Archive for the ‘News Reports’ Category

News: Summer 2008

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Belarus pressures Orthodox not to venerate martyrs

Belarus is discouraging the commemoration of Orthodox Christians killed for their faith by the Soviet Union, according to a report issued in May by Forum 18. The Belarussian KGB sought to have icons of the New Martyrs removed from the cathedral in Grodno.

New Martyr St. Pavlin, Bishop of Mogilev, shot in 1937 Deacon Andrei Kurayev charged that KGB officers had asked Grodno clergy “why they were inciting the people in such a way.”

Bishop Artemi (Kishchenko) of Grodno and Volkovysk refused to take the icons down. “He told the KGB that he couldn’t rewrite history.”

During the 1920s and 30s, over 20 Belarussian clergy, including three bishops, were shot in Minsk for their faith, according to Fr. Feodor Krivonos.

“There is a certain circle of people who don’t like these icons,” said Fr. Aleksandr Veliseichik. He said icons would be removed only if they were not Orthodox, “but these were painted entirely according to church canons.”

Some of the icons, he said, were copied from originals in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. One of the icons is of St. Pavlin, Bishop of Mogilev, shot in 1937.

KGB officers also often monitor visitors to Kuropaty, where many New Martyrs are buried in mass graves. Possibly 100,000 victims of Stalin’s purges are thought to have been shot at Kuropaty in between 1937 and 1941, but no archaeological research has been conducted at the site since the 1990s.

The act of going there is “fraught with tension” with the current Belarusian regime, said an Orthodox Christian who asked not to be named. An Orthodox chapel planned for the site has never been built.

The Moscow-based St. Tikhon Orthodox University estimates that 90,000 Orthodox were killed for their faith by the Soviet state.

Over 1,000 New Martyrs were formally canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in August 2000.

[F18 News, 12 May 2008]

Russia seeks to draft priests into the army

The young priest was not intimidated by the words “criminal case” and the green file that the officer said would land him in jail for refusing the draft. He was articulate and patient as he stood, wearing a cassock and cross, in front of a colonel at his district military commission, trying to persuade him that as an Orthodox priest there is no way he could serve as an army recruit. The priest, who asked to remain anonymous, serves at one of the city’s largest churches.

Following the February passage of a law that for the first time makes Orthodox priests subject to conscription, all draft-age Russian priests find themselves torn between a legal obligation and their religious obligations.

It is a serious dilemma. The Orthodox Church forbids priests, on pain of being defrocked, from carrying guns or being involved in military activities, while the law threatens them with imprisonment if found guilty of refusing the draft.

“The officer gave me a sour look and asked what village I was from, but that initial bravado disappeared when he saw that I was honest, respectful, and serious,” the priest recalled. “Soon I saw he was baffled. He even rang his superior in my presence to ask what he should do.”

In the end, the officers made a joint decision to let the priest go, but his battle might not be over, as the spring draft continues for two more months. “I’m prepared to have as many conversations with the officers as it takes,” the priest said. “I believe in the power of the word.”

Colonel Yury Klyonov of the Leningrad military district says the presence of priests in the army is bound to improve the moral climate among recruits. “This new measure is going to be beneficial for both the church and the army. After all, the Orthodox Church has always supported the idea of serving the motherland.”

“If priests are to be conscripted at all it must be only as chaplains,” said Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov of the Moscow diocese. “They must be allowed to fulfill their duties without having to compromise and betray their beliefs.” But the position of chaplain does not exist in the Russia armed forces.

Xenia Chernega, a lawyer representing the Moscow diocese, said the law was “a sign of blatant disregard for the canons of the Orthodox Church. The restriction is set by apostolic rule number 83: ‘anyone exercising military activities must be expelled from the priesthood’.”

The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly has appealed for the amendment to be vetoed. “Breaking into churches and dragging priests off to the army would be shameful. As a political successor of the USSR, Russia is still greatly indebted to the priests who perished in Stalin’s purges,” said one of the authors of the appeal, Vitaly Milonov.

In response to such criticism, Nikolai Pankov, the Deputy Defense Minister and one of those who instigated the changes in the conscription rules, accused critics of a “lack of patriotism” and of failing to support Russia’s defense needs. He and others argue that serving the motherland does not conflict with religious beliefs. One of their arguments is that drafting priests will help to reduce the bullying and brutality for which the Russian army has become notorious.

“Several thousand young men desert the army every year because they cannot bear the humiliation, beatings, and extortion of money by the senior recruits,” said Ella Polyakova, chairwoman of the St. Petersburg pressure group, Soldiers’ Mothers.

She believes the move was meant to send a tough message. “Russia has become a police state. True to its name, it has to constantly remind the people who’s boss. The other amendments are equally repressive. Just think about a young man having to leave a sick mother confined to her bed or a breast-feeding wife with no income. The authorities openly show that they see our citizens the way feudal lords saw their serfs.” [St. Petersburg Times, 29 April 2008]

‘Instant’ churches to ease church shortage in Russia

A group of Russian Orthodox benefactors has found a way to ease the continuing post-Soviet shortage of places of worship by devising a plan to provide prefabricated churches that can be erected in 24 hours.

A prototype is now in place at Kemerovo in Siberia, where church shortages are most acute, said Vasily Smirnov, director of the Russian Club of Orthodox Philanthropists.

“Communism changed the Russian landscape by introducing neighborhoods filled with towering apartment blocks, but because of official atheism, they almost never had churches,” Smirnov said. “In densely populated bedroom communities, there aren’t enough Orthodox churches and residents have to travel to the town center. We’re developing some innovative techniques in this sphere for people who want to build churches.”

The buildings, able to accommodate up to 200 people, will be erected in large numbers once the project gathers pace.

The Russian Orthodox Church opened more than a hundred churches and chapels in 2007 in Moscow, where a further 86 are under construction. However, Russia’s 142 Orthodox dioceses and 27,942 Orthodox parishes still have only a third of the churches the country had before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. [ENI, 7 May 2008]

Danger of War in the Caucasus warns Patriarch Iliya

War could erupt in the Caucasus unless Russia and Georgia take affirmative steps to reduce tensions, Patriarch Iliya II, Patriarch of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, warned in April. He stated the border dispute between the two former Soviet republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was in danger of spiraling out of control. He called on Patriarch Alexy of Moscow to join him in using “the role and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations.”

