News Reports Summer 2001

New Patriarch of Jerusalem backs Palestinian rights

Metropolitan Ireneos of Ierapolis, who for 20 years served as bridge between Greece and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, was elected on August 13 to lead Christianity’s most ancient church even as its largely Palestinian flock continued to suffer the effects of a 10-month conflict with Israel that has driven many Palestinian Christians to other countries.

As Patriarch, Ireneos has become the most important real estate owner in Israel, with holdings stretching from Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Following the election, Ireneos said he will “support the Palestinian people and their just issues.”

“We rise to the throne of the Apostle James… with full cognisance of our responsibilities and duties towards our flock in the sorely tested Middle East region, but also our duties to our Eastern Orthodox brethren everywhere, who love and honor the most sacred shrines in the Holy Land,” Ireneos said after his election.

Ireneos was elected after an eight-month-long electoral battle involving various ethnic groups and governments, including an unusual intervention by the Israeli state, which on July 11 vetoed five of 15 candidates for the post of patriarch, only to reverse the decision a month later. The Israeli government tried to exclude Ireneos from the list because of his partiality to the Palestinians, the Israeli press disclosed. The reversal came a day before the Israeli Supreme Court was to have heard an appeal by three of the vetoed candidates, including Ireneos.

The election result was a great disappointment for the Israeli government, said Rabbi David Rosen, a leading Israeli inter-faith activist. “Irineos is seen as less amenable and less willing [than other nominees] to kow-tow to Israeli interests.”

While relations with sister churches under the late Patriarch Diodoros were often strained, Ireneos is confident that Jerusalem’s contacts with other churches are now on a firm grounding. “We are not isolated, we have excellent relations with all Orthodox sister churches,” he said.

Born in Samos, Ireneos came to the Holy Land in 1953, at the age of 14, and graduated from the patriarchal school there. After completing studies in theology at the University of Athens, he was ordained a priest in 1965 and elected archbishop of Ierapolis in 1981, then elevated to metropolitan in 1994. He served as editor of the Jerusalem patriarchate’s Nea Sion (New Zion) journal. In the post of exarch to Athens since 1979, he handled the patriarchate’s dealings with Greece.

But the greatest challenge for Ireneos will be the patriarchate’s dealings with its own Arab flock, as well as Israeli pressure to buy or lease select parcels of church property within and around Jerusalem, where every inch of land is precious and could influence the city’s final status in an eventual peace settlement. The ministry of his predecessor became notorious for the lack of accountability to its Arab flock.

Deal with causes of Mid-East violence, says WCC secretary

Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in an August interview, described Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as a “clear violation of international law.” Speaking after a consultation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict organized by the WCC at its Geneva headquarters, Raiser said that Israel was in a situation of “impunity” where violations of international law were not being followed up by effective sanctions.

The WCC consultation brought together participants from around the world, including representatives of Jerusalem’s churches and members of Israeli human rights groups.

The consultation was intended to strengthen ecumenical support for a “comprehensive peace, based on justice and security for the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

The consultation had before it the report of a delegation sent to the region at the end of June, which proposed developing an “international ecumenical response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Raiser rejected the idea that the WCC might be seen as being uncritically one-sided in advocating the Palestinian cause. To speak of the “legitimacy of Palestinian protest and resistance is meant to draw attention to the root causes of the conflict,” said Raiser, and to avoid being a “party to attempts to cover up root causes by simply pointing to the violence of one side or the other.”

He said that it had been “the consistent position of the WCC not to be drawn into the advocacy of any particular position but to underline the fundamental importance of agreed norms of international law and agreed norms of human rights. There is no doubt to all those who share this ethical, moral and legal approach that Israel’s continued occupation, continued settlements [in the occupied territories], even the expansion of settlements, is a clear violation of international law.”

It was agreed that the WCC, together with the churches in Jerusalem and the Middle East Council of Churches, should consider establishing an office in Jerusalem to co-ordinate ecumenical action. This would strengthen the work of local churches whose energy was concentrated on dealing with “immediate problems for the small Christian community,” said Raiser.

Archbishop Christodoulos: Pope’s visit to Athens gave positive results

Following Pope John Paul’s May visit to Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos said he regarded the results as positive.

The Archbishop stated that the Church of Greece represented Orthodoxy in the right way during the Pope’s visit to Athens, stressing that the Pope had used his visit as an occasion to apologize to the Orthodox Christians, condemn proselytism and the violence used by the powerful on those who are weak, and agreed that the European states should not lose their Christian character.

