News: Fall 2008

War tests ties between Georgian and Russian Churches

While the leaders of Russia and Georgia exchange recriminations, Christians in the two nations worried about the damage the recent conflict had inflicted on the cherished unity of the Orthodox Church. Both churches have close ties with their national governments, but the prospect of two Orthodox nations at war with each other failed to deter either Russia or Georgia from armed conflict in August.

The two churches expressed dismay. The patriarchs of both the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches issued immediate appeals for peace. The strong urgings were all the more striking for the Russian patriarch, Alexei, who rarely differs publicly with the Kremlin.

"Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it," Patriarch Alexei said in a statement on August 8 as the fighting raged. "Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict."

Two days later, in a sermon in Tbilisi, Patriarch Ilya of the Georgian Orthodox Church said that "one thing concerns us very deeply - that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians." On the church's web site, Ilya added: "This is an unprecedented act of relations between our countries. Reinforce your prayer and God will save Georgia."

The ties between two churches proved strong enough to offer some relief to civilians caught in the conflict. Bringing food and aid, Patriarch Ilya made a pastoral visit to Gori, a central Georgian city, while it was occupied by Russian forces.

According to Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, the Russian church facilitated the visit. He said the Moscow patriarchate also conveyed letters of appeal from Patriarch Ilya of Georgia to President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Both have made much of their Orthodox faith.

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, of the Moscow Patriarchate, told Soyuz, a Russian TV channel, "Only a madman today can declare all Georgians the enemy, and inflame anti-Georgian sentiment in the country."

At a vigil service on the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 19, Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, Russian regions near the war zone, counseled believers to control themselves. "As difficult as it may be for us, under no circumstances must we give way to our emotions," he said. "We must not address our anger against Georgians, who often live among us. For this is the power of our Christianity: not to be like those who raised arms against peaceful citizens."

The Russian conflict with Georgia is the first fighting between nations peopled by a majority of Orthodox Christians and not under Communist rule since the Second Balkan War in 1913 pitted Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania against Bulgaria in a prelude to World War I.

Georgia has a population of fewer than five million, but it is one of the most ancient Christian countries. Its church dates from the fourth century, much older than the Russian church, whose roots go back only to the Baptism of Rus in 988.

Whatever the tugs of unity, the two churches have tended to side with their national governments.

Patriarch Ilya appealed unsuccessfully to Medvedev and Putin not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. "This will give rise to separatism in your country, and in the future you will have many more problems than we have in Georgia today," he said. "This is worth meditating upon."

The Russian church was tepid about Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"The Moscow Patriarchate must take political realities into account," said Fr. Nikolai Balashov, the church's secretary for inter-Orthodox relations. But in resolving canonical jurisdiction over the two disputed territories, he said that Adialogue with the Georgian church" was more important.

Nikolai Mitrokhin, a specialist on the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union, noted that the Russian church had little to gain in the current conflict.

"It is the first time in a couple of decades that the foreign policy interests of the Russian Orthodox Church diverged with those of the state." [Sophia Kishkovsky / New York Times]

Note: A letter from the Orthodox Peace Fellowship sent August 13 to Russian and Georgian Patriarchs is posted on the OPF web site:

Prayers for peace in the Caucasus

With the Blessing of Patriarch Alexei, prayers for the deliverance of the peoples of the Caucasus from Aenmity, disorder and civil strife" were added to divine services in churches of Moscow Patriarchate:

"That Thou mayest bless the nations of the Caucasus with Thy goodness and quell among them enmity, disorders and civil strife; and grant them a peaceful life and length of days, we beseech Thee, O Lord: Hearken, and have mercy!

"That Thou mayest deliver the peoples of the Caucasus from all tribulation, perils, wrath and need, and from all enemies, and mayest surround them with peace and the armies of Thine angels, we beseech Thee, O all-good Lord: Hearken, and have mercy!"

Russia ponders revolutionary past

Russia marked the 90th anniversary of the murder by the Bolsheviks of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children that occurred July 22, 1918, with conferences, concerts, exhibitions, processions and debates about repentance, rehabilitation, and remembrance.

"The evil deed committed in July 1918 marked the beginning of those tragic events that our nation endured in the 20th century," said Patriarch Alexei.