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two northern regions of Georgia, broke from the Tbilisi government following the collapse of the USSR. Georgia has not relinquished sovereignty, but has been unable to put down the Moscow-backed secession.

Four days before Iliya’s appeal, Russia announced it would strengthen its economic and cultural ties to the two breakaway regions and provide “complete protection” to Russian citizens resident in the country. Moscow had previously granted Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“The current condition of the bilateral relations,” said Iliya, “fails to meet the spirit of neighborliness and fraternity of the two peoples. Both sides have made mistakes in their attempts to normalize interstate relations…. I fear that the bilateral relations may reach a critical limit and plunge into uncontrollable processes…. We think that any confrontation, armed conflicts or military actions are unacceptable, because they will lead to irreversible consequences. That is why we think that regardless of the difficulties of launching negotiations in the present-day tense situation, there is no alternative. A peaceful dialogue is the only way out of the current situation.”

Church restoration in Kosovo to resume

The Serbian Orthodox Church has decided to resume the restoration of destroyed monasteries and churches in Kosovo. The restoration will continue in cooperation with the Culture Ministry, international institutions and the UN.

At the conclusion of its spring meeting, the Synod stated that the Church and the Serbian people would never countenance the unlawful, violent usurpation of Kosovo, and thanked all the countries that had not recognized the province’s unilateral independence declaration. [B92, 22 May 2008]

Serbian Orthodox Church relieves Patriarch Pavle

The Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced in May that 93-year-old Patriarch Pavle would no longer head the church because he is too ill to perform his duties. The synod will take charge of the running of the church, while the oldest bishop, Amfilohije, will act as president of the synod and “Guardian of the Throne,” it was announced. Pavle, who became leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1990, has been in and out of hospital over the past two years.

Serbian Orthodox church law states that a successor to the Patriarch must be elected by a secret vote during a gathering at which at least two-thirds of the 40 bishops attend. If two candidates receive the same tally of votes, a patriarch is chosen by the drawing of lots. [ENI, 19 May 2008]

Iraqi bishop urges pressure on US to keep its ‘broken promises’

An Iraqi Christian leader has appealed to US churches to pressure their government to keep promises made to Iraqis to improve humanitarian conditions after the 2003 US-led invasion.

“There is a tragedy in Iraq now because the promises made were never kept,” said Archbishop Avak Asadourian, primate of the Armenian Church of Iraq, during a meeting in June in New York. Asadourian is the current general secretary of the Council of Christian Church Leaders in Iraq.

He lamented that though Christianity has deep roots in Iraq, war is slowly depleting Iraq of its once-vibrant Christian communities. Christianity came to Iraq in the first century, when St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have visited Mesopotamia.

“Our natural resources, which are tremendous, must be utilized for the betterment of the Iraqi people,” said Asadourian. “Until now, the infrastructure in Iraq is in shambles, and people are still waiting for basic necessities, so they may live in a normal fashion. We were promised clean water but what we got is Blackwater” (a US-based private security firm that has played a notorious role in Iraq).

Asadourian described Iraq as “a severely wounded country,” with Iraqis living “under the strain of several hardships stemming from so many wars.” These included, the archbishop said, a 13-year US-led international embargo, “which in and of itself is an act of war” and which was in place before the invasion in 2003.

The 2003 occupation brought with it hope that conditions might improve in Iraq. Instead, Asadourian noted, the occupation had led to five years of terrorism, forcing tens of thousands of people, many of them Christian, to flee Iraq.

“People are aware that they can leave home alive and never return to their families,” Asadourian said. “My cathedral closed for a year and a half because of the lack of security,” he said. “What Iraqis need, before anything else, is security.”

“It is very difficult to live under the shadow of death for so many years,” the archbishop said. “It takes its toll on you.”

Until the military action in 2003, Christians accounted for roughly 3 per cent of Iraq’s 29 million people. Approximately 70 percent of the Christians belong to the Chaldean church, which follows the ancient Chaldean rite but is in union with the Catholic Church.[ENI, 18 June 2008]

Armenian spiritual leader decries Turkeys’ genocide denial

Catholicos Karekin II, leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visiting Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in May, spoke of the genocide suffered by his compatriots in the Ottoman empire, and said that those with power should ensure that justice prevails.

“We appeal to all nations and lands to universally condemn all genocides that have occurred throughout history and those that continue through the present day,” Karekin said in St. Peter’s Square on 7 May, where he had been invited by Pope Benedict to speak at a general audience. “The denial of these crimes is an injustice that equals the commission of the same.”

“Today many countries of the world condemn the genocide made by the Ottomans against the Armenian people, as John Paul II said when I was in Rome,” noted Karekin.

“The recent history of the Armenian Apostolic Church has been written in the contrasting colors of persecution and martyrdom, darkness and hope, humiliation and spiritual re-birth,” said Pope Benedict.

Armenia estimates 1.5 million of its people died between 1915 and 1923 in a systematic genocide initiated by the Young Turks’ government ruling then in Istanbul. Turkey rejects the term “Armenian genocide,” claiming that mass removals were intended to clear people from a war zone. It acknowledges that people died, but holds that the number was far less than that given by Armenia. [ENI, 13 May 2008]

Food crisis ‘artificially imposed’ says Kenyan theologian

The roots of the global food crisis that has led to soaring prices for basic foodstuffs are to be found as much in political as in economic factors, Professor Jesse Mugambi, a Kenyan academic, charged in May. Mugambi, who teaches religious studies and philosophy at the University of Nairobi, belongs to a church environmental network.

“The rise in price is not only because of decline in supply,” he said. “It is artificially imposed by rises in fuel costs and other constraints more political than economic.”

He said there could be no short-term solution to a long-term problem. “The long-term solution is equity, not charity. Equity is based on long-term investment.”

“Food prices have soared, without an improvement in personal and family income,” he said, adding that “current international economic and agricultural policies discourage Africa from growing staple foods in favor of cash crops. Africa is the only continent which produces what it does not consume, and consumes what it does not produce. Tropical Africa has some of the best soils for agricultural production in the world. Why should those soils be used for the production of non-staple agricultural commodities, while some of its people go hungry every day?” [ENI, 9 May 2008]

More than half of US firearm deaths are suicides

Suicides accounted for 55 percent of America’s nearly 31,000 firearm deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, CNN reported on 30 June.

