News – Pascha 2011 / IC 60


Serbian Nuns Learn Language of Albanian Muslims

The eight nuns of a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Sokolica, in religiously polarized Kosovo have decided to learn Albanian so they can talk to Albanian Muslims who come to pray at an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.

Muslims from all over Kosovo flock to the Sokolica monastery because they believe its 14th-century sculpture of the Sokolika Virgin can cure deaf-mute children and help childless couples become pregnant. The famous sculpture is adorned with gold necklaces, bracelets and strings of pearls from grateful pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim. "It cures not only their people but also our people," said a Muslim neighbor.

The monastery, surrounded by the Muslim village of Boletin, is located in the mountains that overlook the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

"When Muslims ask how to pray, we tell them to pray in their own language and in the way they are taught to," the 67-year-old head of the monastery, Mother Makarija, told Agence France Presse. "We let them praise their Allah as we do our God."

"Our door is open for all who come, both Christian and Muslims. If Muslims think our sacred sculpture can help them, then they are welcome," said Mother Makarija.

"But speaking the languages of neighbors is a must," she said. "I don't want our sisters to talk to the neighbors and Albanians who visit the monastery in English but in Albanian. I am always looking for [Albanian] textbooks. I may be too old for it but my nuns must learn Albanian." (The abbess speaks Serbian, English, German and Greek.)

Local villagers tell how the abbess braved heavy fighting during the war to take a pregnant Boletin woman to deliver her baby at a Serbian hospital in Mitrovica. "It was dangerous even for her, despite the fact that she was a nun," said Besim Boletini, who lives next door to the monastery.

Muslim villager Mustafa Kelmendi, 67, said Mother Makarija had saved his son Basri from Serb paramilitaries twice. "The war brought chaos ... However she did not allow Serb forces to stay in the convent even when fighting was going on in the area."

The nuns are well known as fresco painters and iconographers. "That is our main income," said Mother Makarija.


Bishop Applauds End of Death Penalty in Illinois

When Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed legislation on March 9 ending the death penalty in his state, among those in attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.

The Bishop praised the governor's decision to sign the bill, which commuted the sentences of fifteen death row inmates.

Bishop Demetrios said, "This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment.... On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy. Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of sixteen states that have abolished the death penalty. There is much work to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world."

Bishop Demetrios was the spiritual advisor to the last death row inmate in Illinois, Andrew Kokaraleis, executed in 1999.

Since that time he has worked tirelessly as an advocate in the movement to end the death penalty. He noted his hopes for moratoriums in Indiana and Missouri as well.


Russian Church Seeks to Reduce Abortion Rate

Russian women who feel driven by dire financial need to abort their babies may soon have help in choosing another option.

Patriarch Kirill has proposed several measures to reduce Russia's high abortion rate, one of which is to give financial aid to women driven to abortion by poverty.

Among other measures, Kirill urged the Ministry of Health and Social Development to embrace a guiding principle "that makes preservation of pregnancy a priority task for the doctor and bans medical initiatives on its interruption."

Other policy suggestions included a two-week waiting period after signing an "informed consent" document, networks of orphanages for mothers in great need, and crisis pregnancy centers with religious representatives in every hospital.


Pan-Orthodox Meeting in Switzerland Fails

In late February a meeting was convened at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Chambesy, Switzerland to seek consensus on preparations for a pan-Orthodox council, but the meeting ended after four days without obtaining its objectives.

Diptychs, a term that describes the order in which local Orthodox churches commemorate each other at services, was one of the issues blocking plans for what would be the first church council in 1,200 years.

A leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church cited its founding in the fifth century in explaining why his church insists in demanding greater recognition.

If the Georgian church agrees to remain in ninth place in the diptychs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches, said Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe, "it means that we cross out our entire history. That is why we cannot agree with this under any circumstances."

Another area of tension is the relationship between Constantinople and Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox Church in the world, chafes at any suggestion that the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as Ecumenical Patriarch, is comparable to the pope.

Both Moscow and Constantinople agree that Orthodoxy needs to streamline procedures for making statements and granting independence but are at odds how this is to be done.

"This is exactly why the Catholic Church had the Second Vatican Council, because it clarified many questions," said Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who represented Constantinople at Chambesy.

