influence for peace, when time and circumstances are right.”

WCC Europe Secretary Alexander Belopopsky, said that conflict resolution was an area where churches found it “relatively easy to work together” and predicted that the truce appeal could provide a “new motor for ecumenical contacts. The enthusiasm of Orthodox churches for this idea, which originated in traditionally Orthodox Greece, contrasts with their attitude to other ecumenical initiatives where they sense they’re following someone else’s agenda.”

Bartholomeos visits “sea at risk,” signs appeal with Pope

Bringing together leaders from religion and science, Patriarch Bartholomeos — accompanied by 250 scientists, activists, politicians and religious figures — began a five-day journey in June to probe the problems across the Adriatic Sea, from tide-threatened Venice to toxins spilling from impoverished Albania.

Since 1995, he has led similar groups around the Aegean and Black Seas and down the Danube River.

“Cultivating the environment implies collecting from nature all that is required for our material survival and spiritual growth,” Bartholomeos said to open the voyage. “Preserving the environment involves the obligation to respect this divine gift and not to destroy it.”

“This year, our exploration probes more deeply into the environmental ethos that determines our attitude toward the environment,” said the patriarch. He concentrated on the dimension of sacrifice, “obscured today by a culture that often harms the protection of the environment.”

Even on the matter of ecology, “there can be no salvation without sacrifices,” he said. “The cross must be the foundation of any environmental ethic.”

The conference began near the Albanian port of Durres where hundreds of families risk debilitating sickness by living on the contaminated site of a defunct chemical factory.

The entourage sailed on to Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, where the patriarch celebrated the first Orthodox Liturgy in a thousand years at Ravenna’s sixth century Byzantine church, Sant’ Apollinare.

The seminar ended in Venice in June 10 with the Patriarch and Pope John Paul signing, a joint declaration on the environment. (The Pope, too ill to be present, did so via television link from the Vatican.)

“Christians have a specific role to play in proclaiming moral values and in educating people in environmental awareness,” the two prelates said.

“God has not abandoned the world. It is His will that His design and our hope for it will be realized through our cooperation in restoring its original harmony. In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives. An awareness of the relationship between God and humankind brings a fuller sense of the importance of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which is God’s creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love….

“What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation.

“The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual. A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.”

The complete text of the joint statement plus Bartholomeos’ declaration before the signing is posted on the OPF web site.

Bartholomeos honored for environmental campaign

Patriarch Bartholomeos was honored in June with the Sophie Prize for his work in defending the environment. The prize, sponsored by the Norwegian Sophie Foundation, includes an award of $100,000. The Patriarch was awarded the prize in recognition of his “pioneering efforts in linking faith to the environment.”

Bartholomeos said the prize money would be donated to poor children in Africa and to prepare a church-led seminar on the Baltic Sea environment.

“Not to respect creation, but to destroy it, is a sin,” he said. “This transcends all social problems. Whatever our theological differences, we agree on this. If we give bread to the poor but it is contaminated bread, we are not helping them. If we destroy everything today, then how will our grandchildren survive?”

The prize — established in 1997 by Jostein Gaarder, author of the best-selling novel Sophie’s World — is funded from the proceeds of Gaarder’s books. It is awarded annually to an individual or group promoting alternative models of development.

“Although we knew nothing about the patriarch before his nomination, the more we learned, the more certain we became that he was the right recipient,” said Anette Langtvet, director of the Sophie Foundation. He “has spoken out against injustice and inequity, challenging economic globalization widening the gap between rich and poor and leading to excessive consumption,” she said.

“His leadership has managed to raise the environmental awareness of 300 million members of Orthodox churches and challenged religious leaders of all faiths to do the same,” said foundation chairperson Elin Enge.

Bartholomeos has established September 1st as a day of prayer for the protection of the environment. He has also founded an ecological institute on the Turkish island of Halki which runs regular ecological education workshops bringing together junior clergy members and journalists.

Alexis opposes death penalty

At a press conference at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in May, Patriarch Alexis spoke out vigorously against ending Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty.