Gun-related suicides outnumbered firearm homicides and accidents for 20 of the last 25 years. In 2005, homicides accounted for 40 percent of gun deaths, accidents for 3 percent and 2 percent either for “legal killings,” such as when police do the shooting, or cases involving undetermined intent.

Public health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater. Studies have also shown that homes in which a suicide occurred were three to five times more likely to have a gun present than households that did not experience a suicide, even after accounting for other risk factors.

More than 90 percent of suicide attempts using guns are successful, while the success rate for jumping from high places was 34 percent. The success rate for drug overdose was 2 percent.

Israeli human rights group warns of grave West Bank water shortage

An Israeli human rights group anticipates a serious water shortage in large areas of the West Bank, the territory Israel occupied in 1967, as a result of what the group says is the most serious drought in the area in the past decade and Israel’s “discrimination in [the] division of water sources.”

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, said, “The shortage will have serious repercussions on the economy and the health of tens of thousands of Palestinians.” The shortage, they said, was the consequence of “unfair distribution of water resources shared by the Palestinians and Israel.”

B’Tselem also blamed the water shortage on limits Israel places on the Palestinian Authority to drill new wells. “Access to water without discrimination is recognized by international law as a fundamental human right,” the group said in a 1 July press release.

The human rights group called on Israel to ensure an, “immediate, regular, adequate supply of water” to all residents of the West Bank and, “to allow the Palestinian Authority to develop new water sources.”

Najeeb Abu Rokaya, director of the field research department of B’Tselem, said, “Even if there is a little amount of water in this area, I believe there is enough for every human being, but we need to plan for it, and first of all make sure that every human being has enough drinking water. God created the world, and in this the water for all people, not just for Jews or Palestinians or Christians or any other group.”

B’Tselem said that many Palestinians who are connected to the water supply reported disruption because Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, which also controls the water supply to Palestinian areas, reduces the supply to Palestinian towns and villages in order to meet the increased need of Jewish settlements.

In Nablus, Fr. Ibrahim Nairouz said that he gets water only once every eight days.

B’Tselem reports that many poorer families draw water from unsupervised wells, resulting in an increase of infectious diseases.

“The average water consumption per capita of Israelis is 3.5 times that of Palestinians,” said B’Tselem. [ENI, 2 July 2008]

A gentler vision of Islam:Turkey’s import to Pakistan

Praying in Pakistan has not been easy for Mesut Kacmaz, a Muslim teacher from Turkey. He tried the mosque near his house, but it had Israeli and Danish flags painted on the floor for people to step on. The mosque near where he works warned him never to return wearing a tie. Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard.

“Show me a verse in the Koran where it is forbidden,” Kacmaz said to the men who insisted Muslim men cannot wear ties. He told the two men, both were wearing glasses, that scripturally there was no difference between a tie and glasses. “Behind their words there was no Hadith,” he said, “only misunderstanding.”

“Kill, fight, shoot,” Kacmaz said. “This is a misinterpretation of Islam.”

But that view is common in Pakistan, where schools, fueled by Saudi and American money, have spread Islamic radicalism through the poorest parts of society. With a literacy rate of just 50 percent and a public school system near collapse, the country is particularly vulnerable.

Kacmaz is part of a group of Turkish educators who have come to this battleground with an entirely different vision of Islam.

The Turkish schools, which have expanded to seven cities in Pakistan since the first one opened a decade ago, cannot transform the country on their own. But they offer an alternative approach, prescribing a strong Western curriculum with courses, taught in English, from math and science to Shakespeare.

This approach appeals to parents, who want their children to be capable of competing with the West without losing their identities to it.

The model is the brainchild of a Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. A preacher with millions of followers in Turkey, Gulen argues that “without science, religion turns to radicalism, and without religion, science is blind and brings the world to danger.”

In one of his books, Gulen states: “In the countries where Muslims live, some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon in hand than their fundamental interpretation of Islam. They use this to engage people in struggles that serve their own purposes.” [New York Times, 3 May 2008]

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

News: Pascha / Spring 2008

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Moscow Patriarchate urges courage, patience to Kosovan Serbs

“We share the grief and sufferings of Serbian people who are deprived of a historic part of their country connected with the history of their spiritual, cultural and national life,” said Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations at a press conference in Moscow on 18 March that followed Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

At the same time he opposed any renewal of warfare.

“In 1914 Russia radically reacted to the Balkans events and then we lost our own country,” he pointed out.

“We speak of our national guilt in the destruction of Russia…. At least the Russian Orthodox Church is not ashamed to speak of this. Serbs likewise bear guilt for what happened.

“But we are in sympathy with the Serbian people and their Church. We must find the way and funds to express our solidarity.”

He added: “If under some circumstances the principle which underlies all international relations can be reviewed and dismantled in one case, then there will certainly be a temptation to review and dismantle it in another case.”

Serbian Orthodox bishops oppose Kosovo independence

On 18 February, the synod of bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church condemned Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, saying it is an act of violence that will have negative repercussions for the Balkans and the rest of Europe.

“Just like uncountable times before, the Church is announcing once more today, that Kosovo and Metohija was and must remain an integral part of Serbia, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244,” said the Serbian bishops in a statement on 18 February. “Any solution other than that represents a violation of God’s justice and of human justice, it represents an act of violence with long-term repercussions, both for the Balkans and the whole of Europe.”

Face up to differences in order to stay united, says Bartholomew

Churches should be prepared to confront their differences honestly and to examine them in the light of Scripture, Patriarch Bartholomew said on 17 February at a service in Geneva celebrating 60 years since the founding of the World Council of Churches.

“The bonds of friendship between divided churches and the bridges to overcome our divisions are indispensable, more now than ever. Love is essential, so that dialogue between our churches can take place in all freedom and trust,” he said. “We shall then acknowledge that the divergences that originate from the different ways in which churches respond to moral problems are not insurmountable. Churches witness to the Gospel in different contexts.”

The Patriarch acknowledged the existence of turbulent periods in the WCC’s life, but said that dialogue that resulted from those difficulties has paved the way forward.