"It's not because the Catholic Church had its synod that we have got to have ours, but I think everyone agrees to the need for a clear unanimous position of our church. We cannot just be preparing for 50 years and not come to an agreement."

Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, a representative of the Russian church at Chambesy, said that statements that are presented as the unified position of Orthodoxy should not come across as solely the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

"In order for the Ecumenical Patriarch to speak on behalf of all the churches, there needs to be prior consultation to exchange opinions," he said.

Another issue is granting autocephaly. Metropolitan Emmanuel said the procedure for granting independence discussed at Chambesy would have the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaim autocephaly and sign a tomos (a declaration of independence) that would then be forwarded for signing by primates of all the other churches. But not all churches, he said, agree with the form the signatures would take. Balashov said Moscow has no qualms with the Ecumenical Patriarch signing first, but that discussion arose over whether his signature "should in some other way fundamentally stand out from that of all the other primates."


Russian Patriarch Kirill and Cardinal Koch Meet

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Cardinal Kurt Koch, representing the Vatican, met in Moscow behind closed doors on March 16 as a preliminary visit, anticipating the possibility of a future meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict XVI. Theological dialogue between the two churches headed the agenda.

Such a meeting, said Cardinal Koch, "must become a Christian witness to the world, and that's why such a meeting requires very thorough participation ... the qualitative content of such a meeting is immeasurably more important than the quantitative indicators."

Kirill and Koch also discussed anti-Christian sentiment both in regions of the world where there is persecution of Christians, and also in Europe.

Koch said his visit to Russia "made a very deep impression on me." Many Westerners, he said, "do not understand the full depth of the tragedy that befell the Russian people and the full scale of the crimes of Stalin."


IOCC Launches Relief Effort in Japan

With an initial emergency grant of $25,000, International Orthodox Christian Charities quickly began providing medicine, food and other essential items to communities in the earthquake and tsunami-damaged coastal districts of Japan. Assistance is being distributed by the Orthodox Church in Japan in cooperation with regional authorities.

Initial efforts by IOCC and the Orthodox Church in Japan will focus on an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people who have been displaced from coastal communities by the earthquake and tsunami. The Church is also working to assess the needs of people displaced from the cities of Ishinomaki, Yamada and Kesennuma, made largely inaccessible because of the damage.

"The suffering and hardship of the victims in these ruined areas is indescribably serious and severe now," wrote Fr. Demitrios Tanaka of the Orthodox Church in Japan. "The aftershocks of this complex disaster will remain upon us for a long time. We anticipate that the really critical situation will turn up two or three months from now."

The Orthodox Church in Japan anticipates that considerable additional assistance will be needed to aid people threatened by the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As the Orthodox Church in Japan focused its efforts on providing assistance to people in need, it also found reason to give thanks. An Orthodox priest previously reported missing in Tohoku, Japan was found alive and safe with his wife. All of the Orthodox clergy from the East Japan Diocese of the Orthodox Church have now been accounted for and are safe.

Support also came from Orthodox churches and monasteries of the Primorsky Region on the Russian Far East, where parishes collected about 470,000 rubles ($17,000) to support the Orthodox communities of Japan which suffered from the disaster, the press service of the Vladivostok Diocese reports.

"Mercy is a characteristic feature of the citizens of the Primorsky Region," said Archpriest Alexander Talko, head of the diocesan department for charity and social service.


Ukrainians Send Icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan

As an act of support and sympathy, the Donetsk department of the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine transferred the icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan at a ceremony held on April 5 at the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kiev. Department head Evgeny Struzhko presented the holy image to the director of the Terada Ballet Art School, Michiko Terada, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reported on its website.

"Today we would like to be with suffering Japanese people who are living through the tragedy. It is something very close to us and so we would like to transfer the holy icon to an Orthodox Japanese church," Struzhko said.

Christ, the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael and those who protected others after the Chernobyl catastrophe are depicted on the icon. (Interfax-Moscow)


First Astronaut Gagarin No Atheist

Astronaut Yuri Gagarin's most famous words, "I don't see any God up here," were in fact an invention of Soviet propaganda. The 50th anniversary of the Gagarin's space flight brought to light the news that neither Gagarin nor the famed rocket engineer Sergei Korolev were atheists.

