News Winter 2001

An appeal for deeds of love from Serbia’s Patriarch Pavle

“Many people suffered in [the Communist] period only because they believed in Christ,” said Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church in a letter read on Christmas Eve. “Many of them had to leave, and for the next 50 years suffer in foreign lands, shedding tears for their lost homeland, which was at the crossroads and exposed to demonic ideologies, dictatorships, violence and lack of freedom.

“We would like to believe that we have now put this time of suffering, destruction and hatred behind us and that, for our people and our Church, the beginning of the new century and the new millennium is a time for rebuilding and joy and the time for love. We appeal to those who will shape the political, economic, educational, legal and all other aspects of our common life to be guided in their work exclusively by the principle of selflessness, to think about the welfare of their neighbors and the well-being of all of us.

“We hope that our eyes will be opened so that in all our current and future endeavors we will always see before us ?the least of Christ’s brothers’: all those who for various reasons during these past years have been left unemployed, or who have been forced to take such low-paying work that they cannot feed their families; all those whom we meet every day — in the hot or cold, rain or shine, in the streets and markets — as they seek their daily bread; all those whose hearts are saddened because they cannot obtain medicine for themselves or their dear ones, or, perhaps, schooling for their children.

“May we see and remember the hundreds of thousands who over the past years have been left without their homes and property; the hundreds of thousands of the persecuted and exiled who can place their hope only in God — but also in our goodness and compassion! The Lord often said, Let he who has eyes see, and he who has ears hear! Many miracles of the curing of the blind are recorded in the Gospels exactly to demonstrate the importance of human ?seeing’: that we not be preoccupied with ourselves and our own problems; that we turn and pay attention to our brother, for he who truly ?sees’ his brother sees His Lord Himself! Perhaps at that very moment he needs some support, perhaps he needs a kind word or a cup of cold water, for the sake of which we will be justified!

“No one in our country can be happy or carefree while there are so many who are hungry and thirsty for justice and above all for social justice; while there are so many unfortunate and hopeless people for whom help is absolutely essential. We are constantly aware that our relationship towards ‘the least of Christ’s brothers’ will be the criterion by which we are justified or condemned at the Lord’s Judgement Day. ‘Truly I say to you, what you have done to the least of these my brothers, you have done to Me.’ After all, our Lord Himself is one of them, the poor, and He has no place to lay His head.

“‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ commanded the Lord, laying the foundations of our mutual relations and our society. Greed and covetousness — as has been demonstrated far too often in times just past — cannot bring unity, cooperation and love. On the contrary! These are characteristics which have nothing in common with Christianity, for they encourage destruction, division and discord. The Christian is one who conducts himself, especially in the public aspects of life, guided by the principles of love and selflessness. ?Your interests lay in the interests of your neighbor,’ St. John Chrysostom tells us. We therefore urge all those who will shape the political, economic, educational, legal and all other aspects of our social life to be guided exclusively by the principle of selflessness, thinking of the welfare of their neighbors and of us all!”

Radiation From Balkan Bombing Alarms Europe

Pekka Haavisto made some startling discoveries on a recent mission in Kosovo to assess the impact of uranium-tipped weapons used during NATO’s 78-day bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

“We found some radiation in the middle of villages where children were playing,” said Haavisto, former environment minister of Finland who headed the UN inquiry in Kosovo. “We were surprised to find this a year and a half later. People had collected ammunition shards as souvenirs and there were cows grazing in contaminated areas, which means the contaminated dust can get into the milk.”

The discovery of low-level beta radiation at 8 of the 11 sites they sampled seems certain to fan a rapidly spreading sense of fury and panic across Europe about the well-being of soldiers sent to serve in the Balkans, more than a dozen of whom have since died of leukemia.

Residents of Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro may also increasingly resent that they were unaware until now of the need to clean up the low-level uranium dispersed by American weapons dropped over Bosnia in 1995, and over Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo war.

“We are recommending that until the cleanup starts, contaminated areas should be clearly marked and fenced off,” Haavisto said. “The local people do not understand the material.”

Even in Western Europe, it is only in recent days that full alarm has been sounded about what the European newspapers have dubbed Balkan syndrome. Besides the leukemia deaths and cases being treated, uncounted numbers of soldiers who served as peacekeepers in the Balkans have complained about an array of symptoms, like chronic fatigue, hair loss and various types of cancer — complaints similar to gulf war syndrome, registered after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Thousands of European soldiers who served in the Balkans have already undergone medical tests in countries like Belgium, France and Canada. Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Norway, Greece and Bulgaria have announced that they will screen all Balkan veterans.

