News: Winter 2010

Moscow Patriarchate opposes death penalty

In October, the Moscow Patriarchate called on Russia to abstain from executions. “Certainly, it’s better not to practice the death penalty,” Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin told reporters in Moscow. “If society is strong enough to secure itself from criminality and evil will, it can be merciful to criminals and not deprive them of life. Russia didn’t practice death penalty in its best periods and usually this restraint was directly connected with the Christian outlook.”

“Christian society always aims at maximum mercy,” he said, “to give time for repentance even to desperate sinners. This is reflected in the practice of Christian states.”

Fr. Chaplin expressed the view that “today the country has enough inner strength not to practice the death penalty.” [Interfax]

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Churches seek to improve Russia, Georgia relations

At a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Primates of the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches, Kirill and Ilya, agreed to make every effort to improve relations between Russia and Georgia and to solve the Abkhazia and South Ossetia problems, it was announced November 6 by Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, deputy head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“It was pointed out that the friendship, mutual understanding, and cordial and fraternal relations between the two Churches,” said Fr. Balashov, “are guarantees that relations between the two peoples and states will in time be fully restored.” At the meeting, he reported, Patriarch Kirill compared the Russian and Georgian Churches to “two locomotives that will lead the relations between the two states from the impasse that they have found themselves in.” He added that “the two patriarchs met as two old friends.” [Interfax]

Debate about Stalin era continues in Russia

The Orthodox Church in Russia has expressed opposition to the reinstatement of verses praising Josef Stalin in a Moscow metro station.

Many Muscovites were startled when the Kurskaya metro station was reopened after a year of painstaking restoration.

Spelled out in gilded letters in the rotunda of the restored station was a line from the Stalin-era national anthem as it was sung when the station opened in 1950: “Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labor and to heroism,” reads the verse, words later removed.

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, said in October that public areas like metro stations “are not the place for images and quotations related to people who are guilty in the deaths of a large number of innocent people, who exterminated others without charge or trial.”

Both Patriarch Kirill and Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external church relations section, drew attention for outspoken condemnations of the crimes of the Stalin era. [ENI/Sophia Kishkovsky]

Orthodox priest murdered in Moscow

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Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, a priest known for his efforts to rescue young people from cult groups and also for outreach to Muslims, was killed November 19 by a masked gunman at his church, St. Thomas, in Moscow. The 35-year-old priest, father of three, died shortly after being shot in the head and chest by an unidentified assailant. The church’s choir director was also wounded.

“At present the names of the criminals are not known,” said Patriarch Kirill. “I ask all to refrain from any hasty accusations or sharp judgments against particular persons or groups.” He called on clergy and laity “not to forget that we are called by God to preserve peace among ourselves.”

Part of the work of the parish Fr. Daniel led focuses on mental health disorders, drug addiction, alcoholism, computer game addiction, all of which Fr. Daniel saw as consequences of false teachings leading to personality degradation.

Fr. Sysoyev gave lectures critical of Islam, debated Muslim leaders, worked among people from other religions, and had conflicts with pagans and various cult-like groups. He also spoke out against nationalists who followed Stalin rather than Christ. He was a teacher of the Perervensk Seminary and author of several books.

His parish community works to explain the Orthodox faith and to assist on the rehabilitation of victims of false religions and totalitarian sects. Other parish programs include service to the elderly and isolated, at their apartments and in hospitals, care for orphans, and running a free dining hall for those in need. Once a week low-income families in the area are provided with free food packages. [Sophia Kishkovsky]

Bartholomew visits US

Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on November 3, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople described himself both as a man of tradition but also something of a revolutionary.

“By calling Christianity revolutionary and saying it is dedicated to change,” he said, “we are not siding with progressives, just as, by our efforts to conserve, we are not siding with conservatives. The only side that we take is that of our faith, which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another, but in truth we are always only in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

During the Patriarch’s two-and-a-half week US visit, he’s spoke from the banks of the Mississippi River, where he led a conference on problems affecting the world’s major bodies of water.

He later went to New York, where he received an honorary degree at Fordham University, visited a synagogue, and led a prayer service at the United Nations.

At many stops, Bartholomew stressed the importance of caring for the environment, saying those who “tyrannize the earth” are committing sins.

“It’s very significant to have so prominent an Orthodox figure not talking just to the Church but to the world,” said Fr. Alexander Rentel, assistant professor of canon law and Byzantine studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.

Bartholomew: one foot

in the past, one in the future

Because unity is finally a gift of God, “it demands a profound sense of humility and not any prideful insistence.”

With this call to the “never-ending search” for unity of the church, which “is also an ever-unfolding journey,” Patriarch Bartholomew opened the October 7-14 meeting of the Faith and Order Plenary Commission, in Kolympari, Crete, Greece.

In an address to the 152 theologians attending the event, Bartholomew highlighted the importance of a double conversion, turning both “toward the past and the future.”

“It is crucial that we learn from the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church,” he said,

“and from those who, in each generation. maintained the integrity and intensity of the Apostolic faith. At the same time, we should turn our attention to the future, to the age to come, toward the heavenly kingdom. [Such an eschatological perspective] offers a way out of the impasse of provincialism and confessionalism … and permits us to discern [such] areas of common ministry and united mission as the preservation of creation and promotion of tolerance and understanding among religions and people in our world.”