“We recognize that dialogue on ethical and moral questions proceeds on the assumption that the churches are not content to ‘agree to disagree’ on their respective moral teaching, but that they are prepared to confront their divergences honestly, and examine them in the light of doctrine, worship life and Holy Scripture,” Bartholomew said.

He recalled that the WCC was in part a result of an appeal made in 1920, just after World War I, by the Church in Constantinople calling on churches around the world, to form a “League of Churches.” Similar proposals were also made by other churches. “These laid the foundations for the modern ecumenical movement.”

The WCC eventually emerged, becoming a “platform at the service of its member churches and dedicated to increasing the spirit of the Gospel, seeking Christian unity and encouraging cooperation by the churches in their social and diaconal work as they confront the acute pressing problems of humankind.”

The patriarch asked: “Are we today prepared, as member churches, to reaffirm the role of the Council as a privileged ecumenical space, where the churches will freely create networks for diakonia and for defending and promoting certain values? And where, by dialogue, the churches will continue to break down the barriers that prevent them from recognizing one another as churches confessing a common faith, administering the same baptism, and celebrating the Eucharist together?”

Patriarch Bartholomew visits Benedict XVI

On 6 March, Pope Benedict welcomed Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, visiting Rome in connection with the 90th anniversary of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. At the end of their meeting, the two men prayed together in the Urban VIII Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

Vatican Television reported that the main topics of their conversation were peace, the safeguarding of creation, and ecumenism. “The love of God destroys the barriers among the peoples,” Bartholomew was quoted as saying, “and the Christian confessions are making a greater effort on the path of dialogue and collaboration.”

Benedict first met Bartholomew when he traveled to Turkey in 2006. They met again last October during Benedict’s trip to Naples for the International Encounter of Peoples and Religions.

Military Service for young Russian clergy?

Unless the ordinance is reversed, Russia’s young clergymen will be required to serve in the military, it was reported in the Russian press in February. Under Russia’s mandatory conscription rules, members of the clergy and seminary students will no longer be able to defer military service.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church believe that the move will undermine the fundamentals of spiritual education and threaten the priesthood in Russia.

Fr. Dmitry Smirnov, an official of the Moscow Patriarchate, said the plan was “comparable to [Soviet] persecution of the Church.”

“The Ministry of Defense assured us that the conscription of clergymen will raise morality in the armed forces, but these are absolutely empty words,” said Ksenia Chernega, the legal counsel of the Moscow Patriarchate. “The truth is that a priest dressed in a soldier’s uniform can, like any ordinary person, try to exert a share of his moral resources, yet fail to enrich the army with morality or guidance.”

The motivation for the change remained unexplained. The Ministry of Defense refused to comment.

The new rules are problematic, since the canon law of the Orthodox Church forbids clergy from taking up arms or killing anyone, even by accident.

The Moscow Patriarchate has asked the Ministry of Defense to reverse its decision.

Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts

Turkey is preparing to publish a document that has been widely described as a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam.

The proposed revision was authorized by the Diyanet, Turkey’s highest Islamic authority, responsible for more than 76,000 mosques in Turkey and Europe.

In response, Turkey’s Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of Muslim scholars at Ankara University to carry out a revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

While many Muslim scholars have long argued that the text should be revised, this is the first time that a central Islamic authority has taken such a dramatic step.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic laws, or Sharia.

More than 90 percent of the Sharia is based on the Hadith rather than the Koran, including laws on the killing of apostates, the stoning of adulterers, the seclusion of women, and many violent punishments for sinful behavior.

Islamic scholars in Turkey have come to see many passages in the Hadith as obscuring the original values of Islam and having a negative influence on society. They say that many of the sayings attributed in the Hadith to Muhammad in fact were never uttered by him, while some others need reinterpretation. The problem is that successive generations embellished the text, attributing their own political aims to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

An adviser to the project, Felix Koerner, says some of the sayings have been shown to have been invented hundreds of years after Muhammad died. They were written to serve the purposes of contemporary society. As a consequence “you can even justify the practice of female genital mutilation.”

Islamic tradition, Koerner says, has been gradually hijacked by those seeking to use the Islamic religion for social control.

Among Hadiths regarded by the panel as inauthentic are these: “Women are imperfect in intellect and religion,” “The best of women are those who are like sheep,” “If a woman doesn’t satisfy her husband’s desires, she should choose herself a place in hell,” and “Your prayer will be invalid if a donkey, black dog or a woman passes in front of you.”

As part of its program of Islamic renewal, Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, then appointed them as senior imams called “vaizes.” They have been given the task of explaining the original spirit of Islam to remote communities in Turkey’s vast interior.

One of the women, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of head scarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women Islam should never be used to justify the violent suppression of women. “For example, there are ‘honor’ killings,” she explained. “Some women are killed when they marry the wrong person or run away with someone they love. There’s also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment by uncles and others. This has no place in Islam… we have to explain that to them.”

Endangered Gaza Christians consider flight amid attacks

Above: The oldest Orthodox Church in Gaza: Photo MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

The stone walls of St. Porphyrius church in Gaza were raised in the fourth century, a reminder of Christianity’s long role in the region’s history. But the saga may be coming to an end. Christians, a minority of 3,000 among the Gaza Strip’s 1.2 million Muslims, are increasingly menaced by Islamic fundamentalists. Christians say they are on the verge of being driven out.

“Never in Palestinian history did we feel so endangered,” said Archimandrite

Artemios, the Orthodox priest who heads St. Porphyrius.

“We face the question of whether we are part of this community or not.”

Insecurity intensified last June when Hamas, the Muslim-based party at war with Israel, ousted the secular Fatah party, which favors peace negotiations, from control of Gaza. Fatah continues to control the West Bank.

While there are few indications Hamas itself is trying to intimidate Christians, the change brought to the surface underground Muslim groups actively hostile to Christians, said Hamdi Shaqura, 46, an official with the independent Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

“One problem is one that affects all: a state of lawlessness that lets extremism raise its head,” Shaqura said.

In February, arsonists firebombed a library operated by the Young Men’s Christian Association and destroyed 10,000 books.

