News: Winter 2008 / issue 48

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