News: Pascha / Spring 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