Last fall, kidnappers killed a Christian bookstore owner and the shop was blown up. Last August, vandals damaged a Catholic church and school

Orthodox bishop seeks recognition for Orthodox in China

Metropolitan Nektarios, the new Orthodox metropolitan of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, says his priorities include bringing about legal recognition of Orthodox Christianity in mainland China. “There are many Orthodox in the port cities in South China,” he told Ecumenical News International on 29 February. “Greeks are working on the ships and they want a place of worship. The pastoral activities are first for the [Orthodox] Greeks, then for the Chinese. There are only a few Orthodox Chinese there.”

At present, the Chinese government recognizes only Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism as “official” religions, even though other religious groups operate in China.

Nektarios also said that promoting Christian unity was a priority. “I want to work very closely and with more collaboration, with some other Christian churches here. We must be together.”

The metropolitan said a major challenge now facing the Orthodox Church is to break down the national barriers dividing Orthodox Christians of various nationalities. “It is a big mistake for Orthodox to call themselves Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. We are all Orthodox. I come here not to change a Chinese to a Greek or to a Russian, but to let the Chinese know about Christ.”

Metropolitan Nektarios was born in Greece in 1969. He received his training at the theological school of the University of Athens and was ordained a priest in 1995. The 40-year-old metropolitan, the youngest prelate of his rank in his church, said he planned to eventually divide his jurisdiction into two. At present, his jurisdiction extends from India eastwards, including all of East Asia except Korea and Japan. One part would remain based in Hong Kong, to cover Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and the Philippines. The other one, based in Singapore, would work in India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Eternal Memory: Metropolitan Laurus

Although he was first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), Metropolitan Laurus might have remained a little-known figure until Russian President Putin invited him to the Russian Consulate in New York in 2003.

Putin had arranged the meeting to hand over a letter from the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy inviting Laurus to visit Moscow. Laurus and Putin went on to discuss how the two wings of the divided Russian Church could engage in dialogue.

Canonical unity followed at a triumphant ceremony led by Alexy and Laurus at the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2007.

Laurus was born Vasil Skurla in the village of Ladomirova near Preshov in rural Slovakia. He decided early to become a monk. In 1939, after the death of his mother, he entered a monastery in his village. He was just 11.

As Soviet forces approached in 1944 and the Nazis fled, the monks feared the worst. Clutching their treasured icon of St. Job of Pochaiv, they fled first to Bratislava, then westward to Germany and Switzerland. In 1946 the monks left for America, settling at the Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, New York,making it the biggest Orthodox monastery in the US.

The young Vasil graduated from the Jordanville seminary in 1947 and the following year was tonsured as a monk, taking the name Laurus. In 1954 he was ordained priest. In 1967 he was named Bishop of Manhattan and was made secretary to the Synod of Bishops. In 1976 he was elected Bishop of Syracuse and abbot of the Jordanville monastery.

On travels in the Holy Land and to Mount Athos, and unofficially in Russia from the 1990s, he was open to wider Orthodox contacts, including the Moscow Patriarchate.

Amid bitter disputes between those who believed the time for enmity with the Moscow Church was at an end and those who believed in preserving separation, Laurus maintained an irenic calm. At the crucial May 2006 ROCOR council that approved canonical (though not administrative) unity, Laurus declined to argue his case for the agreement, merely calling delegates to pray over the decision.

Laurus was not one for pomp and politics. When he and another monk were left on their own at the home of a parishioner, the family were astonished on their return to find the two monks happily playing with their children’s train set. (Felix Corley)

Divine Liturgy at the North Pole

Russian Orthodox clergy celebrated the first Divine Liturgy at the North Pole on 17 April. Using a tent erected on an ice floe, the liturgy was served by Archbishop Ignaty of Petropavlovsk and Kamchatka, two priests, and a deacon of the Kamchatka diocese. In addition to the clergy, 15 worshipers participated. “Our celebration,” said Archbishop Ignaty, “is a sign that the teachings of Jesus Christ have reached the very ends of the earth. We chanted the prokimen and a psalm dedicated to the apostles, ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the earth’.”

The temperature was 25 degrees below zero Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) when the Orthodox expedition arrived at the North Pole. The service lasted for about three hours. The chants were sung according to the ancient Russian Znamenny rospev.

Five sacraments were performed. The mayor of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was baptized and anointed with chrism, becoming the first man ever baptized at the North Pole. Five people confessed, were absolved, and received the sacrament of the Eucharist. A deacon was ordained to the priesthood. There was also a blessing of a two-meter-high wooden cross, a gift of personnel of the ice station situated a hundred kilometers away. It is planned that personnel from this ice station will from time to time be stationed at the North Pole.

New Archbishop of Greece

Metropolitan Hieronymos of Thebes, 70, has become the new Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. He was elected on 7 February by the church’s Holy Synod. He succeeds Archbishop Christodoulos, who died of cancer on 28 January.

Hieronymos is seen as likely to improve relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, strained in recent years, and in general to be less confrontational than his predecessor. At the same time, he is likely to continue his predecessor’s efforts to improve relations with the Catholic Church. In 2001, Christodoulos received the late John Paul, the first pope to visit Greece in nearly 1,300 years. He followed up in 2006 with a visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict.

Hieronymos was born Ioannis Liapis in 1938 in Oinofyta, in southern Greece. He studied both archaeology and theology at the University of Athens. This was followed by Byzantine studies, and post-graduate studies in Austria and Germany.

He was academic assistant to Anastasios Orlandos, a founding member and later president of the University of Athens, at the Archaeological Society of Athens, and was a teacher of literature at the Leontios School near Athens.

“In whichever position the church appoints us, no matter how high, we must know that our leader is Christ,” Hieronymos said.

One in every 99 US adults are now in prison

For the first time in US history, more than one in a hundred adults is behind bars, according to a report released in February by the Pew Center. The US prison population grew by 25,000 in 2007, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of adults is about 230 million. One in every 99 adults is behind bars.

Incarceration rates are higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is locked up. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between 20 and 34.

“We tend to be a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime,” said Susan Urahn, the Center’s director. “Being tough on crime is an easy position to take, particularly if you have the money [to pay the cost of having so many people in prison]. We did have the money in the ’80s and ’90s, but now prison costs are blowing a hole in state budgets.”

Rethinking meat

Confronted with a dramatic rise in the cost of such food basics as rice and wheat, and the impact of bio-fuel on food grown for human consumption, more and more people are asking if it isn’t time to dramatically reduce meat consumption.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years. The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. About 10 billion animals a year are raised and slaughtered to supply world demand for meat.

