Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew - A Passion For Peace

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew - A Passion For Peace

The true peacemakers of history not only struggled to reduce conflict among others, they also showed compassion toward people who persecuted them. In recent times, they have included Martin Luther King, Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Shimon Peres, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

To that list must be added Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has been called the Bridge Builder and the Patriarch of Peace. Although he is the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew suffers constant harassment by a hostile Turkish government and persistent attacks by extremists who want to wipe him and his office out of existence. He has been cursed, spat upon, has seen his office windows broken by rocks and even had live grenades thrown into his courtyard.

His see, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was established in the fourth century and once possessed holdings as vast as the Vatican, has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul called the Phanar (Lighthouse). Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments, its schools have been closed and its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey.

The Patriarch himself is often jeered and threatened when he ventures outside his walled enclave. He is periodically burned in effigy by Turkish chauvinists and Moslem fanatics. Petty bureaucrats take pleasure in harassing him, summoning him to their offices to question him about irrelevant issues, blocking his efforts to make repairs in the few buildings still under his control, and issuing veiled threats about what he says and does when he travels abroad. The Turkish government as a whole follows a policy that deliberately belittles him, refusing to recognize his ecumenical status as the spiritual leader of a major religious faith but only as the head of the small Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul.

Like the leaders of other persecuted groups, he has not hesitated to protest the abuse. "Why? For what reason?" he cried out after Moslem extremists desecrated Orthodox graves in Istanbul. "Are we not in every way law-abiding citizens of this country? Have we not suffered enough without being at all to blame?"

He has seen the extent of that suffering over many decades. In September of 1955, when Bartholomew was studying in Istanbul, he witnessed a massive pogrom against the city's Greek neighborhoods that left them looking "like the bombed parts of London during the Second World War," as one British journalist reported. While the police "stood idly by or cheered on the mob," according to a report of the U.S. consul, 4,000 Greek shops and 2,000 homes were sacked and plundered, 38 churches were burned to the ground and 35 more desecrated, and 52 schools were destroyed. More than a dozen people were killed and scores were injured during the riots, beginning a cycle of violence and intimidation that has seen Istanbul's Greek population reduced from 200,000 when the riots erupted to less than 2,000 today. (The riots were reportedly in response to the bombing of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, but a Turkish inquiry later found that it had been ordered and carried out by agents of the Turkish prime minister to incite and justify anti-Greek riots in Turkey.)

Yet none of the abuse Bartholomew has seen has lessened his compassion and support for the Turkish people and his determination to serve as a bridge between Turkey and Europe. Despite his difficulties with the government, he has supported all international efforts to strengthen Turkey's economy and democracy, often inviting severe criticism from Greek chauvinists. He has been a fervent advocate of Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, traveling widely throughout Europe to speak out in favor of its admission. "The incorporation of Turkey into the European Union may well provide a powerful symbol of mutually beneficial cooperation between the Western and Islamic worlds and put an end to the talk of a clash of civilizations," he told Europeans in several capitals. The unqualified support of such an eminent Christian leader helped blunt the opposition of many skeptics in Europe who doubt the wisdom of admitting a predominantly Moslem country of 70 million, and the European Union opened negotiations with Turkey at the end of 2004.

Most important, at a time when hostility and misunderstanding between the Christian West and the Moslem world have reached a deadly standoff, Patriarch Bartholomew, who speaks seven languages including Turkish, is making a deliberate effort to reach out to Moslems throughout the Middle East. "It is our strong belief that Orthodox Christians have a special responsibility to assist East-West rapprochement," he noted. "For, like the Turkish Republic, we have a foot in both worlds."
Pointing out that Orthodox Christians have a 550-year history of co-existence with Moslems in the Middle East, he has initiated a series of meetings with Moslem leaders throughout the region in what he calls "a dialogue of loving truth." To strengthen that dialogue, he has traveled to Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Bahrain and met political and religious figures in those countries, whom no other Christian hierarch has ever visited. As a result, the Patriarch has more credibility and opportunity to create bridges between Christianity and Islam than any other prominent Christian leader.

"We understand the grievances of the Moslem world against the West because the Orthodox world has been subjected to some of the same treatment in the past," he said. "Like us, they, too, have seen their faith dissected and their history disfigured, but we hope to put behind us what is unpleasant while putting forward the best values of mankind." What that means, he has made clear, is a total and unequivocal commitment to peace and tolerance. "We most categorically condemn every kind of fanaticism, transgression and use of violence, regardless of where they come from," he declared in an address before the European Parliament. "Our commitment to the need for free and peaceful communication among people and mutual respect and peaceful relations among nations remains unshaken…"

Patriarch Bartholomew has used the international respect he enjoys both in the West and in the Moslem world to create a strong front among religious leaders against the use of violence. Three months after September 11, 2001, he organized an interfaith conference in Brussels, co-sponsored by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, now prime minister of Italy. The Patriarch played a key role in forging the famous declaration that emerged from the conference, which stated that "war in the name of religion is war against religion." Religious extremists and terrorists, he later told Time magazine, "may be the most wicked false prophets of all. When they bomb, shoot and destroy, they steal more than life itself; they undermine faith, and faith is the only way to break the cycle of hatred and retribution."

