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If you have a proposal for the OPF Journal  or BLOG, please send us a note on your proposed essay or topic with the form below.



Dear Friend,

We are happy that you have registered on-line for the 2012 North American Conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowdship, and look forward to making your acquaintance (or renewing an old relationship)!  Here is some additional information to help you plan your trip:


If you let us know well in advance how you plan to come, we will try to help with transportation from the airport or station, provide driving directions or otherwise advise you. What we are able to do will depend, in part, on how arrival times and locations are distributed, but we will do our best.


Please make your reservation at the Ramada (if you plan to stay there) as soon as possible. Rooms not reserved after May 1 are liable to be given to other prospective guests. Each conferee is responsible for making their reservation with the hotel, and for any charges they may incur. (Conference organizers should be getting your name and room number from the hotel, in case you needed to be reached after-hours or in case of an emergency.)

If you are staying elsewhere, we will appreciate having your contact information there, but cannot provide transportation, unless you can make it to the Ramada to join other conferees there.

Conference Venue:

All of our meetings on Friday, June 1 and Saturday, June 2, will be held on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley. Nearer to the event, we will give you an exact location where you will check-in for the conference and be directed to the first meeting.

Sunday’s program will take place at the All Saints of North America Monastery, which is in rural Dewdney, British Columbia, about ten miles from Abbotsford. Transportation will be provided, for those who need it, from the Ramada Plaza. If you plan to attend, and need transportation — or, if you will be driving and need directions — please contact us prior to conference if at all possible.

Conference Program:

If there is time, you will be sent a program booklet in advance, so that you can look it over at your leisure. You will also be given a hard-copy when you check-in on-site, so you don’t need to print out the program at home. All sessions are to be held in plenary (no break-out sessions), and each session will include some time for questions and/or discussion.

Upon checking in, you will be given your booklet, a name-tag and some other information. Also available, if you need them, will be pens and notepads.

Other considerations:

Please make sure that we have an emergency contact for you, and that we know of your requirements regarding meals, architectural accessibility or other special needs. if you are slated to be a speaker, be sure that we know your requirements (projector, podium, etc.) prior to the event.

Local Conference Coordinator: Andrew Klager – [email protected]

Conference Chairman: Alexander Patico – [email protected]


Do you want to pay online for the conference? If you did not do so already, you can do so securely here:

Free downloadable PDF of In Communion 66!

Free downloadable PDF of In Communion 66!

In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is available to all members of OPF by mail. If you’ve never read an issue, please download IC66 as a sample. If you find it of benefit and would like to receive each new issue in the mail, please consider becoming a member or simply making a donation to receive the journal (click on the “subscribe” link to the right). If you are already a member, please consider downloading the issue and sharing it with anyone you think might be intereseted or would benefit from receiving it. We think when people read In Communion once, they want to keep reading it–help us spread the word!


In order to reach out to new subscribers, we’re making the whole of issue 66 available as a downloadable PDF file. CLICK HERE!

New Pages!



Articles published in past issues of In Communion >

Dear In Communion reader, June 2009

Dear In Communion reader,

It always surprises me, for a journal of so modest a size, how much we

manage to get into it. It’s a bit like Holland, small but densely populated.

Walking home this morning, having left the paper edition of In Communion

with the printer, I thought about the longest piece in this issue, a

selection of short commentaries from the Church Fathers about the eight

Beatitudes. It struck me that the life of the peacemaker is essentially to

live the Beatitudes. Not just one of them is about peacemaking. They all

are, and none of the eight can be crossed off the list as being less


In one way or another, each of the longer pieces in this issue has something

to do with the Beatitudes. Two dramatic examples are given in the accounts

of how two bishops acted in a way that saved many lives and changed for the

better the direction of the nations in which they lived: Metropolitan Kirill

in Bulgaria, who in 1943 was able to stop a train that would have carried

Jews to a death camp; and Patriarch Aleksy of Moscow, who in 1991 called on

soldiers not to obey orders to open fire on unarmed people surrounding the

Parliament and in the process helped prevent a KGB-led coup.