Meat production consumes enormous amounts of energy, pollutes water supplies, generates significant greenhouse gases, and require vast amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has contributed to the destruction of huge areas of rain forest.

The average American eats about eight ounces a day, twice the global average.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than transportation.

Fr. Patrick Radley

With sadness we announce the death of Fr. Patrick Radley, who served the parish of the Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham, UK, for many years, first as deacon and then as priest. He died during the afternoon of 28 March. He was a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and also served as its treasurer in Britain until his health made it necessary to hand on that responsibility to Seraphim Honeywell. Kindly pray for his wife, Helena, his family and the Parish of the Holy Transfiguration. Eternal memory!

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

News: Winter 2008 / issue 48

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

New Jersey’s repeal of executions

In December, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine signed into law a measure that abolishes the death penalty, making New Jersey the first US state in more than four decades to reject capital punishment.

In a letter addressed to Governor Corzine, Metropolitan Evangelos, bishop of all Greek Orthodox Christians in the Mid-Atlantic States, wrote: “I applaud your resolve and conviction to uphold the sanctity of life, thus honoring our Creator and God who alone has the authority to give life and to end life.

“Indeed, human life is deserving of deep respect and individual human beings are to be treated in accordance to their inherent human dignity. The abolishment of the death penalty is a step in that direction, of restoring human dignity to the sinner, for we are to hate the sin, but love the sinner, praying for their repentance and subsequent reconciliation with God and society.

“The Greek Orthodox Church throughout its history in interpreting the Holy Scriptures, has always placed the highest priority on the preservation of life, as is Orthodox teaching that every human has been made ‘in the image and likeness of God.’ As such, the human being is the most precious of all God’s creation and is subject to divine law, of which ‘Thou shall not kill,’ is of the preeminent statutes.

“In accordance with Orthodox Tradition and Teaching, human beings do not have the moral or divine right to take the life of another human being.

“In today’s contemporary society, which is part of the fallen humanity, sin has entered the world and is prevalent in the fallen nature of man himself, who has fallen out of grace and commits sin, such as taking the life of another. The Orthodox Church exhorts its faithful to show compassion and mercy towards the transgressor, while at the same time abhorring the transgression, allowing Almighty God to judge. It is in this spirit of humility of placing divine law over human law I express my joy at the passing of this legislation which also serves as a precaution against wrongly taking the life of the innocent.”

Metropolitan Evangelos said it was his hope that legislators in the other states under his spiritual jurisdiction will follow “the bold initiative of

Metropolitan Evangelos

Governor Corzine and New Jersey’s lawmakers and bring an end to capital punishment, giving justice and the sanctity of life an opportunity to flourish.”

The number of executions in the United States has declined to a 13-year low, according to a study by a research group that has been critical of the way the death penalty is applied. The 42 executions recorded in the US for 2007 were the fewest since 1994, when there were 31, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Christian bodies express support for Ecumenical Patriarch

At a time when the Patriarchate of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, is facing growing hardships, leaders of Christian ecumenical groups have expressed their solidarity with Patriarch Bartholomew.

On 26 June, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled against the ecumenical standing of the Patriarchate, stating that it is a religious body only authorized to perform religious functions for the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey.

The court ruled that the Patriarch is not allowed to bear the title “ecumenical.”

The title is given only to the Patriarchate of Constantinople as “first among equals” among world Orthodox leaders.

Over many centuries, it has become the term by which the Patriarchate is known throughout the world. Although the number of Orthodox Christians in Turkey is small, the faithful under the Patriarch’s authority number about five million worldwide.

The court ruling declared that the Patriarch as well as officers of the Patriarchate are subject to Turkish law regarding their titles and activities.

On 21 August Bartholomew was summoned to testify before a prosecuting authority in Istanbul after using of the title “Ecumenical” at a world conference of Orthodox youth that had taken place in the city a few weeks earlier.

On 27 August the Conference of European Churches expressed its “strong support” for the right of the Patriarch to use of the title “Ecumenical.”

“We could think of no other church leader in Europe who is so naturally recognized as a key figure in the ecumenical aspirations of the [continent's] churches,” said CEC’s general secretary, Colin Williams.

On 29 August a letter addressed to Bartholomew by Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, expressed the WCC’s “whole-hearted appreciation of the authenticity and importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as an institution and the Ecumenical Patriarch as an office within the wider church world.”

In defense of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Archbishop Demetrios of America appeared before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

“It is very significant,” he said, “that the European Court of Human Rights referred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in every instance … as Ecumenical. Such language is indicative that the recognition we seek is part and parcel of a common understanding of who and what we are.

“The Ecumenical Patriarchate is recognized around the world for its transnational spiritual ministry of Orthodox witness and peace-making and reconciliation in the family of humankind.”

The court ruling has been criticized by a number of non-Orthodox Turks. “It is hard to understand our sensitivities,” wrote Cengiz Aktar, head of the EU research center at Bahcesehir University. He said that present-day Turks “have much to learn” from their Ottoman predecessors.

It was under Ottoman rule that the Patriarchate’s Theological School was established in the island of Halki in 1844. The school has been closed since 1971.

Iraq’s “new martyrs”

Christians are fleeing Iraq and Christianity risks disappearing from the country, says a senior Baghdad cleric, Archbishop Avak Asadourian of the Armenian Church of Iraq, reiterating appeals made recently to Western churches to intercede with their governments about the plight of Iraqi Christians.

“We do have the courage of faith, the outpouring of love, but because of the war, you see death and destruction, the manifestation of evil. Our people are lacking hope, and so they are leaving,” said the archbishop in December.

He said the four years since the US-led invasion had been “the most difficult by far” of his 28-year ministry in Iraq.

“We have new martyrs in the church in Iraq,” said Asadourian. “I know of no one incident in the last four years where priests have converted to another religion because they have been threatened,” the archbishop stated, adding the same was true for lay people. “So in Iraq the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ is strong enough to face martyrdom.”

Young people “are faced each day with death and destruction, they are faced each day with being kidnapped or facing the agony of having a loved one who is kidnapped.”