“A Pope of Rome is visiting Athens for the first time in history,” said Christodoulos in receiving John Paul. “This event brings us joy. Our joy however is overshadowed by the fact of our division. Dogmatic and ecclesiological reasons, existing for a millennium, poison the atmosphere and negate the necessary conditions that would have allowed for your visit to be fruitful and to have borne results. The anathemas have been lifted, by the grace of God. The causes that brought them about however, have not.”

Commenting on widespread protest of the Pope’s visit, Christodoulos said these expressed “the demand of Orthodox conscience for a formal condemnation of injustices committed against them by the Christian West. This would facilitate the advancement of a spirit of constructive dialogue in our bilateral relations. The Orthodox Greek people, more than other Orthodox peoples, senses more intensely in its religious consciousness and national memory the traumatic experiences that remain as open wounds inflicted on its vigorous body, as is known to all, by the destructive mania of the Crusaders and the period of Latin rule, as well as by the unlawful proselytizing of the Latin Unia. Yet until now, there has not been heard even a single request for pardon.

“Indeed, on many occasions in our history, our people bitterly noted that the powerful Church of Rome denied it during difficult moments; that, she frequently oppressed its ecclesial conscience; and that she wronged it even with regard to issues of its national concern. It would be useless for us to set forth a list of events, either from among those that belong to the past, or among those that remain as sores on the historical body of the Church. The problem of Unia, for example, which constitutes the basic reason for the blockage of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox theological dialogue. That which is important is that we await a courageous word to be uttered by your lips, the word of a Christian Bishop that speaks to our heart. This word must set the foundation stone on which shall be built understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation.” In response, John Paul asked God’s forgiveness “for the occasions, past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters.”

At the end of their meeting, the two Church leaders prayed the Our Father together in Greek.

OPF Chechnya appeal sent to President Putin

In a letter faxed to President Putin’s Kremlin office on July 16, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship urged the Russian leader to initiate people-to-people exchanges “as a means of fostering relationships which will overcome the hatred of war.”

These would include “grass-root efforts of activists in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov and other cities to bring Russian and Chechen children together. Many of the Chechen children who are ending a three-month stay in Nizhny Novgorod are from Assinovskaya. They have been given clothes and shelter in Russia and made Russian friends. When they return home their experience of hospitality and love will help assuage some of the horror and pain felt by the people of Assinovskaya. It would be wonderful if such efforts could expand and spread across Russia. The idea might seem too painful, but what a wonderful thing it would be if Chechen children … could come to Perm, Pskov, Sergiyev Posad, and other cities which have lost so many young Russian men in the fighting, and find a common language with children there. Both sides have suffered and both must learn to forgive.”

The OPF letter recognized “all of the obstacles Russia faces in Chechnya: from the collapse of civil society, to dire poverty, and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. We urge you to make a more concerted effort to find a solution by peaceful means. We understand the difficulty of finding suitable partners with whom to negotiate but … there appears to be no other means of making any progress towards a peaceful resolution.”

Whatever position one takes on the Chechen conflict, the letter said, “it is clear that until it ends the moral, physical and spiritual degradation will continue on both sides. And even when it ends it will take years to repair the damage done to Chechnya’s civilian population — both Chechen and Russian — and to the Russian military and its servicemen, who ‘don’t know who and what they are fighting for,’ as was said by Col. Yuri Budanov at his trial for the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl. (We are, of course, aware of the many grave crimes committed against the innocent by Chechen fighters.)”

The letter recalled the words of the martyred priest, Fr. Anatoly Chistousov, killed in Chechen captivity. “When asked who is to blame for the war, he said, ‘We are all sinners, we are all to blame’.”

Russians treat Chechen children to a vacation away from war

The Russian village of Bolshaya Yelnya, near Nizhny Novgorod, was host this summer to children from Chechnya being given a respite from what is for them nearly a lifetime of war at home.

Such kindness toward Chechens is not common in Russia, where opinion polls show that most people still support the war against rebels who want an independent Chechnya. But for the third time in a year, Chechen children have been brought to Nizhny Novgorod through the combined efforts of human rights groups and the regional government. Nizhny Novgorod is now a center of quiet protest against the two Chechen wars, in which 250 soldiers from the region have died.

The trip for the latest group of children — 14 at the camp here and 13 nearby — cost nearly $16,000. The regional governor, Ivan Sklyarov, allocated funds for three weeks of hospitalization and a month and a half at the sanatoriums. A local businessman paid for trips to an amusement park. Foreign donors also helped, including St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam, which collected $1,000 at liturgies during Lent.