Alarm bells rang first in Belgium, where nine Balkan veterans have fallen ill with cancer, five having since died. Two veterans died of leukemia in the Netherlands, and one in Spain. France said it was treating four veterans for leukemia. In Italy, 30 veterans contracted serious illnesses, cancer in the case of 12. Six of the cancer patients have already died.

SCOBA worried about future Christian presence in the Holy Land

In a statement released January 4, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) expressed “urgent concern about the future of the Christian churches and communities in the land all Christians call holy.”

“While we fully recognize the needs and concerns of the Muslim and Jewish religious communities in Jerusalem, in Palestine, and in Israel, we also express our solidarity with the living Christian communities in the region.

“The future of Jerusalem, of Palestine, and of Israel must include not only access to Christian holy places and sites, but also space for the historic, indigenous living Christian communities. In this connection we express our solidarity with the recent appeal of the patriarchs and heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem, which calls for the constructive involvement of the Christian communities in the international diplomatic effort to define the future status of Jerusalem.

“The achievement of justice and peace requires the contributions of all three faiths — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — through their communities in the region.”

“Finally, recognizing the humanitarian crisis, which has been caused by the violence, by the ongoing confiscation of homes and land and the establishment of new Israeli settlements, by prohibitions against travel, and by massive unemployment, we appeal to all Orthodox Christians in the United States to open their hearts to our suffering brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. We ask that funds for this purpose collected in dioceses and parishes of the member jurisdictions of SCOBA be transmitted to International Orthodox Christian Charities.”

Attack on Pristina’s last active Orthodox Church

The only functioning Serbian Orthodox church in the Kosovan capital Pristina was attacked the night of December 22. Unknown attackers threw a hand grenade at the Church of St. Nicholas from a passing vehicle. Windows were broken, a dividing wall between the church and the old graveyard was damaged, and the outside wall of the church suffered damage. This is the first reported attack on an Orthodox church in Kosovo since September.

St. Nicholas’ Church serves the several hundred remaining Serbs in Pristina. The only active church, it is guarded by British KFOR troops.

“Father Miroslav, the only remaining local parish priest, reported that a vehicle came from a small side alley that runs up the hill. After it passed the KFOR tank unit at the entrance to the churchyard and reached the old graveyard, the attackers threw the grenade, which landed in front of the church,” said Srdjan Jakovljevic, head of the diocesan office in Belgrade.

Jakovljevic believes the incident follows the pattern of earlier attacks on Orthodox churches in Kosovo. “First they intimidate, then they come to loot and steal, then comes desecration of the holy sites and finally destruction, usually by dynamite.” He regards the attack as “a clear sign” to the remaining Serbs in Pristina, who have to travel to services in the church on Sundays and religious holidays in buses guarded by KFOR soldiers.

Serbian Orthodox churches and graveyards in Kosovo have suffered waves of attacks since international peacekeeping forces entered the province in 1999. Ninety have been damaged or destroyed. To date no one has been tried and convicted for any of these attacks. [Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service]

Estonia again becomes focus of rivalry for Orthodox churches

Estonia is again the focus of conflict between the world’s two most influential Orthodox churches and their leaders — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople and Patriarch Alexei of Moscow.

The latest dispute broke out after a visit in late October by Patriarch Bartholomeos to Estonia. At issue is the troubled question of whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate or the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate should have jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in the predominantly Lutheran country of Estonia.

The dispute led the Russian Orthodox Church to decide against sending delegations to Istanbul to mark the feast of St Andrew or to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Christmas festivities. Bartholomeos is currently persona non grata.

“Under present conditions,” the synod said, “it would be a hypocrisy to show our unity to the world, when trust has been undermined and the principles of fraternal cooperation have been trampled upon.”

Many observers also place the dispute in the same context as the situation in other parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, where rival Orthodox churches are seeking the recognition of Constantinople. The disputes follow the fall of communism in the region and major realignments of national loyalties.

A similar conflict in 1996 between the two churches over jurisdiction in Estonia led the Russian Orthodox Church to break off official contacts and announce a “break in communion” with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

This time the Russian church has stopped short of breaking off contacts with Constantinople, instead suspending personal contacts with Bartholomeos, as well as with Archbishop Johannes of Finland, who accompanied Bartholomeos to Estonia, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Metropolitan Stephanos of Estonia, saying that until the conflict is resolved, the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to attend meetings involving any of the three.