Despite the hardships, Asadourian, who lighting candles in Iraqleads the Council of Churches in Baghdad, said the faith of the Christians in Iraq has not wavered.

“I pray that the churches in the West will be strong enough to have a say in the corridors of power to remind those in power what they promised for Iraq and that it is high time that the promise is fulfilled. We ask for peace, not only for Christians, but for the entire Iraqi people, be they Muslim, Christian or adherents of other religions.”

He noted that the churches in Iraq have faced conflict situations since the outbreak of the war between Iran and

Iraq in 1980, in which many young Christians were killed. “After that came the Kuwait war, and what ensued after that was the 13-year-long embargo, which in itself was a war. Then we had the 2003 war – and after the cessation of hostilities, we have this, the ‘war against terrorism’ taking place in the entire country.”

“There’s no comparison between Iraq now and [under Saddam],” Canon Andrew White, a Baghdad-based Anglican priest, said in a televison interview. “Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians, probably ever in history.” He said that about 90 percent of Iraqi Christians have either fled Iraq or have been killed after being targeted for assassination by Islamic extremists.

On New Year’s Eve, at least seven Iraqi churches were bombed.

Prominent US hawk admits Iraq invasion was illegal

International lawyers and anti-war campaigners reacted with astonishment after Richard Perle conceded that the invasion of Iraq had been illegal. Perle, a key advisor to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, had been one of the principal advocates for the toppling of the government of Saddam Hussein.

In a startling break with the official White House and Downing Street lines, Perle told an audience in London in November: “I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.”

President Bush has consistently argued that the war was legal either because of existing UN security council because of existing UN security council resolutions on Iraq – also the British government’s publicly stated view – or as an act of self-defense permitted by international law.

Perle said that “international law … would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone, and this would have been morally unacceptable.”

French intransigence, he added, meant there had been “no practical mechanism consistent with the rules of the UN for dealing with Saddam Hussein.”

“They’re just not interested in international law, are they?” said Linda Hugl, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which launched a high court challenge to the war’s legality last year. “It’s only when the law suits them that they want to use it.”

Middle East churches reaffirm dialogue with Muslims

Churches from the Middle East meeting in Cyprus have highlighted the importance of the Christian presence in the region and dialogue with Muslims.

“The churches expressed their great concern about various land occupations and the perpetuation of the sufferings of the people caused by injustices and wars,” the Middle East Council of Churches said in a statement issued on 4 December, following a meeting of its highest governing body.

The MECC includes churches in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Cyprus.

“The assembly of churches is looking forward to the day when the people in the Middle East can live in peace, harmony, and dignity. The churches call on the Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Iraqis to strive for the safety and the integrity of their respective countries,” the MECC text declared.

The assembly stressed the importance of “dialogue, cooperation and communication with all the Muslims in order to build a more peaceful and just world.”

Europe risks signing its own death warrant, warns Patriarch Alexei

In December Patriarch Alexei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, urged Europeans not to abandon Christianity. He said that the failure to do so would be akin to them “signing their own death warrant.”

“Modern Europe will not create a new post-Christian culture and civilization but will simply vanish from history,” Alexei said while speaking at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Other Christian leaders, among them Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, have lobbied European Union leaders to take note of Europe’s Christian roots in the proposed EU constitution. Poland, Italy and Germany backed such a move, but others opposed it, including France and Belgium, citing national laws on the separation of church and state.

In September Pope Benedict said that Europe faces a bleak future unless more children are born on the continent and its people return to faith in God and traditional values. “Where God is, there is the future,” he said at an outdoor mass in Austria.

Metropolitan Kirill meets with Pope Benedict

Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in December, a visit seen as adding credence to reports of a thaw in relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican published an announcement of the meeting but gave no details of the discussions that took place.

The Moscow-based Interfax news agency said Kirill and Benedict had focused on the need to coordinate their positions.

“The participants in the conversation approved of the efforts taken by both churches after the previous meeting between Metropolitan Kirill and Benedict after the latter’s enthronement in April 2005,” Interfax reported. “These bilateral efforts by the two churches were aimed at working joint positions on the most important problems that humanity faces today.”

Orthodox opposition to Kosovo’s independence

In December the Russian Orthodox Church launched a diplomatic drive among Christian leaders in other countries to oppose a UN vote to allow the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.

“By supporting this independence drive by Albanians living in Kosovo, the West forgets the hurt suffered in recent years by the Orthodox Serbs who live there,” Patriarch Alexei said in December.

“In this spiritual cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, 150 churches and monasteries have been destroyed or desecrated, and numerous unimaginable crimes perpetrated to eliminate the Serbs,” Alexei said. “I urge Western Christians to examine their consciences on Kosovo’s projected status and help rescue the region’s religious heritage.”

European Union leaders have been moving towards a plan for statehood for Serbia’s breakaway province.

In Istanbul, Patriarch Bartholomeos told the visiting Serbian president, Boris Tadic, that he supported a peaceful solution to disputes over Kosovo, from which up to 200,000 ethnic Serbs have fled since international control was imposed following NATO military action in 1999.

Leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority are expected to declare the province’s sovereignty following the failure of UN-backed negotiations.

Concerns have been expressed for the surviving Serbian Orthodox minority in Kosovo, who until now were protected by NATO and EU forces.

Global forum a step toward Christian unity

Two hundred delegates from a broad range of Christian churches met in Nairobi, Kenya, in November to discuss the challenges and opportunities for Christian unity. The Global Christian Forum brought together a number of denominations and traditions, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Evangelicals and a wide range of Protestants.

Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, director of the World Evangelical Alliance, welcomed the Forum as “an opportunity to break down stereotypes and also promote greater religious liberty around the world,” particularly in countries where Christianity is a minority religion.

Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America and President of Christian Churches Together spoke of the obstacles to Christian unity. “Our Christian task is to participate with Christ in reconciling the world to God. The fact is that we also have much to do in finding reconciliation among ourselves. We have a challenge towards reconciliation at least to the extent of seeing one another as Christians,” he said.

He echoed the desire of Evangelicals and Pentecostals for further dialogue to more clearly define the meaning of certain Christian terms among the various denominations and traditions.

“Evangelism, mission, witness – we have heard much about these words. We need to do much to discover what each of our traditions means by them,” he said.

