In Communion-News- Fall 2010 nr 58

Turkey: monastery celebrates  first Liturgy in 88 years

On the 15th of August, Orthodox faithful flocked to the cliffside setting of Sumela monastery in northeast Turkey after the government permitted the Liturgy to be celebrated there for the first time in nearly nine decades. In May authorities authorized the Liturgy at the monastery once a year.

“After 88 years, the tears of the Virgin Mary have stopped flowing,” Patriarch Bartholomew said during the service.

The monastery was founded in 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I, after the discovery of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a mountain cave.

Around 500 people of local descent were allowed into the fourth-century monastery while around 2,000 people from Istanbul, Greece, Russia and Georgia outside watched the Liturgy on a giant television screen.

The site is of special importance to Pontian Greeks, many of whose ancestors fled the region around the Black Sea during fighting after World War I and were dispersed in Greece and Russia. When Turkey fought Greece between 1920-22, many Pontian Greeks were massacred or died while going into forced exodus. Greece estimates 350,000 people died, describing the event as “genocide,” a term rejected by Turkey.

“For us the Virgin of Sumela is more important than our own mother,” said Charalambos Zigas, a 51-year-old mechanic from Greece. “You have to be a Pontian Greek to understand the importance of this Liturgy.” He said that when his grandfather fled the region for exile in Russia in 1922, both his wife and son were eaten by bears.

Many sought out houses that had belonged to their ancestors. “Everyone here is like me, they came to see the region, find a house. We’ve even met two people from here who say they’re Pontian and we spoke Pontian Greek,” said Greek veterinarian Maria Piativou, 42.

Bartholomew used the event to deliver a fraternal message to other faiths, including Islam. “We would also like to take this opportunity to celebrate the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan,” he said. “We wish for you to live this meaningful month with peace, patience and prayer.”

“The culture of living together,” he said, “is a heritage our civilization left for us. Let’s make that heritage live on, and let us teach all, so that we do not suffer anymore, and families do not perish.”

Patriarch Kirill blesses hidden Kremlin icon

An icon of Christ over one of the main gates in Moscow’s Kremlin Wall, rediscovered after being plastered over following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, was blessed August 28 by Patriarch Kirill in a ceremony attended by Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. The unveiling coincided with the Feast of the Dormition.

“The history of these icons is a symbol of what happened with our people in the 20th century,” said Kirill. “It was claimed that true goals and values and genuine shrines were destroyed, and that faith had disappeared from the lives of our people.”

The icon is located over the Kremlin’s Spasskaya, or Savior, tower, near St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Experts say it dates to the middle or second half of the 17th century.

Historical justice and civic and spiritual solidarity are being restored, said the Patriarch. “What is happening today bears witness to the fact that the combining of forces of the State, Church and institutions of civil society for the sake of achieving mutual and important goals gives us a wonderful example of solidarity.”

Another icon, that of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, on the nearby Nikolskaya tower at the opposite end of Red Square Kremlin tower, is also being restored. It was damaged by bullets and shrapnel during battles in October 1917, but the saint’s face was unharmed.

Both icons were covered up by restorers who sought to save them from the Bolsheviks, who wanted to destroy them during their revolution against tsarist rule. [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Concessions urged for Christians in Turkey

In September the president of Germany’s Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, called on Muslims to do more to support religious freedom for Christians around the world, especially in Turkey, where most German Muslims originate.

“We hope reflection on the faith will lead to the overcoming of tensions dividing Christians and Muslims,” he said. “But we should also remember the difficult situation facing Christians in the Middle East. The Catholic Church in Germany has publicly supported justified Muslim needs, and we count on Christians in Turkey soon being able to enjoy full religious freedom too.”

At the same time, another German Catholic church leader welcomed a recent call by the Muslim head of Turkey’s official religious council for Christians to be allowed to repossess a historic church at St. Paul’s birthplace of Tarsus. “If this church were given back, it would be a signal for the whole world and German society in particular,” said Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne. “Members of Turkey’s government have made many promises to return it which have aroused hopes that turned out to be illusory. But our church hierarchy has never abandoned the ancient Christian principle of hoping against hope.”