The canonization in 2000 of the royal family, the Romanovs as Apassion-bearers" for their faith and humility in the face of execution has made Ekaterinburg, the city in Russia's Urals region where they were slaughtered, a magnet for religious pilgrims. They come to the Church-on-the-Blood, built on the site of Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs were imprisoned. The basement room where they were gunned down has been turned into a crypt surrounded by icons of the family. The pilgrims also visit a modest monastery of log churches built at Ganina Yama just outside the city, in the birch forest from which the remains of the royal family were exhumed.

Services of commemoration on July 16-17 drew more than 30,000 pilgrims. Some had been walking since April in a religious procession from St. Petersburg that retraced the train route of the Romanovs as they were transported across the country to their death.

The Orthodox church has called on the Russian State to officially repent of the murders. "A state that has not condemned the crime committed against the imperial family burdens itself, and to some extent the nation with the consequences of these crimes," said Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's External Relations Department.

"Russia can't face the future with a free conscience," he said, Aif we think what the Bolsheviks did is normal. Until the state says the murder of the tsar family was a crime and gives a moral evaluation of the actions of those who gave, approved and executed the command to shoot them, who took the family into custody and kept them under arrest, and until this is done on the level of symbolically important state decisions and of clarifying this question in the public mind, Russia will have difficulty facing the future." [Sophia Kishkovsky/ENI]

[Note: In a decision announced October 1, the appeals presidium of the Russian Supreme Court ruled that Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children were victims of "groundless repression" and ordered their rehabilitation.]

Bartholomew and Alexei meet in Kiev

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Alexei of Moscow jointly conducted an open-air divine service in Kiev July 27, marking 1020 years since Christianity was adopted in Kievan Rus'.

Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, Archbishop Hieronymus of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, and representatives of other local Orthodox Churches concelebrated with the two patriarchs. The service was broadcast by all Ukrainian channels.

Afterward Bartholomew and Alexei had a meeting during which the church situation in the Ukraine was discussed. At a press conference following the meeting, Patriarch Bartholomew said, "Dialogue is even more useful when there are problems between the two fraternal Orthodox Churches." The two parties agreed to work on improving relations and recognized bilateral responsibility for "Orthodox unity and common Orthodox testimony to the world," Bartholomew said. He expressed hope that Patriarch Alexei will be able to attend a meeting of the primates of all Orthodox Churches scheduled for this October in Istanbul.

"We agreed to resolve all controversies between our churches through discussion and dialog," said Alexei, adding that an agreement to discuss controversies by delegations of the two churches so that to work out decisions "that would meet our interests" was reached.

A Message from Orthodox Primates

In October, all the primates of the Orthodox Churches met together to inaugurate the Year of Saint Paul. Following a two-day meeting hosted by Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in Istanbul, a joint statement was issued. Here are extracts:

  • The evangelization of God's people, but also of those who do not believe in Christ, constitutes the supreme duty of the Church. This duty must not be fulfilled in an aggressive manner, or by various forms of proselytism, but with love, humility and respect for the identity of each individual and the cultural particularity of each people...
  • Conflicts are increasing due to alienation of man from God. No change in social structures or of rules of behavior suffices to heal this condition. Sin can only be conquered through the cooperation of God and humankind.
  • The witness of Orthodoxy for the ever-increasing problems of humanity and of the world becomes imperative, not only in order to point out their causes, but also in order to confront the tragic consequences that follow. The various nationalistic, ethnic, ideological and religious contrasts continuously nurture dangerous confusion, not only in regard to the unquestionable ontological unity of the human race, but also in regard to man's relationship to sacred creation. ... These divisions ... introduce an unjust inequality ... [and] deprive billions of people of basic goods and lead to the misery for the human person; they cause mass population migration, kindle nationalistic, religious and social discrimination and conflict, threatening traditional internal societal coherence. These consequences are still more abhorrent because they are inextricably linked with the destruction of the natural environment and the ecosystem.
  • Orthodox Christians share responsibility for the contemporary crisis of this planet with others, whether people of faith or not, because they have tolerated and indiscriminately compromised on extreme human choices, without credibly challenging these choices with the word of faith. Therefore, they also have a major obligation to contribute to overcoming the divisions of the world.
  • Efforts to distance religion from societal life constitute [is a tendency in] many modern states. The principle of a secular state can be preserved; however, it is unacceptable to interpret this principle as a radical marginalization of religion from all spheres of public life.
  • The gap between rich and poor is growing dramatically due to the financial crisis, chiefly the result of manic profiteering .... A viable economy is that which combines efficacy with justice and social solidarity.
  • The Orthodox Church believes that technological and economic progress should not lead to the destruction of the environment and the exhaustion of natural resources. Greed to satisfy material desires leads to the impoverishment of the human soul and the environment. We must not forget that the natural riches of the earth are not only man's property, but primarily God's creation. ... We must remember that not only today's generation, but also future generations are entitled to have a right to the resources of nature.
  • We salute the Churches of Russia and Georgia for their fraternal cooperation during the recent military conflict. In this way, the two Churches fulfilled the obligation to the ministry of reconciliation. We hope that their mutual ecclesiastical efforts will contribute to overcoming the tragic consequences of military operations and swift reconciliation.
  • We reaffirm ... our desire for the swift healing of every canonical anomaly that has arisen from historical circumstances and pastoral requirements, such as in the "Orthodox Diaspora," with a view to overcoming every possible influence that is foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology. We welcome the proposal by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to convene Pan-Orthodox Consultations within the coming year 2009 on this subject, as well as for the continuation of preparations for the Holy and Great Council.
  • We reaffirm ... our desire to continue ... theological dialogues with other Christians, as well as interreligious dialogues, especially with Judaism and Islam, given that dialogue constitutes the only way of solving differences among people, especially in a time like today, when every kind of division, including those in the name of religion, threaten people's peace and unity.
  • We reaffirm ... our support for the initiatives ... for the protection of the environment. Today's ecological crisis, which is due to both spiritual and ethical reasons, renders imperative the obligation of the Church to contribute, through the spiritual means at her disposal, to the protection of God's creation from the consequences of greed. We reaffirm the designation of the 1st of September, the first day of the Ecclesiastical Year, as a day of special prayers for the protection of God's creation, and we support the introduction of the subject in the catechetical, homiletic, and general pastoral activity of our Churches...

