For nearly 30 years, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has served as the spiritual leader of more than 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world – the second-largest Christian church after Catholics. Like other religious institutions, the patriarchate has been closed to visitors and public services in recent months but has sought to keep in touch through video messages, homilies and various other communiqués. Here the Ecumenical Patriarch speaks to Monocle about the role of faith in times of a pandemic and other challenges that face the globe and the Eastern Orthodox Church itself.
Your All-Holiness, our interview takes place at a time when many are worried about or suffering from the spread of the coronavirus. What is your message to people in this challenging time?
We knew that we could not remain silent; the voice of the church cannot ever abstain from the suffering of the people of God. We want to reassure people that they should not panic but instead patiently follow the research and the official directives of our scientists, and the pertinent pronouncements and legal regulations of our governments. We offered, and continue to offer, prayers for the medical and nursing professionals who sacrificially serve the afflicted. We surrender to God the memory of all our loved ones who succumbed to this deadly coronavirus. And above all, we have communicated and conveyed courage, consolation and compassion to the families of those affected by Covid-19.
Churches and other religious institutions have had to close in many parts of the world. How can people best keep faith in times like these?
Indeed, in such times of crisis, we are compelled to forego so many things that we treasure. These also include religious assemblies and social gatherings. And we do so, as scripture says, “for the life of the world” – namely, for the sake of the common good, for the benefit of something larger than ourselves. This is why we constantly remind people that what is at stake here is not our faith but our faithful; not God but the people of God. After all, our faith is a breathing reality and living experience; there is no exceptional circumstance that could ever limit or suppress it. Each of us has a social responsibility toward our neighbours. Our deliverance from this distress depends entirely on our personal contribution and co-operation.
Beyond the current crisis, you have been particularly vocal throughout your leadership on climate change and human rights. How do you choose what issues to speak about and when?
Of course, this is hardly the appropriate time to draw alleged connections or direct scolding criticisms. Nevertheless, the past decades have taught us – all too painfully and all too poignantly – that all of creation is inseparably interconnected and interdependent. Whenever we misuse or abuse one aspect of creation – whether a tree, an animal, or a human being – we are inevitably disturbing or even destroying the delicate balance of the entire world. This is why we are compelled to speak whenever we witness the devastation of any region and its people as a result of climate change, whether this relates to the pollution of the Amazon and destruction of its rainforest, the contamination of the Adriatic and its impact on the poor of the surrounding countries or the persecution of refugees from the Middle East and their desperate flight to the West.
When do you think that interventions by religious leaders like Your Holiness can make the biggest difference?
Religious leaders can mobilise believers to practise what they preach, as well as to implement social responsibility, social change and social justice. They can guide people from conception to conviction, from the level of awareness to the stage of action. The world of faith offers a unique perspective and a long-term world view, beyond the purely political or economic, on the need to eradicate poverty and provide balance in a world of globalisation; on the obligation to combat fundamentalism and racism; and on the responsibility to develop religious tolerance in a world of conflict.
It was your predecessor who issued the first circular on climate change more than 30 years ago and you have become known as the Green Patriarch. What motivated the church to speak out back then?
We are delighted that you are asking this question. Because over the years, critics and reactionaries have presumed that the original or principal motivation for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s involvement in questions of climate change either stemmed from a sense of public relations or else issued from ecumenical contacts. The truth is that the root of our environmental consciousness and commitment lies in the profound scriptural, theological and spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church across 20 centuries. It comes with the territory of being an Orthodox Christian.
Climate change has moved to the top of the agenda for many in the past year, led by a youthful protest movement. Do you believe that people and governments are now taking the climate challenge seriously enough?
It is tempting – albeit obnoxious – for politicians and authorities to dismiss the global youth revolution as sentimental or senseless. In fact, these young men and women reflect the purer and passionate elements in our heart and soul. We are called – indeed, we are obliged – to leave behind for them a world that is better than the one we received from our own forefathers and foremothers. Our ancestors were unaware of their impact on the natural environment. But we can certainly not feign ignorance; we know the implications of our actions. And there is no doubt in our mind that people are quickly learning this lesson, even if they are reluctantly changing their ways.
Christian belief has not always correlated with a belief in the need to confront climate change, particularly in the US. Why do you think that is – and what can be done to change it?
It is truly astounding that Christians, whose faith uniquely and emphatically focuses on “God assuming flesh and dwelling in the world” [John 1.14], are so often singularly and surprisingly embarrassed by material creation. Unless our belief grounds us “in the world, [although we are] not of the world” [John 17.14-19], then in fact we are neither followers of Jesus Christ nor adherents of His commandments. Perhaps it would be more meaningful to give priority to what the world needs, rather than exclusively to what we want.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate is known as the “first among equals” among the many jurisdictions that form the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church has recently broken its communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate due to the granting of a separate church in Ukraine. Do you regret that decision?
Any break in communion is certainly the root of profound pain. It is unjustifiable when it comes to the diverse Christian Confessions but it is incomprehensible when it relates to the various Orthodox Churches. The truth of the matter is that we formed an increasingly unified church in that region, which for reasons well known to all has undergone appalling oppression and war in recent years. The fact that the Church of Moscow is displeased with this development explains more about the complex circumstances in Russia than about the ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine. After all, the granting of autocephaly [independence from a higher governing body] to Ukraine followed precisely the same procedure and conditions as the granting of autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to Russia – as well as to Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and all of the churches that inquired or insisted on ecclesiastical independence, usually on nationalistic grounds – in previous centuries.
The Syrian Orthodox faithful have faced even greater challenges and Syrian Christians have been among the most invisible victims of that country’s war. How are you able to come to Syria’s aid?
Our attention and prayers have in recent years focused on this part of the world, where violence and war have resulted in suffering and persecution. We have appealed to local authorities and international agencies for the deliverance of kidnapped victims, prominently symbolised by the two Orthodox bishops in Aleppo: Syrian Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, the brother of His Beatitude Patriarch John of Antioch. We also wanted to tell our brother and sister refugees that we care. We have visited the Greek island of Lesbos, along with His Holiness Pope Francis and His Beatitude Archbishop Hieronymos of Athens and all Greece, in order to place the refugee crisis on the world map. Unfortunately, immigration is not a problem that confronts one nation or region. It is a challenge for the entire planet. The world will be judged by the way it has treated its refugees. And we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the conflicts in the regions that they come from.
Thank you, your All-Holiness, for this interview. A final word?
We would like to close with a word of optimism. We are convinced that true dialogue is a unique gift from God. After all, we should always remember that never before in history have human beings had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people simply through encounter and dialogue. Ours is not only an age of isolation and division, it is also an age of communication and communion. That is surely the will of God and our greatest source of hope.
Spiritual soft power
Bartholomew I is the 270th Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of a religion that dates back to the early days of Christianity (the first patriarch is considered to be St Andrew, the brother of St Peter). The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople sits in what is now Istanbul and is known as the “first among equals”, presiding over a loose federation of more than a dozen national and regional Orthodox Churches around the world (a far more decentralised structure than that of the Catholic Church), located mostly in south-eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Russia and the Middle East. During his tenure, Bartholomew I has sought to promote interfaith dialogue, making rare visits to Muslim and other Christian leaders. But relations between the various autocephalous churches (as the various jurisdictions are known) have not always been smooth in a region often characterised by conflict. The Russian Orthodox Church suspended communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2018 after it granted the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a move that was finalised last year.
About the interviewee: His All-Holiness was born Demetrios Arhondonis in 1940 on the island of Imbros (later renamed Gokceada). He was elected Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991.