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The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew speaks to Cafebabel: ''Before the Great Schism of 1054, all of Europe was Orthodox''

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We meet him at his office in Fener, Istanbul a cloudy Saturday morning. This was the first common interview for Cafebabel Greece and Cafebabel Istanbul. We are a bit anxious, we keep looking at the questions together with Ozcan and Angelina. We didnt know what to expect. We are stunned that the Ecumenical Patriarch was about to give an interview to cafebabel..

Well interviewing the ''Eastern Pope'', the spiritual leader of more than 350 millions of Orthodox didnt seem very easy. All this agony passes when he welcomes us. He is smily, he offers us traditional sweets and coffee. ''Its like interviewing your grandfather''..He will speak about everything: from Halki and the environment to European youth, science and Chris Spyrou..

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, recently visited the United Kingdom, and much earlier the Fener. Given that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was the first to lead the dialogue between Christian Churches being one of the founding members of the World Council of Churches, do you regard a Union of the Churches feasible?

From the time of my predecessors Athenagoras and Dimitrios, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been leading the dialogue between Christian denominations. Indeed, we take the lead in what is called “ecumenical movement.” During the Pope’s visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we signed a joint declaration and he recited the “Pater noster’’ during the Orthodox service. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate participates in the Conference of the European Churches. We support the dialogue, although the gap of division is large, since we have been separated for ten centuries. Now we are discussing the issue of the primacy of the Pope, examining what it looked like in the first millennium of our common fate and why this has changed. Along with the filioque, this is the most difficult issue that divides us. The road toward union is long, but we are not discouraged. On the contrary, we do all that we can to bridge the gap.

In August you made the historic Liturgy at Soumela Monastery close to Trabzon, and a few weeks ago, liturgy was held in the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in Lake Van in Turkey.  Do you believe that such actions help mutual understanding and respect for religious freedoms in the country? The next step may be reopening the Theological School of Halki (Heybeliada)?

We are very pleased with these developments, both for the Soumela Monastery (Trebizond) and for the Armenians. It reveals a change in the attitude of Turkey. What happened at Panagia Soumela proved that the place (which officially is a museum) can also once a year serve as a place of worship, as is indicated by the official permission we received. This is something beneficial for all. The Turkish state understands that we are not a threat but, on the contrary, that we love and work for the good of our country. Beyond the material benefits for the country resulting from the pilgrims, such actions are evidence that respect of religious freedom is growing in Turkey. This is a matter of principles and values in relation to basic human rights.

In terms of the Theological School of Halki, we are very optimistic. We believe that the issue will be resolved in the year 2011, with the completion of 40 years since the closing of the School. We are ready to operate immediately in order to accommodate students from Turkey and abroad, just like in the past. We will be able to train our clergy at all levels necessary for the functioning of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which, as you know, has dioceses in many parts of the world, such as the United States, Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, Korea, Hong Kong, Central and South America, and so on.

How do you personally feel the historical weight to sit on the throne of St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch Photius, and Patriarch Gennadios?

It is a huge historical weight. These people were titans of faith and knowledge. Of course we personally cannot attain to their level. But you know, this throne is a cross, which each patriarch is obliged and called to bear. We are the voice of a vibrant institution that has existed in this city, Istanbul, for seventeen centuries and will remain so with the grace of God.

Turkey seems to gradually realize that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not just the local diocese of the Greeks of Constantinople, but a universal institution, and that by not restricting, but rather by supporting its activities Turkey has much to gain. Do you share this view and you have evidence that the Turkish state is changing its policy?

Look, we can summarize the position to date of the Turkish government in a single word: counter- productive.

It is counter-productive not only for us but first and foremost for the national interests of Turkey itself. However, the current developments are positive. It is understood that we do not have and never had, either now or in the future, any political aspirations or interests. At times, some not very serious arguments have been expressed, namely that we are trying to create a second Vatican in Fener. Let anyone come and show us what these attempts have been. These arguments are not serious.

The fact is that we see a change in attitude, and the new Law for Minority Foundations also underlines this direction. It does not solve all of our problems, but it certainly gives more freedom of movement to minorities. Recently, a Rum Orthodox (i.e. a Turkish citizen of Greek origin) was elected as a member in the State Commission for the Administration of all Vakif (Foundations) in Ankara, which meets every fortnight. These are unprecedented developments for us here, and we are very pleased about them. In addition, our Prime Minister Erdogan visited the Greek Orphanage in Büyükada before the ECHR announced its decision, which justified our rights to the property. This was a brave political move by the Prime Minister, full of potent symbolism.

You know, the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox church worldwide is immense, something that is beneficial for Turkey. Our efforts to build peace and promote respect among peoples of every faith is well known, and this is confirmed by the fact that every politician who comes to Turkey always visits the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We are optimistic, then, and we insist upon these rights.

What do you think about Turkish government's new rapprochements toward minorities?

This is a political issue but we cannot remain silent on this issue. It is no secret that we are really glad about these steps of the Turkish government. We support this approach. We hope that it will continue in the future. Furthermore, as we have previously stated, we believe that such negotiations will render Turkey even more democratic as a country, which is precisely the reason we are supporting Turkey’s full EU membership. 

A Greek American group leaded by Mr Chris Spyrou wanted to organize a religious ceremony in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, then they cancelled their program. Were you involved in attempts to convince them to cancel their plan?