In the Phanar, 12th October 2008:

+Bartholomew of Constantinople +Theodore of Alexandria +Ignatius of Antioch +Theophilos of Jerusalem +Alexey of Moscow +Amphilochios of Montenegro (representing the Church of Serbia) +Laurentiu of Transylvania (representing the Church of Romania) +Dometiyan of Vidin (representing the Church of Bulgaria) +Gerasime of Zugdidi (representing the Church of Georgia) + Chrysostomos of Cyprus + Ieronymos of Athens + Jeremiasz of Wrołcaw (representing of the Church of Poland) +Anastasios of Tirana +Christopher of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

Russian Church protests monument to KGB founder

The Russian Orthodox Church said in August that it was Aappalled" by a proposal to place a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, forerunner to the KGB, in front of the secret service headquarters in central Moscow. When the statue of AIron Felix" was uprooted in 1991, it was for many a sign that the repression he sponsored was forever gone. In 2001 the Orthodox Church canonized thousands of New Martyrs who were victims of Soviet repression.

Human rights activists see the move to reinstate Dzerzhinsky as an indication of the bent of Russian politics back towards authoritarianism under the continuing influence of former president and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin.

ADzerzhinsky is the demonic enemy of Russian Orthodox Church. His hands are steeped in blood of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. His rehabilitation is contrary to the authorities' course for the revival of great Russia," the Union of Orthodox Believers said in a statement.

The campaign to raise the statue anew came from the Union of Veterans of State Security, angered that the statue is lying in ruins outside Moscow.

No national museum exists to commemorate the victims of the Soviet Gulag concentration camps. In the place were the Dzerzhinsky statue once stood and where he would be re-erected now stands a large stone from one of the Gulag Islands.

Partnership' needed from Jerusalem clergy who had fist fight

Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks who engaged in fist fights at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher in November, following a disagreement about access to the site, need to work as partners to resolve their issues, a senior Armenian bishop has proposed. "We are partners for life," said Bishop Aris Shirvanian, director of ecumenical and foreign relations of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Bishop Shirvanian was the presiding cleric when the brawl broke out during an annual Armenian procession on November 9. The procession was commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross on which Jesus is said to have been crucified.

The Greek Orthodox had demanded the presence of a representative monk inside the Edicule, the building surrounding the site of Jesus' burial and resurrection, during the Armenian-led ceremony. When the Armenians refused, the Greek Orthodox blocked their path and a fight ensued. Israeli police rushed in to separate the two sides and arrested a monk from each group.

"Regrettably it doesn't leave a good impression since two Christian denominations were involved in the fight in the most holy place," said Bishop Shirvanian. "But unfortunately that is not something new in holy places. In history even worse things have happened."

In addition to the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholics, the Coptic Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches share rights within the church.