Hagia Sofia a place both of Muslim & Christian worship?

A Turkish government adviser has suggested that both Christians and Muslims should be allowed to worship again in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia basilica, currently a museum.

“Hagia Sofia was built as a place of worship. It served people this way as a church and mosque for more than a thousand years,” said Mehmet Akif Aydin, an expert with the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which monitors religious sites in Turkey. “As a Muslim, I’d like it to become a mosque. But if Hagia Sofia were opened to Muslim worshipers on weekdays, it should be opened to Christians on Sundays. It disturbs me that it’s become just a museum and tourist destination.”

Aydin was commenting on calls for the sixth-century landmark to be reopened for religious events, after warnings from the European Commission that Turkey must offer better protection of religious rights as a precondition for joining the European Union by 2015. The basilica’s use by both faiths, he  said,  would strengthen Christian-Muslim cooperation in Turkey, which has witnessed several attacks on Christian clergy by Islamic militants, including the June murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese, president of Turkey’s Catholic Bishops Conference.

Originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, Hagia Sophia was rebuilt between 532 and 537. It became a mosque after the city’s capture by Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was turned into a museum in 1934.

Russia’s prisons seek religious help

Russia’s prisons, struggling with a growing crime rate, overcrowding and shortfalls in funding, are turning to religion to bring moral guidance to inmates. The move marks a dramatic change from the Soviet system, in which clergy and believers were often imprisoned for their faith.

“We have signed agreements with all of the leading confessions of our country,” said Aleksandr Reimer, the director of Russia’s Federal Correctional Service.

Although the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly close to the State in recent years, Reimer said that imposing Russia’s largest religion on inmates was not the goal. “Right now we’re preparing an agreement with Buddhists,” Reimer said in an interview. “We’re providing everyone with access. We’re building churches, mosques and synagogues.”

Reimer said that the correctional service had started a pilot project with the Russian Orthodox Church in four regions of Russia to introduce prison chaplains. He said practical issues needed to be resolved, such as whether priests would be on staff and paid by the prisons or by the Church. For now, while there are churches in prisons and prison camps across Russia, priests visit with varying regularity, said Reimer.

“It all depends on how specific priests fulfil their responsibilities,” he said. “Neither representatives of confessions, nor we today, have the goal of forcing everyone to go to church. Why should we engage in such sacrilege? If an inmate has come to faith, we think that it could stop him from committing a crime in the future.”

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has for its part created a department on prison ministry. The Moscow Patriarchate has already worked extensively with prisons in recent years. Last year the patriarchate’s external relations department held a three-day seminar for clergy and church social workers who provide pastoral care for HIV-infected prisoners.

At Prison Colony No. 7 near Veliky Novgorod, a historic city famous for its churches, a small wooden church built by inmates stands in the center of the prison grounds.

Vladimir Lazarenko, a man in his 50s, told a visiting reporter that he had returned to God in prison. “I was a believer from childhood, but I got lost and got in trouble,” said Lazarenko. “Here I remembered about God.” [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Bartholomew marks ‘Day for Creation’

The financial and economic crisis experienced by many societies could bring about a powerful change to “sustainable environmental development,” said Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on September 1, a day the patriarchate annually celebrates as the Day for Creation. It is the first day of the Orthodox church calendar.

“It is important to note that the current grievous financial crisis may spark the much-reported and absolutely essential shift to environmentally viable development … and not unbridled financial gain.”

“If ecosystems deteriorate and disappear,” he noted, “natural resources are depleted, and landscapes suffer destruction, and climate change produces unpredictable weather conditions, on what basis will the financial future of these countries and the planet as a whole depend?”

Report challenges U.S. reading of Iraq situation

The future of Iraq is more complex and uncertain than the current U.S. narrative claims, according to a report published in September by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq.