Peacemaking is rarely that dramatic. Often it’s almost invisible “ a parish

member who quietly works to defuse a situation which, left unattended to,

could destroy the unity of the parish; or someone who manages to talk about

a controversial issue (war, abortion, capital punishment) in such a way that

ears are opened instead of closed.

Peacemaking is rooted in our spiritual life. Without prayer, including

prayer for our enemies and opponents, how can we hope to come closer to God

and to each other? Here too there is much in this issue that we hope you

will find helpful.

*We appeal to you to help us continue the work of the Orthodox Peace


If you are not yet a member, consider joining. See this web page for


What about giving some one you care about a subscription to In Communion?

Your parish priest or to a friend?

Another way is to make a donation to OPF. Just click the donation button.

Thank you for whatever help you can manage.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest

editor and OPF co-secretary

Recommended Reading Spring 2009

A Palestinian Christian

Cry for Reconciliation

By Naim Stifan Ateek

Orbis Books, 224 pp, $24

Fr. Naim Ateek has played a major role in promoting Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Rejecting the misuse of scripture by both Jewish and Christian Zionists, his book offers helpful insights to biblical texts that help sustain Palestinian Christians, descendants of the first Christians.

The book may be even more important for Christians in the West, however, who often have little knowledge of scripture’s rejection of domination and the violence of empires.

The author applies his knowledge of history and culture to stories and parables with such simplicity that they can be told to children. Writing about the Book of Jonah, for example, he shows how literalism and the lack of historical knowledge robs great literature of its power and meaning. He asks if readers today understand the revolutionary nature of the story or its implications for modern-day Israel and its relationship with Palestinians?”

Ateek founded of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem as a means of taking the Gospel beyond scholarship to discipleship and witness, to checkpoints, demolished houses, refugee camps, barrier walls and prisons.

Franz Jäggerstätter:

Letters and Writings from Prison

edited by Erna Putz

Orbis Books, $25, 260 pages

Franz Jäggerstätter, an Austrian farmer, devoted husband and father, was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand, Jäggerstätter had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law.

For years Jäggerstätter’s solitary witness was honored by the Christian peace movement, while viewed with discomfort by many of his fellow Austrians. Now, with his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2007, he has become better known a martyr as challenging to Orthodox Christians as he has been to Catholics.

Here is an extract from his last letter: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

How could a humble farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? We find in Franz Jägerstätter a living answer to such questions.

Jim Forest

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Synaxis Press, 135 pages

In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Archbishop Lazar moves with ease from specific topics in Orthodox theology to corresponding topics in physics, demonstrating that (in contrast to fundamentalist Christian religions) the Orthodox faith and modern physics are compatible.

Lazar distinguishes between facts and meaning. In a physical experiment, one can take very accurate measurements, but without interpretation they have no meaning. Lazar points out that an early astronomer, Brahe, took accurate astronomical measurements, but still ended up with an incorrect theory of cosmology. His facts were useless until they were correctly interpreted after his death by Kepler, his assistant.

Similarly the creation narrative, from the beginning up to the time of Abraham and Sarah, condenses enormous time and vast prehistoric oral tradition into a simple narrative. This narrative is about meaning, not historical or scientific detail. We are reminded that we derive our theology from meaning, not from supposed “facts.”

In comparing modern microphysics to Orthodox theology, Lazar points out that there is no separation between the observer and the observed. The observer in both instances is not extraneous to the observed, but is a participant at different levels of experience, being part of the process by seeking to understand and quantify it. In theology, the observer has intentionally involved himself, hoping to become part of it the living theology of Orthodoxy whereas in quantum physics the observer unavoidably impacts directly on the observation, becoming a part of the process being observed.

One of Lazar’s key points is that almost all apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of “models of reality” rather than of reality itself. When we become rigid and frozen in our models by, for example, using a journalistic understanding of scripture, we deprive ourselves of reality itself. As an historical example, Lazar goes to the year 1500 when the general model of reality for our universe placed a stationary earth at the center of the universe, around which the sun and other heavenly bodies were rotating. The great philosophers as well as the Scripture agreed that this was reality rather than a model of reality, so concrete as to be a dogma of faith.