The benefits to the children, both Chechen and Russian, are evident. While her family in the western Chechnya village of Assinovskaya experienced what Chechens said was a violent raid by Russian troops in search of rebels, Zharadat Sigaurova, 11, was breakdancing to her favorite Turkish pop tunes and reveling in her new Russian friends.

Maria Tarakanova, a doctor at Bolshaya Yelnya, had never met a Chechen before, and admitted that she had been scared. “When they show them on television, their homes destroyed, I feel sorry for them,” she said. “Then they show heads chopped off by rebels. But Russians can be the same. Children, whether they are Armenian, Chechen or Russian, are all the same. It is our duty to protect them.”

Many of the Chechen children bear the psychological or physical scars of war. Laila Dzhambulatova, 11, was haunted by the bodies she saw of neighbors killed when Russian fire flattened her village in February 2000.

Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, an archaeologist specializing in churches and monasteries, has given up his job to devote himself to the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which he formed with a Chechen historian. Mr. Dmitriyevsky has visited Chechnya five times since 1995 and edits an Internet newsletter documenting human rights abuses there. His wife, Masha, is visiting Ingushetia delivering copies of an antiwar newspaper to Chechen refugees. (Sophia Kishkovsky)

Vézelay: 3rd Annual OPF Retreat

The third annual retreat of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Vézelay, France, took place May 5-7, again hosted by the parish of St. Etienne and St. Germain. Some 50 people met for a daily cycle of services and shared reflection on “The reception of the faith in the light of the differing experiences of Eastern and Western Europe.”

The speakers were Bishop Innokentii Vasilev, head of the Russian Patriarchal diocese in France; Igumen Hilarion Alfeyev, in charge of inter-Christian affairs in the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow; and Jean-Marie Gourvil, a member of the parish of Caen-Colombelles.

Before being assigned to the Russian Patriarchal diocese in France in 1999, Bishop Innokentii was bishop in several dioceses in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far-East. He spoke about his experience in the diocese, recalling that in the mid-80s there were only three parishes and a few hundred faithful in a region several times as large as France but with only two-and-a-half million inhabitants.

“The majority of the churches were in ruins. In Siberia at that time there was literally a religious vacuum, with a vast amount of missionary work to be done.” This became possible at the end of the 80s as the result of changes in the political situation in the Soviet Union. “We used every possible means of education: sermons, catechism groups, radio, television, lectures in various institutions . [The result is that] today in the diocese of Chita alone there are ninety parishes.”

Reviewing the history of atheism in Russia, Fr. Hilarion raised the question of how “Holy Russia” had so quickly become, under the Bolsheviks, “the leading atheist state in the world.” The Revolution of 1917 was not, he said, “an accident, the chance seizure of power by a small group of scoundrels… [but] the result both of the monarchy and of the Church of the fact that there was no separation of the State from the Church.”

Today, he said, “after the collapse of the Soviet system though the number of believers has grown enormously during the past few years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country.

“It has become a commonplace to speak of a religious renaissance in Russia, but while there are many churches, monasteries and theological schools that have been opened in newly-restored buildings” and “the leaders of the Church have managed to establish a relationship with the civil authorities,” they have “nonetheless been incapable, except in exceptional circumstances, of reaching the people… The Orthodox Church is still closed in upon itself, and is still more concerned with its own internal problems than with the spiritual needs of modern society.”

According to Fr. Hilarion, in its search for “a new identity in post-communist and post-atheist Russia” the Church is faced with two dangers. One is the risk of a return to the pre-Revolutionary situation, to the status of a State Church. “If such a role were offered to the Church, it would be a grave error to accept it,” since in this case “the Church would once again be rejected by most of society as it was rejected in 1917.

“The most serious mistake would be not to have learned the lesson of history and to return to the pre-1917 situation,” he continued, “as is hoped for by certain members of the clergy today.”

The other danger, he said, is the appearance of a “militant Orthodoxy which would be a post-atheist heir to militant atheism an Orthodoxy which would fight against the Jews, the Freemasons, democracy, against Western culture, against the Enlightenment.

“Atheism,” he said, “will only be conquered by the transfiguration of the soul, which implies a life in conformity with the Gospel. This should be the only message of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Jean-Marie Gourvil dealt with the meeting between Orthodox of Western origin and Orthodoxy on the basis of the experience of France. He sought to cast light on the spiritual motivation for such a path as well as on the stumbling blocks that can be found along it. He also pointed out several approaches to encourage a better “enculturation” of Orthodoxy in Western societies without diluting its character.

“It is likely that the conditions of Christian life in France will become progressively closer and closer to those described by the author of the Letter to Diognetus,” he said, in that “Christians are a minority in a society that lives according to other values. Thus every country becomes a homeland for the Christian and every homeland becomes a foreign country.” (Service Orthodoxe de Presse.)