Caught up in the middle of the argument are Estonia’s Orthodox Christians, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, most wishing to keep church and cultural ties with Moscow. However, most Orthodox of Estonian descent wish to cut the links with Moscow. Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia embarked on a policy of severing all ties with Moscow and curtailing the civil rights of the Russian-speaking population.

The dispute of 1996 was resolved when the synods of the two churches made simultaneous statements announcing that “they will allow the Estonian Orthodox the freedom to choose to which ecclesiastical jurisdiction they wish to belong”. However, the Russian Orthodox Church believes that Patriarch Bartholomeos has broken this agreement through his recent statements and actions.

“It is with immense pain that the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has to state that the one-sided… actions of [the] Patriarch of Constantinople in Estonia have canceled the results of common work done for the sake of accord,” the Moscow Patriarchate statement said.

“Renunciation of the compromise agreements which envisage parallel presence of the two jurisdictions in Estonia speak for the [continuing] intention of Constantinople to usurp canonical authority in Estonia and to deprive the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate not only of the legal, but also of the canonical right of succession in the country, where Orthodoxy has been nourished and strengthened through the efforts of … both Russian- and Estonian-speaking… faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

According to the statement of Moscow’s holy synod, Bartholomeos demanded during his visit that there should be only one “Archbishop of All Estonia”, who would also be answerable to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This follows the appointment by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in March 1999 of Bishop Stephanos as Archbishop of Tallinn and All Estonia and his demand that the Russian church should recognize this appointment.

The Russian synod also cited Bartholomeos as saying that Archbishop Kornily, who heads the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, should be removed. In response, Patriarch Alexei elevated Archbishop Kornily to the rank of Metropolitan. [ENI / Andrei Zolotov and Stephen Brown]

Orthodox leaders urge end to Christian schism

As the year 2000 drew to a close, many Orthodox Christian leaders gathered at an ancient church in Turkey to call for an end to the rift that split the Christian faith a millennium ago.

The meeting took place at the Church of Holy Wisdom in Iznik, once Nicea, where the creed was written.

“The Christian world was divided and fragmented, lamentably, to the great scandal of the whole world,” the leaders said in a written statement on the 1054 Great Schism. “We invite everyone to work in a dialogue of truth and love for the unity of those who believe in Christ.”

The proclamation was signed by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, and representatives of churches in Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Estonia.

The meeting also aimed at healing differences between the different Orthodox denominations. Divisions were, however, evident, with Patriarch Alexei of Russia, leader of the largest Orthodox Church, failing to appear at the meeting. [See previous article.]

Christodoulos denounces racism

Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece, speaking in Thessaloniki on December 30, strongly criticized the chasm separating words and deeds in Church life. In particular he condemned “cases of racism and nationalistic fervor.”

“Providing for one’s nation could not be allowed to slide into racism or any form of underestimation of other nationalities,” he said, adding that differences based on national identity were not justified in the Church of Christ.

Alexei hopes for improved relations with Vatican

Interviewed by Interfax December 29, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow expressed hope that in the new century relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches will improve. “I would like to hope for a positive development of these relations,” he said, noting that “many common concerns have arisen among Orthodox and Catholics because of the growth of the secularization of contemporary society.”

Alexei is convinced that “the dynamic development of world political and economic processes and the informational and cultural globalization are moving Christians to common action. … We can and we must work together for the sake of the moral regeneration of nations, for the sake of strengthening people’s faithfulness to God-given moral values, and for the sake of resisting the anarchy of chaos, destruction, and moral nihilism.”

At the same time the patriarch regretted that “between the two churches there now stand, as previously, serious problems that have arisen for reasons that are not at all the fault of Orthodox Christians.” He cited the situation in western Ukraine, “where with the active support of Greek Catholics three Orthodox dioceses have been literally devastated, as well as the proselytizing activity of certain Catholic organizations in Russia and other countries of CIS where under the guise of ?social work’ attempts are being made to convert children of the Orthodox church to Catholicism.”

“We are awaiting from the Vatican real steps directed toward the normalization of the situation of the canonically Orthodox parishes in western Ukraine,” Alexei said. The Russian church, he added, “also has a right to expect honesty and openness from Catholics who are conducting activity in places where the Orthodox population predominates. … If they consider Orthodoxy to have just as much the grace of God and salvation as Catholicism, then what is the point of persistent attempts to convert people to the other faith?”

Ethiopia and Eritrea exchange prisoners of war

More than 700 sick and wounded prisoners of war — 359 Eritreans and 360 Ethiopians — from the two years of a border conflict have returned home with the help of the Red Cross. A chartered jet took off from Addis Ababa for Asmara, Eritrea, December 24 in the first official direct flight since the guns fell silent, carrying Eritrean troops, many of them on crutches, who had been brought to the airport on buses.