A 19th century agreement regulates their rights. Any changes in the structure of the church, and even cleaning of the area, must be agreed upon by all the religious communities concerned.

The last incident between followers of different traditions occurred on Palm Sunday when Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests and pilgrims were caught in another altercation at the same site.

Some four years ago Greek Orthodox members were involved in a fight with Franciscans involving the positioning of the door of the Franciscan chapel during a Greek Orthodox procession.

Bishop Shirvanian said the Greek Orthodox failed to honor an 1829 edict during Ottoman rule prohibiting Greek Orthodox interference in Armenian ceremonies. He said the decision is included as part of the 19th century Status Quo agreement.

"I'm sorry that these events happened within the most sacred religious monument of Christianity," said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Aristarchos, chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

USA: More Orthodox converts

A study of Orthodox Christians in America released in October found a larger-than-expected number of converts, mostly from Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. The study was carried out by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California.

The report surveyed 1,000 members of Greek Orthodox or Orthodox Church in America congregations, which represent about 60 percent of America's estimated 1.2 million Orthodox Christians.

Although Orthodox churches were historically immigrant communities, the study found that nine out of ten parishioners are now American-born and that thousands of members had converted to the faith as adults: 29 percent of Greek Orthodox are converts, as are 51 percent of the OCA.

The study also found high numbers of converts among clergy C 56 percent in the OCA, 14 percent in the Greek Orthodox church. In both cases, the higher OCA numbers reflect that group's use of English in its worship services.

The study's other findings showed a majority of Orthodox Christians support allowing married bishops. They also favor efforts to coordinate a common date for Easter, which typically falls several weeks later for the Orthodox due to their use of an older liturgical calendar.

Europeans more religious than was thought

While fewer Europeans are going to church than in the past, a large majority still regard themselves religious, according to a study released in October by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany's largest privately-operating foundation.

"Although everyone has been talking about religion, there has been no reliable information about what people actually believe and its consequences for everyday life," said Martin Jaeger of the Gütersloh-based foundation. This survey looked for the first time at religiosity, rather than just institutional affiliations and self-perceptions. It shows the situation is highly complex; Europeans are much more religious than is often assumed."

A total of 21,000 respondents from 21 countries took part in the Areligion monitor" survey that included 100 detailed questions about belief in a divine being, faith experiences and interest in religion. 74 percent of people described themselves as religious and a quarter as Avery religious."

The highest levels were in Italy and Poland, the lowest in France. Church attendance remained part of normal life for 90 percent of Poles and 75 percent of Italians, with attendance figures of 45 percent for the French and 44 percent for Germans. Only 27 percent of Europeans said they did not belong to any church.

Roman Catholics were more likely to be devout than Protestants, with 42 percent of Catholics stating that they attended church, compared to 15 percent of Protestants, although a large proportion of all ages also saw their beliefs as embracing only certain aspects of their tradition. (Figures for Orthodox Christians were not included in the press report.)

EU politicians have been accused of ignoring the role of churches and faiths, unmentioned in EU documents until the late 1990s.

Although a new Europe treaty acknowledges the continent's Acultural, religious and humanist inheritance," some church leaders have warned that the EU's narrowly secular emphasis fails to reflect social and cultural attitudes. [ENI]

Global warming opens a waterway around the North Pole

Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history for ships to circumnavigate the North Pole, it was announced in August. For the past 125,000 years ice has sealed the route. Satellite images show that melting ice had opened up both the fabled Northwest and Northeast passages. It is the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the rapid progress of global warming.

The opening of the passages has been eagerly awaited by shipping companies who hope to cut thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia, but environmental scientists see it as an ominous sign.

In July nine stranded polar bears were seen off Alaska attempting to swim 400 miles north to the retreating icecap edge. Massive cracking of the Petermann glacier in the far north of Greenland, an area apparently previously unaffected by global warming, has been reported.

In 2005, the Northeast passage opened, while the western one remained closed, and last year their positions were reversed.

But the new images, gathered by NASA using microwave sensors that penetrate clouds, show that the Northwest passage opened last weekend and that the last blockage on the north- eastern one - a tongue of ice stretching down to Russia across Siberia's Laptev Sea - dissolved a few days later.

The Bremen-based Beluga Group says next year it will send the first ship through the Northeast passage - cutting 4,000 nautical miles off the voyage from Germany to Japan.

Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, announced that all foreign ships entering the Northwest passage should report to his government - a move bound to be resisted by the US, which regards it as an international waterway.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51