But the observations of the heavens by Galileo proved the old model was wrong. Galileo came up with the more accurate model of reality in which the earth and the planets rotate around the stationary sun, which caused a conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Galileo’s doctrine was condemned by Rome and Galileo was forced to recant. But even Galileo’s model of reality was not the last word. The sun is no longer seen as a stationary object but a star racing through space as part of a spiral arm of a galaxy a better model, but one which may need to be modified as more discoveries are made.

“Orthodox Christianity is not an arbiter of facts,” writes Archbishop Lazar, “but the healer of humanity, the source of meaning, the path to the authenticity of life and the doorway to eternity and immortality.”

Dr. John Mavroides

The Healing Word

by Bishop Basil of Amphipolis

Darton, Longman & Todd, 13

It is not just the case that much of the universe is not seen; it cannot be seen. This was well known in patristic times, and it is consonant with biblical revelation and the tradition of the Church. In his sensitive and illuminating reading of scripture and the Fathers, Bishop Basil encourages us to look afresh at the creation by acquiring the mind of Christ through word and sacrament and membership of the Church. He is concerned to show that “the universe is ultimately a single integrated whole and in God each part of it is linked with every other.”

In “Healing in the Life of the Individual,” Basil helps us to see new truths in familiar texts by a kind of running exegesis, which assumes without laboring the insights of modern scholarship.

There follow chapters on baptism, forgiveness, the mystery of the Church and the Eucharist, ecumenism and the royal priesthood of the Church.

Bishop Basil breaks new ground in the third section, “Becoming a Healing Presence in the World,” in his use of the work of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and of Maximus the Confessor.

Here are real treasures. I found myself putting ticks against every illuminating quotation from Maximus, just as I was putting question marks against much of Dionysius. But then so does Bishop Basil, who frequently has to fill out gaps in the Dionysian arguments himself.

“We cannot today ignore the development of science,” writes Bishop Basil, “if we are to present our case as Christians in the world in which we live.”

Dr. John ArnoldOne day, a man who was visiting Mount Athos asked several wise elders the following question: “What is the most important thing in your life?” Each time he was answered like this: “It is divine love; to love God and to love one’s neighbor.” He said: “I don’t have love, either for prayer, or for God, or for other people. What must I do?” And then he decided by himself: “I will act as if I had this love.” Thirty years later, the Holy Spirit gave him the grace of love.

Archimandrite Sophrony

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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News: Spring 2009

Albania urged to return religious property

Europe’s association of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches has called on Albania to return all religious property seized from religious communities during 46 years of Communist rule that followed the Second World War.

“Even after 18 years of democracy, much of the property confiscated under Communism still has to be returned to the churches and other religious communities,” the Conference of European Churches said in a statement made public 11 February during a meeting in Tirana.

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania hosted the meeting. He came from Greece to Albania in 1992 to head the Orthodox Church of Albania and to help rebuild its life. Since then, more than 150 new churches have been built, 70 monasteries and historical monuments restored and 160 churches repaired. At the same time, the Orthodox church has initiated activities in the fields of health, education, social engagement, agricultural development, culture, environment and interfaith dialogue. There are now about 140 clergy serving the Church in Albania.

Albania declared itself “cleansed of religion” in 1967, under its communist leader Enver Hoxha, and declared “the world’s first fully atheist state.” All religious activity, even in homes, was strictly forbidden.

The church grouping’s leaders welcomed the freedom of religion that now exists in Albania following the end of Communism in 1991. But they expressed concern about the failure of the authorities to return the property of religious communities. They urged the government to “reconsider, without delay, the return of all sacred places … with all their associated land.” [ENI]

Russian Orthodox Church and Vatican relations warm

Pope Benedict meeting Kirill before his election as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church

Festivities in Rome in late May for the dedication of an Orthodox church, St. Catherine the Great Martyr, on the grounds of the Russian Embassy near the Vatican, attested to a marked warming of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican. If trends hold true, a meeting of the pope and the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Russia may be close.

While in Rome, Orthodox clergy also conducted a service at San Clemente, one of Rome’s most ancient churches.

Pope John Paul long dreamed of visiting Russia and mending relations with its Orthodox church, the world’s largest, but he was never invited to Russia.