A treaty between the two countries was signed two weeks earlier in Algiers. The agreement provides for sending a UN peacekeeping force of 4,200.

North American bishops issue joint pastoral letter

Declaring that “the church is not a museum and we are not her curators,” Orthodox bishops leading eight North American jurisdictions released a 44-page letter December 16 calling for a spiritual reawakening and a commitment to evangelize their “mission territory.”

The statement, “And the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us,” was timed to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

“As Christians we have a responsibility to give an account to others for the hope that is in us,” the bishops said. “But even more, we have a responsibility to show them that our hope is more than words, our love more than sentiment.”

The bishops asked pointed questions of themselves on whether the church’s message is honestly addressing the questions asked by a spiritually hungry society.

The bishops hope their joint statement will help Orthodox Christians to spiritually rejuvenate society at large.

The letter included an environmental challenge: “Many of today’s environmental problems have as their root cause the mitigation of ?pain,’ or at least discomfort. The planet is warming because of the excessive use of carbon-based fuels. As the climate gets warmer we turn up the air conditioning to cool off. But to run the air conditioners we need to burn more fuel, which in turn heats up the planet…”

The bishops also criticized contemporary culture: “When we look at the society in which we live, we see that even though its roots traditionally may be Christian, nonetheless, there has been a steady distancing from these roots. We certainly observe this to be the case here in North America, and it is also more and more true in traditionally Orthodox countries. We see a growing number of people who are actively searching for ?meaning’ in their lives, however they might understand that word. There has been a rise in attention given to various religions and philosophies presenting themselves as alternatives to Christianity. What is very significant is the large number of people who have grown up outside of any Church, with only the most superficial, and often confused, understanding of the Gospel. In short, our own society has become a primary ?missionary territory’.”

[The full text of the letter is available on the web sites of the various SCOBA jurisdictions]

Illinois governor an unlikely ally of death penalty opponents

Death penalty opponents in the USA have found an unlikely champion to bolster the credibility of their movement — tough-on-crime Governor George Ryan of Illinois.

Ryan did the unexpected last year by halting all executions in Illinois, saying he could not be sure the system can keep innocent people from being put to death.

Illinois has executed 12 people since 1977 but released 13 others from death row after they were exonerated or found to have gotten unfair trials — a “shameful record,” Ryan said in announcing the moratorium in January.

Ryan has since crisscrossed the country discussing his moratorium and also testified before Congress.

In his two years as governor, Ryan, 66, has pushed through tougher sentences for criminals who use guns, increased the number of state police and added prisons. He has long supported the death penalty and let one man be executed before imposing the moratorium.

“I was a part of the great American body who saw a nation in the grip of increasing crime rates, inner cities becoming armed camps and ever-growing violence in our streets, in our schools, and sometimes even in our places of worship,” Ryan told a New York bar association group on Wednesday. “Since those days, a lot has happened to shake my faith in the death penalty system.”

US opinion polls suggest support for the death penalty is softening. A Harris poll in July found 64 percent of people supported the death penalty, down from 75 percent in 1997. A Wall Street Journal poll found only 42 percent believed the death penalty is applied fairly; another 42 percent said it is not.

Experts link Ebola to destruction of rainforest

Cutting rainforests and hunting animals causes epidemics of Ebola and other deadly diseases, according to a report released October 22 by Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and Yaounde Medical Hospital in Cameroon. The study shows logging and a taste for “bushmeat” as well as other features of modern civilization have made humans more vulnerable to new diseases.

More than 50 deaths have resulted from the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in northern Uganda. The virus, which comes from primates, including chimpanzees, and causes massive bleeding, has killed more than 800 people since it was discovered in the Congo in 1976.

The study, says people have always caught diseases from wildlife, but logging and increased mobility have added a new dimension. Rain forests are also rich in microbes, says the report. Cutting forests and colonizing the land brings more people into direct contact with the germs, and the animals that play host to them.

Hunting wild animals for food makes things worse and primates are particularly dangerous. “Diseases have always passed from wild animals to human hunters,” says Nathan Wolfe, the main author of the report. “But dramatic increases in tropical logging, complete with new trucks and access roads, have allowed local disease outbreaks to have potentially global consequences.”

New diseases can spread rapidly. The report says: “Human travel has increased to the point where global movement can occur quickly enough to overcome previous limitations on the spread of microbes with a short incubation period.” Modern societies are “in many ways the ideal recipe” for the emergence and spread of new diseases.