“There are certainly sources of conflict and friction around those concepts and those realities. The realities of evangelism, mission and witness eventually will need to be discussed in an open but honest way.”

He affirmed the commitment of Orthodox Christians to the process towards unity, saying, “You and I are living between the first and the second coming of Christ. We are on that road. And in a way that I hope and pray will bring us to reconciliation.”

Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in Ravenna

Papal primacy was the main subject for discussion at an October meeting of the joint Catholic-Orthodox theological commission, meeting in Ravenna, Italy.

Orthodox participants included metropolitans, bishops, priests and lay theologians representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of Serbia, the Patriarchate of Romania, the Patriarchate of Georgia, the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, the Church of Poland, the Church of Albania, the Church of Czech Lands and Slovakia, the Church of Finland and the Apostolic Church of Estonia.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church were present at the beginning of the meeting but left, protesting the seating of delegates from the Estonian Orthodox Church, which Moscow does not recognize.

Despite the absence of Russian delegates, the meeting continued.

A statement issued afterward noted that there was agreement that, before the Great Schism of 1054, the Bishop of Rome had the first place among the other bishops. But the document stated that Catholic and Orthodox Christians disagree “on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome.”

The document said that there must be “synodality,” that is, responsibility exercised by all the bishops together, on the universal level.

The fact that the Orthodox representatives were willing to discuss how authority in the church was exercised on the universal level was seen as a “breakthrough” by the Vatican’s Cardinal Kasper.

Some Italian newspapers reported that the Catholic and Orthodox churches were “on the eve of reconciliation.” But Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, said such reports were “quite misleading.”

“The Orthodox cannot accept a view of the Pope, as bishop of Rome, which sets him ‘over and above’ other bishops,” Fitzgerald said. “The Orthodox would say that the nature of the authority of the bishop of Rome, which developed from the Middle Ages, is unacceptable.”

Fitzgerald said the significance of the Ravenna document was not diminished by the Russian walkout. The talks were seeking to establish a “theological consensus in dealings with the Catholic Church,” something that was not linked to the perspective of any one Orthodox church.

The next meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox commission will deal with the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, and then go on to deal with the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils

US food banks running short of food

US food banks are reporting critical shortages that have forced them to ration supplies, distribute staples usually reserved for disaster relief, and in some instances close.

“It’s one of the most demanding years I’ve seen in my 30 years in the field,” said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Experts attributed the shortages to an unusual combination of factors, including rising demand, a sharp drop in US supplies of excess farm products, and tighter inventory controls that are leaving supermarkets and other retailers with less food to donate.

“We don’t have nearly what people need, and that’s all there is to it,” said Greg Bryant, director of the food pantry in Sheffield, Vermont. “We’re one step from running out. It kind of spirals. The people that normally donate to us have less, the retailers are selling to discount stores because people are shopping in those places, and now we have less food and more people. It’s a double, triple, hit.”

The Vermont Food Bank said its supply of food was down 50 percent from last year. “It’s a crisis mode,” said director Doug O’Brien.

For two weeks this month, the New Hampshire Food Bank distributed supplies reserved for emergency relief. Demand for food here is up 40 percent over last year and supply is down 30 percent, which is striking in the state with the lowest reliance on food banks. “It’s the price of oil, gas, rents and foreclosures,” said Melanie Gosselin, director of the food bank.

She said need had risen sharply. “This is not the old ‘only the homeless are hungry.’ It’s also working people.”

Susannah Morgan, director of the Food Bank of Alaska said, “The biggest problem is that the federal government’s programs are dropping as need is growing.” The decline has affected rural Alaska, she said, where native tribes run most food pantries. She said about 10 percent of the state’s rural food banks have been forced to close because there is not enough federal help.

Cypriot priest’s war on sex traffickers

Fr. Savvas Michaelides, a fearless priest who serves a parish in Limassol, a popular tourist town on the south coast of Cyprus, has single-handedly taken on the sex industry. A 10,000 Cypriot-pound (17,000 euro, 25,000 dollar) bounty has reportedly been promised to anyone who kills him.

He explains he has taken up the fight against sexual exploitation on behalf of the thousands of young women forced to work in the country’s illegal sex industry.

Armed with a booming voice, he speaks with rage of the fate of young girls not only from Cyprus but from eastern Europe and Africa who are forced to work as prostitutes by unscrupulous “cabaret” owners.

“The pimps tell them they are coming here to work as dancers or in bars. In truth, they must become prostitutes, and are locked away, sometimes beaten and raped,” he said. Usually their passports are taken from them, allegedly “for safe keeping,” but in reality to keep them as prisoners.

All this is possible, he explains, because they are given “artistes” visas (special permits for working in the entertainment industry) to enter the country by the Cypriot authorities.

Fr. Savvas was born in Limassol 60 years ago, leaving for Athens at 19 to study theology. He later returned to Cyprus to teach theology, only later accepting to be ordained to the priesthood. “I gave myself time to reflect. I wanted to be sure of my calling,” he explained.

Having learned Russian earlier in his life, he now serves in the island’s only Russian Orthodox church, a tiny building with crumbling brickwork.

Hearing confessions, he became aware of the shocking details of Cyprus’s sex industry.

“The women have told me of the horrible things to which they are subjected,” he said. “I have tried to persuade them to leave the cabaret clubs, but I cannot offer them a practical solution.”

In 2001, a young Russian cabaret worker unwillingly drawn into prostitution plunged five stories to her death in the town. Reports that she had been trying to escape from a locked room drove Father Savvas into action.

“It is not enough to speak the word of God, you must also take action,” he said. In 2004, he opened a shelter for victims of sex trafficking. So far, the refuge – the only such refuge in Cyprus – has helped around 300 victims.

“We help them leave prostitution, return home to their own countries or find legal help if they want to make a formal complaint, which is rare because these women are terrorized,” Fr. Savvas explains.

Fr. Savvas does not hesitate to go out onto the streets looking for vulnerable young women in the cabarets and confront their employers face-to-face.

Asked about the 10,000 Cypriot pound reward that he says has been put on his head by underworld bosses, he said, “10,000 pounds? I had thought bravery was a little more highly valued.” When asked if he now fears for his life, he simply smiled and pointed to the sky, adding, “I have never been afraid of men, only of God.”

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

News: Fall 2007 / issue 47

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

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