Relations have warmed since Patriarch Kirill’s election as the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In March, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to a ceremony in Bari, Italy, where the Italian government handed back to Russia a church and pilgrimage center built in the czarist era. “How could we not recognize that this beautiful church awakens in us the nostalgia for full unity and maintains alive in us the commitment to work for union among all the disciples of Christ,” he wrote.

As Metropolitan of Smolensk, in 2006 Kirill wrote the foreword to the first Russian-language edition of Pope Benedict’s book Introduction to Christianity. “The traditionalism of Benedict XVI offers a profound view, a wise insight into the essence of things,” Kirill wrote. “It is my deep conviction that this must be the approach of all Christians desiring to remain loyal to the never-aging Tradition of the Ancient Church in the face of the latest in a series of onslaughts of totalitarian relativism, which we are observing today.”

Ironically, while shared theological values unite the new patriarch and Benedict, Kirill has been under attack by Orthodox fundamentalists in Russia, in part for an outgoing style and presence that more readily recall John Paul II.

Tensions between Moscow and some of the world’s Orthodox churches are a stumbling block to relations with the Catholic Church. Moscow and Constantinople have been wrestling for centuries over jurisdictional issues, and with renewed vigor since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Moscow Patriarchate chafes especially when the Patriarch of Constantinople is described as the Orthodox pope. [Sophia Kishkovsky]

Afghan civilian deaths rose steeply in 2008

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan leapt by nearly 40 percent in 2008, according to a United Nations survey released in February. It provides the latest objective measure of how the intensifying violence between the Taliban and American-led forces is ravaging that country.

The death toll 2,118 civilians killed in 2008, compared with 1,523 in 2007 is the highest since the Taliban government was ousted in November 2001, at the outset of a war.

The report found that the Taliban and other insurgents caused the majority of the civilian deaths, mainly through suicide bombers and roadside bombs, many aimed at killing as many civilians as possible.

But the report also found that Afghan government forces and those of the American-led coalition killed 828 people last year, up sharply from the previous year. Most of those were killed in airstrikes and raids on villages, which are often conducted at night.

Civilian deaths have eroded public support for the war and inflamed tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who has bitterly condemned the American-led coalition for their share of the rising toll.

An interview with Syed Mohammed, an elderly survivor of one raid, was published in February in The New York Times. Mr. Mohammed recalled how one day last September his son’s family was wiped out in an American-led raid.

Mr. Mohammed said he was awakened in the early morning to the sound of gunfire and explosions. In a flash, Mr. Mohammed said, several American and Afghan soldiers kicked open the door of his home. The Americans, he said, had beards, an almost certain sign that they belonged to a unit of the Special Forces, which permits uniformed soldiers to grow facial hair.

“Who are you?” Mr. Mohammed recalled asking the intruders. “Shut up,” came the reply from one of the Afghan soldiers. “We are the government.” Mr. Mohammed said he was taken to a nearby base, interrogated for several hours, then let go as sunrise neared.

When he returned home, he went next door to his son’s house, only to find that most of his family had been killed: the son, Nurallah, and his pregnant wife and two of his sons, Abdul Basit, age 1, and Mohammed, 2. Only Mr. Mohammed’s 4-year-old grandson, Zarqawi, survived. “The soldiers had a right to search our house,” Mr. Mohammed said. “But they didn’t have a right to do this.”

Bullet holes still pockmarked the Nurallah home more than four months after the attack, and the infant’s cradle still hung from the ceiling. The day after the attack, a senior Afghan official came to the door and handed Mr. Mohammed $800.

The UN report also said the airstrikes that went awry were often those called in by troops under attack.

Under such circumstances, some of the normal rules may not apply. An American attack in the western Afghan village of Azizabad last August highlighted these tensions. An American AC-130 gunship struck a suspected Taliban compound, killing more than 90 people.

In May, approximately 140 civilians died in a single US bombing error. Bombs hit houses in two villages in western Farah province in which mostly women and children were hiding. There had been Taliban forces in the area, but survivors said they had left before the bombs were dropped.

A common date for Easter?