The meeting was hosted at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. (Text of Bartholomew’s remarks: www.oikoumene.org/?id=7208 ).

Orthodox bishop explains dialogue with Catholics

In November an Orthodox archbishop defended Orthodox-Catholic dialogue despite opposition by some church members.

“All of us who participate in dialogue with the Catholic Church are giving testimony to Orthodoxy with frankness in this difficult task,” said Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas of Pergamon, a co-president of the Catholic-Orthodox International Commission for Theological Dialogue. The 78-year-old Greek-born theologian represents the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

He comments followed a meeting on the role of the papacy at Paphos in Cyprus at the end of October. During the gathering, Cyprus police arrested demonstrators who tried to disrupt the meeting, saying the participants were trying to subjugate the Orthodox Church to Rome.

Metropolitan Ioannis described dialogue with the Catholic Church as arduous. “The final outcome of our efforts rests in the hands of God, who will find a means to ensure his will ‘that all may be one’ is done,” he said. “All commission members are carrying out their churches’ instructions in conscience, and we are ready to accept any criticism since we are not infallible- but nor are those who very evidently pass judgment on us.”

Papal primacy, he said, is an ecclesiological issue, along with questions of canonical structure and church administration. “There are still so many questions to tackle the path is a long one, and the ill-willed will have plenty to react to.” He criticized those who wished to block such discussions for “providing false, misleading information.”

The next meeting of the Orthodox-Catholic commission is to take place in Vienna from 20 to 27 September 2010. [ENI/Jonathan Luxmoore]

Appeal for toleration sent to

the Republic of Macedonia

On December 10, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship appealed to Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of the Republic of Macedonia to end the government’s efforts to suppress the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The letter, signed by OPF international secretary, Jim Forest, expressed “profound dismay at the recent conviction of His Beatitude Jovan, Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje, on the charge of embezzlement. Archbishop Jovan had been acquitted of these very same charges twice before but, apparently due to political factors, was brought before the court a third time. Only at this third trial was he found guilty. This conviction is but the latest in a long series of events, all with the clear intent of preventing the Serbian Orthodox Church from existing on Macedonian soil.

“For years, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has sought to secure its position as the only Orthodox Church in the land. Perhaps in part due to the heavy-handed methods being used to suppress a continuing presence of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, it does not come as a surprise the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s autocephalous status has yet to be recognized by other Orthodox Churches.

“What is surprising is that the Macedonian government has allowed itself to be drawn into an ecclesiastical dispute between the Macedonian and Serbian Churches concerning matters of canon law and jurisdiction.

“In a country that has recently endured so much violence from within and diverse political manipulations from without, we find it incomprehensible that the government of Macedonia would not make every effort to distance itself from this volatile issue and maintain a neutral position.

“If there is to be a lasting solution, it will only come about through patient, genuine dialogue between the Serbian and Macedonian Churches. Politically imposed solutions are likely to prove non-viable and unsustainable.

Consequently, it behooves prescient, democratic-minded national leaders to recognize this reality, insist that international law and human rights standards be maintained, and ensure that all citizens enjoy equal protection under the law.

“Therefore, we ask that the Macedonian government not interfere with this ecclesiastical matter, directly or indirectly, that the conviction against Archbishop Jovan be annulled, and that he be allowed to discharge his duties as an Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church without further hindrance from the government.”

Occupation a ‘sin against God’ say Palestinian Christian leaders

Palestinian Christian leaders issued a letter in Bethlehem on December 11 in which they called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, which they described as “a sin against God and against humanity.” They appealed for support from the world’s churches.

“The injustice against the Palestinian people, which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted,” they said.

“Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian, but it is resistance with love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance, for it must find human ways that engage the humanity of the enemy.”

The initiators of the statement  “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering”  referred to the text as the “Kairos Palestine” document.

Signatories include Archbishop Theodosios Atallah Hanna of Sebastia of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the region, Latin Patriarch emeritus Michel Sabbah, and the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem Munib Younan.

“Our aim is to free both [Israelis and Palestinians] from extremist positions … bringing both to justice and reconciliation,” the signers stated.

“In this spirit and with this dedication, we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world.”

The signers accused Israel of “disregard of international law and international resolutions.” Issues faced by Palestinians, they said, included the “separation wall” that cuts through Palestinian territories, Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and “daily humiliation” at military checkpoints.

Rejecting Israeli justifications that their actions were in self-defense, the signers said, if there were no occupation, “there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

“The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity,” the signers stated, “because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God.

“It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier, just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation.”

They condemned all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and called on Christians worldwide to “say a word of truth and to take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.”

Information about Kairos Palestine is on the web at www.kairospalestine.ps. [Judith Sudilovsky/ENI]

Hunger in US at 14-year high

The number of Americans living in households that lack consistent access to adequate food soared to 49 million, up 13 million from the previous year, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” fourteen years ago. A report issued by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that more than half-a-million households face “very low food security”  skipped meals, cut portions, or otherwise forgoing food.

The increase was much larger than even the most pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light on the daily hardships caused by the recession’s punishing effect on jobs and wages.

The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.

The phrase “food insecurity” stems from years of political and academic dispute over how to describe inadequate access to food. In the 1980s, when officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United States, the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, began a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.

Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment rate. “Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” said James Weill, director of a food center. “Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger’.” ❖

Winter Issue IC 55 2010
IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010