Bush Backs Patriarch, Supports Interfaith Efforts

Patriarch Terms U.S. Greek Community "Indispensable" 

By George Gilson, Athens News
Reprinted By Permission

ECUMENICAL Patriarch Vartholomeos asked US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell on March 5 for United States' support for the free operation of the first-ranking church in the 300-million-strong Orthodox Christian world.

In a March 5 visit intended to further strengthen the post-September 11 revitalisation of the patriarchate's longstanding role in pursuing inter-religious dialogue, Vartholomeos said that he found "absolute support" from the American administration for his plans to expand upon his initiatives for inter-religious dialogue. He brought together over 80 top Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders at a major conference held at the European Commission's Brussels headquarters in cooperation with Commission President Romano Prodi last December.

Vartholomeos stressed the imperative need to combat terrorism upon arriving at Andrews Airforce Base on March 4 and planned a solemn memorial for the World Trade Center victims at "Ground Zero" on March 9.

"We discussed the issues of the current inter-religious dialogue as well as religious freedoms and in that context we brought up the issue of the Halki Theological Seminary," Vartholomeos told reporters outside the State Department following his meeting with Powell.

"In our discussion of the inter-faith dialogue, the secretary appeared to be familiar with the Bosphorus Declaration [a 1994 inter-faith communique asserting that violence in the name of religion is an act against religion] and the [2001] Brussels Declaration. He was informed of, and referred specifically to, these texts," he added, referring to the pledge of over 80 top religious leaders last year to pursue mutual understanding through the development of grassroots contacts between their adherents. The plan remains to be threshed out in detail.

Promoting understanding with Islam

The patriarch's trip came on the heels of a much discussed poll underlining the heightened misunderstandings between the Islamic World and the United States.

The trip was planned in late February for Vartholomeos to attend a March 9 event, where former president George Bush and his wife Barbara were to be awarded a humanitarian prize by the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate named after the late Patriarch Athinagoras.

Bush expressed an interest in the Ecumenical Patriarchate's international ministry as the coordinating head of a series of ethnically diverse Orthodox Christian churches and was briefed on Vartholomeos' efforts, as the leader of a church based in a Muslim country, to promote understanding with the Islamic world.

"I mentioned my visit to Iran without going into details and my previous visit to another Muslim country, Bahrain. I also brought up the most possible next visit of mine to a Muslim country," Vartholomeos said, referring to a possible future trip to another Muslim country as he exited the White House on March 5.

Vartholomeos said that Bush and Powell were receptive when he solicited the US administration's support for the partiarchate's unhindered ministry and for the reopening of the patriarchate's Halki Theological Seminary.

"Of course, I brought up the Halki issue and, in general, the situation of the small Christian community, regardless of their confessions, in Turkey. President Bush said that it is the position of the United States to protect the minority rights all over the world," said Vartholomeos, who also answered Bush's query on the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

"I said that according to the Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the first seat among the Orthodox worldwide, has the special role of coordinating pan-Orthodox affairs and ensuring unity," he noted.

The Turkish government shut the school that trained all patriarchal clergy down in 1971, when it forbade operation of private universities and has steadfastly refused permission for it to operate, even though other private institutions of higher learning have opened since.

Ankara has ignored a string of expressions of support for the patriarchate's demand, most notably by former president Bill Clinton during a trip to the seat of the patriarchate at the Phanar in Istanbul.

The annual State Department report on human rights in Turkey, which was released the day before the meeting with Bush, again cites the issue. "The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul consistently has expressed interest in reopening its seminary on the island of Halki in the Se a of Marmara. (...) Under existing restrictions, including a citizenship requirement, religious communities remain unable to train new clergy," the report says.

Given the fact that the Greek community of Istanbul has reached a population of 2,000 and is still dwindling, current policies will clearly make it impossible to elect a patriarch and Holy Synod, whereas title to billions of dollars of Greek community property will eventually pass over to Ankara.

Powell reportedly indicated that a solution by which Halki might reopen is feasible and that he had raised the issue on a recent trip to Turkey with Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem. The fact that Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou publicly stated that he will raise in the ongoing Greek-Turkish dialogue what is effectively an international issue of Turkey complying with its obligations to allow freedom of religion and minority rights also would indicate some optimism for a solution.

Patriarchate's role in Greek-American community

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios of America, who was elected in 1999 to lead the patriarchate's over 2 million faithful in the US, after the meeting with Powell stressed the point that Halki and all other issues pertaining directly to the Phanar have a direct impact on his flock.

Vartholomeos made the same argument after his meeting with Bush. "We discussed the Greek community in the US, which is an inseparable part of both the American nation and society and of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That is why whatever happens with the patriarchate reflects on the Greek community and on our church here, which is justifiably concerned with the stability of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as its mother church," Vartholomeos said.

The ecumenical patriarch also issued an impassioned plea for the US to help stave off an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem owns the major Christian shrines there, and Vartholomeos said that these should not end up as "mere museums".

Vartholomeos' trip, from the pastoral point of view, comes on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America - clearly the largest, most influential and affluent eparchy of the Phanar - which appears to have recovered from a protracted period of near mutiny under Demetrios' predecessor, Spyridon.