The hope that all Christians will celebrate Easter on the same day in the future was reaffirmed by an international ecumenical seminar in mid-May organized by the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

The problem is nearly as old as the Church itself. As Christianity started to spread around the world, Christians came to differing results on when to commemorate Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, due to the different reports in the four gospels on these events.

Attempts to establish a common date for Easter began with the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. It established that the date of Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. However, it did not fix the methods to be used to calculate the timing of the full moon or the vernal equinox.

Nowadays the Orthodox churches use the 21st of March on the Julian calendar as the date of the equinox, while the churches of the Western tradition that is the Protestant and Catholic churches base their calculations on the Gregorian calendar. The resulting gap between the two Easter dates can be as much as five weeks.

All participants at the seminar, which included Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologians from a variety of European countries, endorsed a compromise proposed at a World Council of Churches consultation in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997. The proposal was to keep the Nicaea rule but calculate the equinox and full moon using the accurate astronomical data available today, rather than those used many years ago.

Participants at the seminar expressed the hope that the years 2010 and 2011, when the coincidence of the calendars will produce a common Easter date, would serve as a period during which all Christians would join their efforts “to make such coincidence not to be an exception but rather a rule” and prepare for an Easter date based on exact astronomical reckoning and celebrated by all Christians on 8 April 2012.

However, the seminar entitled “A common date for Easter is possible” did not turn a blind eye to what participants considered to be “the main problem”  “not the calculations, but the complex relations and lack of trust among different Christian denominations due to long divisions.”

Orthodox theologian Prof. Antoine Arjakovsky, director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, pointed out: “While the astronomic reckoning of the Nicean rule comes closer to the Gregorian calendar than to the ancient Julian one, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches did take a step towards the Orthodox churches in Aleppo, accepting that the date of Easter should be established on the base of a cosmic calendar rather than by a fixed date as had been proposed prior to the inter-Orthodox meeting in Chambésy in 1977.”

Frequently asked questions about the date of Easter

More information about the seminar: activity/one.easter/.

Efforts to save a Cypriot monastery

The Conference of European Churches has criticized Turkey’s lack of legal protection of churches, and called on European institutions to protect the country’s Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

“The Conference of European Churches is deeply concerned about the threat to the survival of the monastery,” said Rüdiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission and associated general secretary of CEC. “We invite political leaders to do everything in their power to protect the continued existence of the monastery.”

Muslim village leaders from southeastern Turkey have begun legal action to take possession of lands belonging to the Assyrian monastery of Saint Gabriel. The monastery was established in 397 AD, and those who support its retention by its Christian inhabitants note that the monastery was founded before the birth of Islam.

In a statement issued in December, CEC urged the Turkish government to prevent the expropriation of the monastery and its land, calling on the government to respect the right for Christianity to be freely practiced within the monastery, and criticized what it described as the lack of legal protection for Christian churches in Turkey.

The Mor Gabriel monastery is in the Tur Abdin region of Turkey. The building belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church and is headed by Archbishop Timotheos Samuel Aktas. About 60 monks, nuns and young people, who attend surrounding schools, live in the monastery. Around 70,000 guests visit the monastery every year.

CEC said that since mid-2008 it had received reports that Kurdish and Arab villagers in the neighborhood had occupied land belonging to the monastery.

Rabbi rues that religion is part of Middle East problem

Religion has been part of the problem in the Middle East, but now needs to be part of the solution, says Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights.

At the end of January, the Jerusalem-based group helped to bring religious leaders of different faiths to an Israeli hospital where both wounded Israeli soldiers and wounded Gazan civilians were being treated.

“We want to be the voice of peace of every single person to stand up and speak together and to be heard at this troubling time,” said Ascherman.

Pastors, priests, rabbis and imams mourned the dead from both sides and prayed for the healing of all the wounded, the organizers said.

At a separate ecumenical church meeting, Bishop Munib Younan, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said, “The church, with its diverse denominations, can speak in unison about economics with ethics and politics with morals.”

Calling on the church to unite around working for justice, Younan pointed to circumstances in the Palestinian region of Gaza, saying, “The situation in Gaza will not be made right by relief. It will only be made right by justice… The Lord does not call for us to sympathize with captives but to release them.”