The report – Iraq after the Occupation – Iraqis speak about the state of their country as the U.S. military withdraws – quotes Iraqis who express doubt on the effects of the U.S. military “surge,” the trustworthiness of the Iraqi military, and the reliability of public figures and institutions. “Iraqis in this report challenge the simplistic success story that the U.S. is telling about Iraq,” says Marius van Hoogstraten of the CPT.

The report is based on extensive interviews with Iraqi citizens in various parts of the country. It recommends that the U.S. think creatively about ways to support Iraqi society before the U.S. military withdraws entirely at the end of 2011.

The U.S. recently announced an “end of combat missions” in preparation for complete withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.

The report notes that no consensus exists among Iraqis on the future of their country, with some interviewees expecting the security situation to get much worse, while others are more optimistic. However, none expect Iraq to be independent after a complete U.S. withdrawal. “I do not think the American army came all this way, spent all this money to leave [Iraq] a prey to others,” said one Baghdad resident.

Although the report confirms an improved security situation over the last few years, it questions the contribution of the “surge.” About half of those interviewed pointed instead to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities in 2009 as the major contributor to the improved security situation.

While many respondents see the increased skill and capacity of the Iraqi security forces as a positive factor, a majority express concerns about their trustworthiness and independence. Another Baghdad resident spoke of the Iraqi security forces’ lack of “educational aspects in the field of human rights and loyalty to the homeland.”

Respondents also express serious concerns about the credibility of Iraqi politicians, the “abominable state of public services” and the economy, and corruption. “The obscene opulence of some is excessive,” says one interviewee, “while the rate of wretched poverty in Iraq continues to pose a humanitarian problem.”

Tensions among ethnic and religious groups continue to threaten the country’s stability. Many respondents also fear interference by neighboring states, particularly Iran.

In its conclusion, CPT Iraq stipulates that in the waning days of U.S. military presence in Iraq, the U.S. should focus on the Iraqi economy, reconciliation efforts, and a culture of accountability in the Iraqi security forces. CPT stresses that the U.S. must also respect Iraqi democratic sovereignty. “There’s a lot that needs to be done that only Iraqis can do,” notes Van Hoogstraten.

The full report is on the CPT web site:

Nuclear weapons about values says Hiroshima survivor

A Japanese pastor who became a Christian after surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima says his decades-long pursuit of peace has involved a resistance to “nuclear weapons in the human mind.”

In a recently-published autobiography, the 82-year-old pastor, the Rev. Shouzo Munetou of the United Church of Christ in Japan, writes that nuclear weapons are “a symbol of the devil that was produced by egoism, greed, pride, conceit, enmity, hatred.”

Munetou contracted leukemia after being affected by radiation from the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 in the closing days of the Second World War. This led to his questioning why he had survived and what life meant to him. “The problem of nuclear weapons is not only a matter of weapons, science and technology, but also a matter of human existence, values, way of life, and thoughts that do not fear God,” he explains. He says the atomic bombing was “a result of a war of aggression and colonial rule in Asia by Japanese militarism, which cannot be talked about without a deep repentance as one who supported and cooperated with causing the war of aggression.”

Munetou studied in Tokyo and San Francisco, where he wrote his master’s theses on the apostle Paul’s understanding of human sin, and on the relationship between Church and State in the writings of Karl Barth.

“The beginning of my steps as a pastor for 50 years has been simply these two master’s theses, that is, the issue of human sin and forgiveness and what the social mission of one who has been forgiven is,” he writes.

Munetou has been actively involved in peace movements and Christian actions to promote world peace, and has written several books on peace and Christianity.

Christianity as a whole, he said, “has an obligation and a responsibility to continue to say ‘No!’ without any ‘Yes’ to nuclear weapons that are against humanity and the absolute evil that plunges humanity into ruin and is incompatible with Christian faith.”

At least 150,000 people died as a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.