The question arose in connection with a recent terrorist attack in Dagestan. Afterward many people appealed to President Putin to lift the death penalty moratorium in the case of terrorists.

“I understand those who raise this question,” the patriarch said. “Because this is an extremely heavy loss, especially the death of children who were accompanying the military band and became innocent victims of this tragedy.

“Nonetheless we have adopted a moratorium on the death penalty and it is necessary to follow the moratorium even in such cases.”

An East-West Bridge in Florence

A small Orthodox Christian community in Florence is trying bridge the abyss formed by the Great Schism one day at a time.

“Over a thousand years we have drifted far apart. Dogmatic and other differences are strong now. But a dream of a unified church dwells in the hearts of devout believers,” said Fr. Georgy Blatinsky, Florence’s local Orthodox priest and rector of Church of the Nativity of Christ and St. Nicolas.

The former mathematician from St. Petersburg has high hopes for Florence, the city where Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians tried but failed to come back together in 1439.

“Some great effort, steps of historical scale are needed to change the situation. Reunification, if ever, would take a very long time,” he said. “But we live on the same land, share common faith and believers crave unity.”

When Fr. Blatinsky arrived in Florence five years ago, the parish was in decline, with only 25-30 people gathering for services. Now more than 100 attend Sunday services. The parishioners are people of moderate means. Many are illegal immigrants from the former Soviet Union who struggle to make ends meet.

“Nobody says we are stealing converts here,” said Fr. Blatinsky. “Our relations with the local Catholic authorities are very warm, even cordial. They consider us custodians of ancient common traditions.”

The church in which services are conducted — Russian in architecture, with an onion dome — was built 100 years ago. Now it needs restoration. Frescoes are flaking in both the upper and lower halls. A local bank has donated $100,000 for the restoration of the lower church and Blatinsky hopes the work will be completed by summer of 2003.

The church could not have survived without the help of charitable Italian organizations. “Italians are very open and they appreciate art and beauty. They help to restore our church,” he said, proudly looking at the ancient icons donated by the heirs of old Russian aristocratic families.

“If we search, we find common roots and common treasures, the origin of our common faith,” he said. “If we were able to hold joint services there, in the catacombs, where the liturgy was born when we were together before the schism, that means we have taken important and real steps to unity.” [based on a Reuters report]

Assisted Suicide: most change their minds

Nearly 90 percent of people who ask their doctors to help them kill themselves later change their minds, researchers reported in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings show that most seriously ill people who ask about assisted suicide are afraid of pain or other issues and need to be reassured.

“People usually change their minds,” said Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health & Science University. “The doctors are never taught in medical school what to do, what to say, how to help people with their fears that led to their request.”

Tolle and colleagues studied the effects of the 1997 Oregon “Death with Dignity Act,” which made Oregon the only US state with legalized assisted suicide. Critics have argued that the law, far from providing “death with dignity,” cheapens life and could end up making the disabled and seriously ill “disposable.”

Tolle’s team looked at the case study of a 47-year-old man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is an incurable and inevitably fatal disease that progressively leaves a patient paralyzed and, eventually, unable to breathe. The patient asked his doctor about assisted suicide. The doctor did not approve and did not know what to do.

“When the patient made a request, he walked away. He did not explore the reason behind the request,” said Tolle, who listened to recorded transcripts of Mr. G’s meeting with his doctor. “The patient did not want to die quickly, but was afraid. It turns out he was scared to death to die like his father, who died of colon cancer. He died in the hospital a truly horrible death with inadequate medication, on a lot of machines in a great deal of pain.”

Mr. G. did not know that ALS does not cause a painful death. “So he was not even given adequate information. He was not given information about what could be done for him. He feared a painful death more than anything else,” Tolle said. “Once he was sure he could be comfortable, he was happy enough to have his death occur from natural causes without pursuing physician-assisted suicide.”

“What a doctor needs to do is take a deep breath and say ‘Why do you ask?’ rather than indicating either that you are willing to participate or that you are unwilling to participate,” Tolle said. “The doctor should ask, ‘What are you afraid of? What are you worried about?’”