Rabbis for Human Rights organized the 27 January gathering in partnership with Jerusalem Peacemakers, an interfaith network of peace-builders. The two groups said they brought together the leaders of different faiths to “raise our voices to express our pain over the death and destruction inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians”.

The religious leaders met in front of Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, and representatives of the group visited both Palestinian and Israeli children wounded in the attacks.

Prayers of mourning in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions were read out and there were calls for justice, healing and reconciliation.

“There is some truth that historically religion has been part of the problem in this region and we believe it should be part of the solution,” said Ascherman.

Israeli forces withdrew on 18 January from Gaza after a three-week war that left more than 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Israel said it had achieved its objectives of weakening Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which controls Gaza and which had been launching missiles into Israeli southern border towns for the past eight years.

Rabbis for Human Rights and Jerusalem Peacemakers said they were asking for God’s help to do teshuvah, the Hebrew term for repentance, which means literally to “turn to God,” and cheshbon nefesh, or accounting of the soul.

The gathering was “very somber and hopeful,” said Eliyahu McClean, co-director of Jerusalem Peacemakers.

“We wanted to give a message especially in the aftermath of the war where there is so much anger and hatred between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel, not to mention Palestinians. that religious leaders are sticking together for reconciliation and healing,” said McClean. “Our destiny is a shared one and we need to find a path forward to reconciliation.”

Summer 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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Letter from Damascus

At the invitation of the Grand Mufti of Damascus, during the last week of April Archbishop Lazar Puhalo was in Syria to represent the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in a Christian-Islamic “Conversation.”  Here is his report:

Archbishop Lazar and monastery cat. Photo by Jim Forest

Our small group included various Canadian Christians plus several members of the Islamic community of Edmonton, Alberta. Two were Orthodox: David Goa (of the Chester Ronning Center of the University of Alberta) and myself (representing the Orthodox Peace Fellowship). We had come to hear an Arabic and Islamic perspective on justice and peace. We went to Damascus with little idea of what to expect.

Arriving late on 25 April, we were met by Sheik Ahmad Badereddine Hassoun, the Mufti of Damascus, and a small group of officials. Officials had arranged a swift passage through customs and passport control. We were then off to a sumptuous multi-course midnight supper of a kind that would only be seen in the Arab world.

It is a commonplace of conferences that more ideas are exchanged over meals and at in-between moments than during formal presentations. Conversation at the meal focused on Gaza, which remained the main topic at all such gatherings.

Our first semi-formal dialogue took place the following evening in the palace adjacent to the Umayyed Mosque in Damascus. Accompanied by Islamic clergy, civil officials and senior students, the Mufti arrived to preside. We were asked to speak briefly about why we had come to Syria. It was obvious that our hosts were “taking the measure” of each of us.

Speaking as a delegate of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, I suggested that our purpose was two-fold. First, we wanted to hear the concerns and aspirations of the Islamic community, and second, we wished to explore common ground in relation to social justice, peace and the ecological problems facing all mankind. Ecological problems threaten the Middle East in a catastrophic way.

It became clear that the agenda for this entire round of talks would be exploratory rather than concrete, and that the results of this visit would determine whether future conferences of more substance might be feasible.

Vocabulary always presents a problem in intercultural exchanges, and this was no exception. Differences in meaning also occur in discussions between Canadians and Americans, but with cultures that differ as deeply as ours and that of the Arab world, much time is spent in deciphering each other. When such emotionally charged words as love, peace, justice and security are used, how do we know what they actually mean when spoken by strangers from a very different culture? This is especially the case when one is as deeply traumatized as Islamic culture has been in our era. How do they know what we mean, even though we use the same words?

It is not simply a matter of the religious and ethnic cultural differences that form a nebula around these issues, but the economic realities of our respective regions also make a difference. When we speak about security, we tend to refer first of all to economic security. Where a general poverty prevails, economic security is not the central meaning of the word. Part of our goal in Damascus was to see to what degree we can resolve such differences in understanding.

It was my aim, as an OPF representative, to foster an awareness of the need for sharing earth’s dwindling resources in a more equitable manner, and ultimately this necessitates setting aside those particularities which incline us to identify our own needs and sensitivities above those of others.