"Yuri Gagarin baptized his elder daughter Yelena shortly before his space flight," said Hegumen Iov Talats, rector of the Transfiguration Church in Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City). "His family used to celebrate Christmas and Easter and keep icons in the house," Father Iov said in an interview in the April issue of Foma magazine, an Orthodox journal. He also recalled that Gagarin urged the authorities to reconstruct Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

He added: "Sergei Korolev lost faith for some time but eventually regained it through suffering. Of course he could not make it public, but he used to attend liturgy, pray and confess. Now I am trying to find out who was his confessor."

According to Fr. Iov, great sins are preventing people from further outer space exploration. "I was once asked why do we fail to move further on in space. I answered that it was because we have already damaged the earth. Do you want to damage the whole universe? Look what's going on around us – robbery, murder, violence, deception. Shall we carry our wickedness into space? Therefore, God does not let us move on. While we are in the process of moral growth, we shall not go far away from the Earth." (Interfax-Moscow)

PM Erdogan's Help to the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Fr. Dositheos Anagnostopulos, disclosed in April that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had saved the future of the patriarchate in 2009 by offering Turkish citizenship to non-Turkish archbishops.

In an interview with The Star, Anagnostopulos said there were 12 archbishops in the patriarchate's synod at the time, most of them very old. "But in order to become a member of this board, one has to be a Turkish citizen. If the patriarch dies one day, it seemed unlikely that a new patriarch would be elected from the board [due to the members' age]. This danger has now passed. The prime minister attended a luncheon in Bykada in August 2009 ... and said the problem will be overcome if archbishops applied to become Turkish citizens. He promised applicants would be granted citizenship."

"After the prime minister's call, 27 archbishops abroad submitted applications to become Turkish citizens. So far thirteen of them have been granted citizenship."

Anagnostopulos defined the prime minister's remarks as the "most positive moment in his lifetime." (


European Churches Debate Response to Anti-Christian Violence

When Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's sole Christian cabinet minister, was assassinated in March, it was only the latest act against Christians to provoke outrage worldwide. A New Year's Day bomb blast killed 23 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Now, church leaders in Europe are debating the best course of action to be urged on governments to counter the wave of violence.

"We're living in globalized times, which have made many groups feel insecure about their own identity, an identity which has then become radicalized and closed rather than open to others," said Rudiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches.

"In Europe, where religion has often been seen as a problem, public opinion hasn't been particularly concerned about the fate of religious communities. This seems to be changing now, as false images of religion give way to a greater awareness of its contribution to the common good."

In February, European Union foreign ministers condemned the use of terrorism "against Christians and their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities," and reiterated the EU's commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom.

However, while welcoming the pledge, some church leaders are urging the EU's 27 member-states to go further. In March, the Russian Orthodox Church's representative to European institutions, Antoni Ilyin, called for a special EU center to monitor Christian rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year, a Brussels-based commission representing the EU's Roman Catholic bishops, COMECE, submitted 11 policy recommendations, including the creation of a "religion unit" in the EU's External Action Service and measures to link EU aid agreements to protection of religious rights.

"It isn't up to churches to suggest practical action – what we're calling for is a clear warning about the consequences of continued persecution," explained Johanna Touzel, French spokesperson for COMECE, which has a Dutch president and bishops from Ireland and Poland as vice-presidents.

"Officials have been reluctant to mention Christians, fearing this risked ‘a clash of civilizations' by identifying Europe with Christianity. But respect for fundamental rights is already a condition for EU aid, so concrete steps should be taken to uphold this. Now that revolutionary changes are occurring in the Arab world, Western governments have a responsibility to set some ground rules," she said.

The Dutch-based Open Doors International reports that persecution of Christians is harshest in communist-ruled North Korea, but also listed Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen and Mauritania as among worst offenders.

The Vatican's Agenzia Fides news agency recorded 149 separate attacks on Christians during 2010 by Hindu militants in India, while human rights campaigners in nearby Indonesia reported 46 attacks by Muslim extremists.

The Vatican's permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, notes an "increased proliferation of episodes of discrimination and acts of violence." He cites evidence that 75 percent of those "killed because of religious hatred" were Christian.

"The state must enforce its laws that fight against religious discrimination vigorously, and without selectivity," Tomasi told the UN Human Rights Council in March. (Jonathan Luxmoore/ENI)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60