News: Fall 2007 / issue 47

Stalin’s victims honored in emotional memorial

The Russian Orthodox Church marked the 70th anniversary of the bloodiest peak of Josef Stalin’s terror with a procession that began from a remote northern island archipelago that became the prison camp immortalized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s world famous book, The Gulag Archipelago.

The procession ended in August on the edge of Moscow at a former “killing field” that has now become a shrine to Soviet leader Stalin’s millions of victims.

The procession made its way by boat from the island of Solovki, less than 160 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, where a 16th century monastery in the White Sea was turned into a Soviet prison camp. It traveled along the White Sea-Baltic Canal, immortalized as Belmorkanal and built by the forced labor of prisoners incarcerated in the Soviet Gulag.

A 12-meter-high wooden cross accompanied the procession to Butovo, a deceptively rustic corner south of Moscow, where mass executions began 70 years ago, on 8 August 1937. Here, the cross was erected next to the newly built stone Church of the Resurrection and the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.

The Rev. Kirill Kaleda, rector of the church, said the pilgrimage was “infused with a sense of tragedy and sacrifice.”

From August 1937 to October 1938 alone, at least 20,000 people are believed to have been shot and buried as “enemies of the people” in a field adjacent to the church. The field is known as Butovsky poligon, or shooting range, and was a secret facility of the former KGB until the early 1990s.

On some days, hundreds were shot. Photographs of victims from their KGB case files are displayed near the field and in the church. When secret police files were uncovered after the collapse of communism, researchers discovered that one thousand of the victims were monks, nuns, priests and lay people who were chosen for execution because of their Orthodox faith. More than 320 such new martyrs have now been canonized. Fr. Kirill’s grandfather, a priest named Vladimir Ambartsumov, is one of the new martyrs commemorated at Butovo.

Patriarch Alexei II has referred repeatedly to the site as Russia’s Golgotha. Every year after Easter, the patriarch presides at an open-air Liturgy and memorial service at Butovo.

There were no representatives of the government, which has shown little interest in the anniversary of the Great Purge. President Putin said in June that although the 1937 purge was one of the most notorious episodes of the Stalin era, no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about it because “in other countries even worse things happened.”

“There’s a new regime that wants heroes, not victims,” said Tatyana Voronina, a researcher at the human rights organization Memorial. “They prefer to celebrate the victory in World War II. It doesn’t make you feel proud when you know that it’s your own people who did this.”

Bartholomew leads prayer for planet off the coast of Greenland

melting ice on the coast of Greenland

All that remains of Tjodhilde’s Church is a small horseshoe-shaped turf rampart, a modest memorial to a 1,000-year-old Christian site. Archaeologists believe the tiny building that stood here was the first church in North America. It was built around 1000 AD by Tjodhilde, wife of Erik the Red.

In September it marked the end of an extraordinary 21st century Greenland odyssey when it was chosen for the service celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew to conclude his seventh water-borne symposium in the series “Religion, Science and the Environment.”

Taking part in the event were religious leaders, scientists and journalists. Together they traveled 750 miles along Greenland’s west coast aboard a Norwegian cruise ship, the Fram. Their theme was “The Arctic: Mirror of Life.”

Arctic ice has shrunk this year to the smallest on record and almost all experts say that greenhouse gases from human use of fossil fuels are behind a thaw of recent decades. Warming may also bring rising seas, floods, erosion and desertification.

“There is no time for waiting or delay. Otherwise, we are willingly and irresponsibly, even dangerously, shutting our eyes,” Bartholomew said. “What must immediately take place is repentance, together with the change of life that accompanies repentance.”

“We are concerned about God’s creation, which is constantly and shamelessly rendered the object of abuse,” he said. “We are concerned about the elementary climate and other conditions – quite literally, about the air and the oxygen breathed by modern man and which future generation, as we fear, will seek in vain. We are, finally, concerned about humanity’s mere survival on this continent and our planet.”

The North Atlantic island of Greenland has enough ice to raise world sea levels by about seven meters if it all melted, swamping small island states and vast stretches of coast from Bangladesh to Florida.

“It’s remarkable how little ice there is now compared to when I was here a couple of years ago,” said Grete Hovelsrud of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. “The rate of change has accelerated a lot and people are wondering ‘what is going on?’”

As the Fram sailed the last few miles before its passengers disembarked, the Patriarch gave his final address. He said, “If there is one single message, it is this: time is short. Humanity does not have the luxury of quarreling over racial or economic or political matters. May God grant us the wisdom to act in time.”

Metropolitan Kirill warns of crisis over ethical norms

Metropolitan Kirill, head of the External Affairs Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, has said the major churches in Europe need to join forces and seek allies from other faiths to ensure that society upholds traditional ethical values, but he warned that Christians who no longer stand for moral norms previously accepted by the church were undermining this task.

“A struggle for a single public morality and for Christian values in today’s Europe is impossible without joint actions,” he said, “first of all among Christians of major confessions, regardless of their doctrinal differences. Christians should seek allies in other religions who share moral positions similar to the Christian attitudes.”

He was speaking in September at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in the Romanian city of Sibiu, where more than 2000 representatives from Europe’s main Christian traditions had gathered.

He asserted, however, that the church itself was facing divisions about ethical norms that undermined this task.

“Until recently all Christians had unanimous views at least on man and the moral norms of his life,” Kirill said.

“Today, this unity has been broken as well. Some Christian communities have unilaterally reviewed or are reviewing the norms of life defined by the Word of God.