At the same time, we should be aware of the absoluteness of Islamic religious-ideological foundations and be prepared to engage them graciously. Without this, there can be no progress in dialogue.

Our time was not only spent at events arranged by our hosts. There was free time for informal activities according to our own interests “ time to wander in the city and engage in chance conversations.

There is no question that Syria is an interesting place to be. Though it is a secular dictatorship, there is considerable freedom in the non-political aspects of life.

What was obvious on the street was the rapid Europeanization of the younger generation. In Syria, the iconography of this evolution is clear on the T-shirts, in clothing advertisements and the display of brand names. It becomes clear that many of the problems and much of the angst that faces Christianity in North America must also occupy the minds of Moslems.

It is just as clear that this ubiquitous metamorphosis which is homogenizing humanity is reversible neither by preaching, compulsion nor violence; and there can be little doubt that fear of these changes is a generating forces in stimulating terrorism in Islam. The era in which religion could be used to repress the human spirit and persecute the outcasts of society is slowly ending around the world.

We Orthodox Christians may yet be forced back to a living faith in place of ideological religion in order to continue to realize the Gospel as Christ Himself taught it.

The separation of cultural ideology and faith will take much longer in the Islamic world. The concept of the ulema, the theocratic state, is so much a part of the reality and ideology of Islam that it will be dismantled only with great stress and trauma, far more even than in America, where the fantasy of a covenant theocracy still lingers quite strongly in the “religious right.”    ❖

Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) is a retired hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America. He is abbot of All Saints Monastery in Dewdney, British Columbia, Canada, author of numerous books, and initiator of the OPF group in Canada.


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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Three days in August

Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Parliament Building on August 19th, 1991

On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”

Gorbachev, still president, was under house arrest, but president-elect Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles,  as “the White House.” First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.

The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known “ a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.

Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.

Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country “ a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.

Father Aleksy

Father Aleksy

As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.” All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.

The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:

“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.

“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.

By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.

Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy, so often portrayed as a KGB agent.

“ Jim Forest (making use of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard; Princeton University Press, 2009)


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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A Bishop who Stood in the Way

by Jim Forest

In 1941, after a period of neutrality, Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany. This was a decision partly motivated by the Bulgarian government’s wish to regain neighboring territories that it had lost in previous wars. Early in 1943, the government in Sofia signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.

Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews and prepared boxcars to take them to the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland, where approximately 850,000 people almost all Jews perished.

Word of the planned deportation leaked out, triggering protests throughout Bulgaria. Opposing the deportation, Vice President of Parliament Dimitar Peshev managed to force its temporary cancellation; but it was only a brief delay.

On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. Kirill pushed through the SS officers guarding the area his authority and courage were such that no one dared stop him and made his way to the Jews inside the boxcars.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, he shouted a text from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill whose protest had the blessing of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Hitler years opened one of the boxcars in which Jews had been packed like sardines and tried to get inside, but now SS officers stopped him. However, when one door is locked, often another is left open. Kirill next walked to the front of the train, declaring he would lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

News of Metropolitan Kirill’s act of civil disobedience spread quickly. Some 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Leaders of all the political parties sent protests to the government and the King. The next day the Jews were freed and returned to their homes.

The struggle was not over. On April 15, King Boris arranged a meeting of the Holy Synod at his palace to persuade the bishops to support anti-Jewish policy and the Nazi deportation plans. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” He called upon the patriotism of the Church to accept the laws enacted by the Parliament, but his counsel was rejected by Metropolitans Stephan, Kirill and other Synod members.

In May, Sofia’s Jews received deportation orders to the countryside. The Jewish community’s two chief rabbis, Daniel Zion and Asher Hannanel, asked Metropolitan Stephan to shelter them and pleaded for the cancellation of the deportation order. Stephan sent a number of messages to the King, pleading for him to have mercy on the Jews. “Do not persecute,” he wrote, “so that you, yourself, will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, Boris, that God in heaven is keeping watch over your actions.”

The sudden death of King Boris in September 1943 stopped the deportation attempts once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000, making Bulgaria the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.

Metropolitan Stephan entered eternal life in 1957, and Metropolitan Kirill in 1971. In 2003, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognized both bishops as Righteous Among the Nations.

❖ Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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