OPF forms North American chapter

The first annual conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America met at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, from June 21-24, 2001.

The conference’s theme was “Following Christ in a Violent World: The Orthodox Path to Peacemaking.” Speakers included Bishop Job of Chicago; Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now ; and OPF secretary Jim Forest. [His lecture, "We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us," is posted on the OPF web site.]

John Oliver, Emeritus Professor of History at Malone, was named coordinator. Sheri Bunn, a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, was appointed assistant coordinator. John Brady is treasurer and Philip Tamoush is press secretary. Fr. James Silver was appointed as liaison with the Standing Committee of Orthodox Bishops in America.

A second conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America, also in Canton, is planned for next summer.

OPF treasurer John Brady announced that the Internal Revenue Service granted tax exempt status to OPF-NA.

Greek Orthodox pro-life group making progress

A pro-life educational outreach to Orthodox communities in the US is growing vigorously due to the initiative of Vera Faith Lord. In August Metropolitan Maximos, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, appointed her to head a diocesan pro-life ministry devoted to educating the Greek Orthodox community about the tragedy and sin of abortion. Vera, who experienced the tragedy of abortion in her own life, gave up a high-level position in the business world to devote herself to the pro-life movement.

Announcing Vera’s appointment, Met. Maximos sent a letter to all parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, stating the new ministry. “This is necessary because we Greek Orthodox have remained relatively silent on this matter in comparison to the Roman Catholics and Protestants. It is our obligation as Orthodox to speak up and not remain silent on this issue. Vera Faith’s hope is to visit each of the 52 parishes of the Diocese of Pittsburgh by year’s end and to share the story of how her abortion damaged her life and how to prevent this from happening to anyone else. I want the clergy and laity to know that I give my blessing to her endeavor. I trust you will give her your utmost cooperation and hospitality.”

“My abortion experience brought me to a crisis of conscience,” Vera said. “I knew it was wrong but I had no idea how seriously it would affect my life. My goal is to help others not to make the same mistake. I expect to reach out to all Orthodox dioceses of all ethnic traditions in America and through education to energize the clergy and laity to become active in the pro-life movement.”

(Orthodox Christians for Life, Pittsburgh, 7228 Baptist Rd., PMB #188, Bethel Park, PA 15102; 412: 851-9310)

Horror expressed in Germany over Dutch euthanasia law

Following passage of a euthanasia law by the Dutch Parliament in April, the chairman of the conference of Germany’s Catholic bishops, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, accused the Netherlands of adopting a “culture of death.”

The vehement statement from the cardinal, who said it was “inconceivable” that Dutch doctors would “deliver sick patients to their deaths rather than help them through a difficult situation,” was not untypical of German response to the law approved by the Dutch Senate.

Front-page editorials, statements from ministers and criticism from doctors all took the view that, in the words of George Paul Hefty in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , the Dutch had “breached a dike” with dangerous consequences. The extent of the reaction seemed to reflect the enduring unease over euthanasia in a country that tried it under Hitler. Between 1939 and 1941, using gassing in many cases, the Nazis proceeded with the clandestine elimination of about 100,000 men, women and children who were physically or mentally handicapped. The aim was to improve the Aryan race by eradicating those regarded as defective.

German doctors seemed unanimous in seeing sinister trends behind the Dutch law. Dr. Stephan Sahm, who treats people with cancer in Wiesbaden, argued that research suggested that many deaths every year in the Netherlands involved “life-ending actions without explicit request. The process has gained its own dynamics and logic, which is nothing short of merciless. Where continuing to live is only one of two legal options, everyone who burdens others with his or her continued existence is held accountable.”

“Everyone has the right to a dignified death,” said Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, president of an association of German doctors, “but nobody has the right to be killed. The dangers of abuse are too great.”

Suggestions of abuse or of a slippery slope to ever wider use of euthanasia have caused concern in the Netherlands recently. The case last year of a doctor who helped Edward Brongersma, a former senator, die because he felt he was living a “pointless and empty existence” received wide attention. The doctor was acquitted, though Mr. Brongersma had no serious physical or psychological illness.

“If a person is dying in this country,” said Peter Huurman, a leading Dutch opponent of euthanasia, “he or she often feels some pressure to consider assisted death from the attitude of doctors and nurses. That is one reason I oppose the law. The other is religious: life is sacred.”

“This is a catastrophe on moral and social grounds,” said Eugene Brysch, the managing director of Germany’s main hospice foundation. “Some people in Holland have forgotten German history. Such programs can be misused.”