We do not know this person. We do not know how he could think of organising a religious ceremony without consulting us in our capacity as the local Archbishop of the city and without securing the Turkish government’s permission. We objected and they cancelled their plan. Nobody can conduct an Orthodox Christian ceremony in Hagia Sophia without permission both from the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Turkish government. Even we are not allowed to conduct religious ceremonies in other countries without the permission of the local churches in these countries and of the local officials.

You have been called the ‘‘Green Patriarch'' because of your environmental sensitivity. Do you think religious leaders are able to affect if not the governments, at least the environmental conscience of the faithful?

It is hardly possible to influence governments. Financial interests are pushing to such an extent that it is not possible for politicians themselves to agree, and we have faced that situation in Copenhagen. But, yes, we think that we are able to cultivate among the faithful a sensitivity with regard to environmental issues. You know, this global crisis is primarily conceptual; it concerns values. We have to understand that we are responsible for delivering our planet to the next generations. We must not continue wasting resources but instead allow future generations to benefit from the goods given to us by God.

The word “ecology” comes from the Greek “eco” and “logos,” where “eco” (oikos) means our home. In order for this to be understood, we first need to appreciate that we are not owners but managers of the world, which God has entrusted to us. Therefore, we should take care of this world in order to hand it over to the next generation. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has taken a leadership role in this effort to develop ecological awareness through its International Ecological Symposia. It is easy to combine modern consumerist lifestyle of frugality that brings Christianity? Many argue that the two models are incompatible.

It is essential to change the present mindset and abandon a lifestyle of over-consumption and greed that inevitably lead to social injustice and inequality. The Apostle Paul teaches that greed leads us to the worship of material goods, which is idolatry, the greatest sin. The Church teaches not greed but “oligarkeia” (namely, living a simple, laconic life). The Gospel says that “whoever owns two clothes should give one of these to someone who has none.” Unfortunately, we have reached the point where we try to grab from our fellow human being even his own clothing!

What can the Orthodox faith and testimony give to the youth of Europe? It's easy to embrace Orthodox concepts and values to a Western European with a Catholic / Protestant background?

As I said earlier, all issues are intertwined with each other – socially, economically, and ideologically. Young people feel unsafe. The Orthodox Church has to offer the original faith as it existed during the first ten centuries of our common road with the West. That is to say, the faith and the Church as the true body of Christ. Before the Great Schism of 1054, all of Europe was Orthodox. Therefore, what the Church is called to offer is the simplicity and authenticity of the christian faith. We teach authenticity, ascetic morality and spirituality. All these are missing from the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

The West was cut off from these values, and this is precisely what justifies the nostalgia that is manifested today. In recent years, more and more liturgical books of the Orthodox Church have been translated and published in foreign countries. Apart from the theological books, one may find spiritual guides in such books as the Philokalia, which is of great interest also to non-Orthodox people. Furthermore, in the Orthodox faith, there is much attention to devotion and worship; and there is greater emphasis on the heart than on the intellect. This is why Orthodoxy may be said to comprise tradition, experience, and condensed wisdom.

Are you afraid of globalization? Many argue that with so many elements bombarded on all sides are threatening to become ''aktarma.'' (blended)

Globalization has some very positive elements that we support. It offers understanding between peoples and creates the ground for people to cooperate and live peacefully. However, as Archbishop Christodoulos used to say, there is also the danger of becoming like “minced meat.” That is certainly not desirable. We advocate that every people should keep a record of its culture, language, etc., that render it distinctive. These elements contribute to the individuality of a people. However, at the same time, we must be creative and not retain these elements in a “closed jar” and reduce them to a form of self-admiration.

You know, the 6th century missionaries Cyril and Methodius were commissioned as delegates of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to preach the Gospel to the Slavs. As a result, they created the Cyrillic alphabet. This is something for which the Greek historian Paparigopoulos accused the Patriarchate, claiming that these missionaries did not convert the Slavs into Greek Orthodox. We say this because the Ecumenical Patriarchate saw these people as Slavs; we believed that we must respect them and preach to them in their own language, but not to change them. In this way, we protected both the Greek as well as the Slavic identity. So now all Slavic peoples – Russians, Bulgarians, and Serbs –are grateful to the Mother Church of Constantinople.

Finally, science and faith are incompatible or simply have other recipients and content? Recently, Stephen Hawking has caused a stir with his statements that the universe could exist without the Creator. Do you regard such statements as meaningful? What is the answer of the Church?

I do not consider faith and science as opposed but rather as parallel roads. They are complementary because they lead to the same goal of Truth. You know, Einstein once said: “Science has no God, but scientists do have a God.” The Orthodox Church is not against science. Indeed, there is historical evidence that our bishops were among the most eminent scientists. Orthodox monasteries preserved ancient Greek manuscripts and made them known to the West. Saint Gregory Palamas studied the philosophy of Aristotle. Furthermore, our Church has a saint named Epistimi (which means “science” in Greek) and a saint Ypomoni (which means “patience”). We did not have any Galileo...

Statements like those of Stephen Hawking are respectable but not binding for anyone. But such statements are provocative and ultimately only divide people. Our approach is that all of the created universe that we see around us – the sky, the oceans, the plants – could not possibly have been generated by chance but in fact have a Creator. A few days ago, I took a stroll in the garden with friends. As I held a flower, I noticed how perfect and beautiful it was and how wisely it was crafted by thousands of smaller flowers that were a feast for the eyes to behold. This cannot have occurred at random.