“Believers cannot recognize at the same time the value of life and the right to death, the value of family and validity of same-sex relations, the protection of children’s rights and the deliberate destruction of human embryos for medical purposes,” Kirill said.

Speaking to journalists after addressing the Sibiu assembly, Kirill said that divisions within Christianity about ethical issues were putting at risk the ecumenical movement for church unity.

“We are now approaching a crisis of the ecumenical movement. We need to have a very strong moral basis to continue on the ecumenical pilgrimage.”

Bartholomew cautions on European unity

At a conference in August, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew warned against the construction of a European unity based solely on financial and political considerations.

The patriarch made his remarks on 5 September at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania. The assembly was organized by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops’ Conferences.

Europe needs to be a society “where human rights and the fundamental values of peace, justice, freedom, tolerance, participation and mutual support prevail,” said Bartholomew.

“At the same time, we categorically underline the importance of respect for life, the supreme value of marriage and family, the support and assistance of the poor, forgiveness and mercy,” the Patriarch added.

“It is only through sincere and objective dialogue that we shall also be able to contribute in a crucial way to the consolidation of reconciliation and communion even among the peoples of Europe, supporting and promoting the creation of a new Europe, where Christian principles and values will rule on the basis of the spiritual heritage of Christianity,” said Bartholomew.

In August a broad spectrum of Christian groups offered support to Patriarch Bartholomew after he was called to testify in a Turkish court for allegedly violating an order barring him from using his traditional title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.”

A Turkish court had ruled in June that the Istanbul-based patriarchate was authorised to perform religious functions only among Turkey’s 6000-strong Greek Orthodox community.

The court said the patriarchate had no right under Turkish law to call itself “ecumenical,” a Greek word meaning “universal.”

On August 21, Bartholomew was summoned to testify before a prosecuting authority after giving a speech at a world conference of Orthodox youth in July, during which he defended his office as “a historical title” recognized by the “whole world.”

New leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church

Metropolitan Daniel of Moldavia and Bucovina was elected Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church at a meeting of bishops in September. Daniel received 95 votes out of 161 in the final ballot. He was enthroned on September 30 in Bucharest’s patriarchal cathedral.

Daniel is a member of the presidium of the Council of European Churches, linking Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Christians, and has been a member of the central committee of the World Council of Churches.

The election followed the death of Patriarch Teoctist in July.

Daniel has been archbishop of Iasi and metropolitan of Moldavia and Bucovina since 1990, the year after a revolution overthrew Romania’s communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu. Since then, he has founded more than 300 parishes, 40 monasteries, and initiated and supported the building of over 250 new churches.

His election took place during a wrangle between the church and the official body for the archives of the Communist Securitate secret police about the naming of clerics who collaborated with the communist dictatorship.

Daniel told Romanian journalists that involvement with the secret police needed to be condemned when it served private interests and harmed other people. “When it served the church and prevented harm to the church and the faithful, then it needs to be seen in a more nuanced way.”

Oxfam: a third of Iraqis need emergency help

Nearly a third of Iraqis need immediate emergency help as conflict masks a humanitarian crisis, according to a report released in July by Oxfam and NCCI, a network of aid organizations working in Iraq. The report found that the Iraqi government and other governments are failing to provide basic needs for water, sanitation, food and shelter.

Four million Iraqis – 15 percent – cannot buy enough to eat, 70 percent are without adequate water supplies, and nearly 28 percent of the children are malnourished.

Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, said, “The terrible violence in Iraq has masked the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Malnutrition among children has dramatically increased and basic services, ruined by years of war and sanctions, cannot meet the needs of the Iraqi people.

“Millions of Iraqis have been forced to flee the violence, either to another part of Iraq or abroad. Many live in dire poverty.”

“Go Green” initiative launched

“Think cosmically and act personally,” urged Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff, in a speech to students, faculty, and staff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, which launched a campus-wide initiative for environmental sustainability.

The initiative will encompass a broad range of practices from cost-saving energy measures to cooperative recycling efforts with city and county agencies to addressing the level of pollutants in Crestwood Lake, which adjoins seminary property, that will become part of the seminary’s fabric into the future.

St. Vladimir’s will become a corporate member of The Fellowship of the Transfiguration, an environmental association endorsed by the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops.

Dr. Theokritoff played off the popular slogan for environmental concerns, “Think globally and act locally,” and instead viewed ecological crises from a theological perspective, incorporating sayings from the Church Fathers that demonstrate Orthodox attitudes and practices regarding creation.

She focused on Orthodox theology as possessing the core beliefs required to transform the environmental movement into one in which the goals are the glorification of the Creator and the ability to perceive the image of God in all things.

Touching upon the Orthodox practice of asceticism, she further noted, “We cannot just practice the ’3 R’s’of the popular ecological movement ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.’”

Rather, as Orthodox Christians, “we practice a fourth, to ‘Rein in our appetites,’ since private choices have global consequences. We have a different agenda [than the popular environmental movement], even though we cooperate with each other.

“Christians bring revelation to the secular cause,” she stated. “In the end, nothing is ‘secular’ any longer, because of the Incarnation of our Lord.”

Dr. Theokritoff, who completed her doctorate in liturgical theology under the supervision of Bishop Kallistos (Ware), currently is writing a theology of creation for the Foundations series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The day-long program ended with the distribution of ecology-related materials to the campus community, and with workshops on various environmental topics.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47