Knowing from personal experience what misery and destruction religious hatred can produce, Patriarch Bartholomew has tried to combat it in every way that his faith and his position permit. One of his major efforts during his first years as Patriarch was to convene an interfaith international conference on Peace and Religious Tolerance in Istanbul. The conference brought together for the first time in the region Christians, Jews and Moslems to find ways to encourage understanding and peaceful coexistence among followers of the three faiths. "Beloved friends," he told delegates to the conference, "there is more that unites us than that which divides us. We have within our grasp the vision of the Psalmist, ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.'"

Within the Christian world, too, the Patriarch is playing a pivotal role as a peacemaker. As soon as Benedict XVI became Pope last year, Bartholomew saw the opportunity to revitalize the ecumenical movement. He invited Pope Benedict to visit the Patriarchate. This historic trip is now planned for November 29-30. Even before their summit meeting, the Orthodox Catholic International commission will meet in September for the first time in six years. Commission members plan to re-tackle the critical theological discussion of church authority and primacy, one of the major stumbling blocks to union between the two Christian faiths. The talks began to bog down in the early 1990's as Catholics and Orthodox struggled to overcome tensions caused by the renewed life and activity of the Eastern European churches after the fall of Communism. They were abandoned altogether by the end of the decade. Now, thanks to Patriarch Bartholomew and the new Pope, the ecumenical movement will be injected with new energy and optimism.

The Patriarch's concerns are not limited to interfaith conflicts, but have expanded to embrace all of "God's creation." He has shown such concern for the environment that he has become widely known as "the Green Patriarch." He famously declared shortly after he assumed the ecumenical throne in 1991 that "crime against the natural world is a sin." Human beings and the environment, he stated, "compose a seamless garment of existence, a multicolored cloth, which we believe to be woven in its entirety by God." The world, he told a 1997 conference of environmentalists in Santa Barbara, CA, "is not ours to use for our own convenience. It is God's gift of love to us and we must return his love by protecting it and all that is in it."

To back up his words with action, Bartholomew launched a series of initiatives to raise worldwide concern for the environment. In 1992 he proposed to all Orthodox churches that each year, September 1 be celebrated as a special day of prayer for the environment. In 1995 he started a series of environmental conferences, inviting prominent scientists, political leaders, theologians, ecologists and journalists on a cruise ship for weeklong trips to examine the destruction that pollution has caused on major waters. Designed to draw international attention to the ecological degradation of the areas they visit, five such floating conferences have taken place in the past decade—to the Black Sea, the Aegean, the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Danube River.

The conclusion of the 1997 Black Sea trip led to an action plan to combat the destruction of Europe's most isolated marine area and won grants to do the job from international financial institutions such as the World Bank. During the Adriatic trip in 2002, the Patriarch persuaded Pope John Paul II, through a phone hook-up with Rome, to call for an end to the destruction of the environment, and convinced the Aga Khan, who was on the cruise, to urge all religious leaders to focus on the environment. "There are very few references to the environment in what Protestants and Catholics say on Sunday, what the Jews say on Saturday and what Moslems say on Friday in their places of worship," the Aga Khan told the BBC, "and I think it would be good if they used their platforms to sensitize individuals."

For more than a decade, Patriarch Bartholomew has held international ecological seminars every summer on the premises of the Theological School of Halki, an island near Istanbul, which the Patriarchate controls but the Turkish government does not allow to operate as a seminary. The seminars are sponsored by the Patriarch and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) in 1995 in the wake of the Patriarch's environmental efforts.

For his work to combat pollution, the Patriarch was chosen in 2002 to receive Norway's Sophie Prize, the most important international award given for leadership on the environment. He donated the $100,000 prize money for the poor children of Ethiopia, Greece and Turkey. "We are losing time," Bartholomew warned while accepting the award, "and the more we wait, the more difficult and irreparable the damage."

Although his efforts have brought him little relief from his problems in Turkey, they have been recognized around the world, including by U.S. Congress, which gave him its highest award, the Congressional Gold Medal, in a ceremony under the Capitol dome. "The greatest lesson about America lies under this magnificent dome," he told the assembled legislators. "The Pentagon embodies might, but the Capitol embodies right. In these halls different points of view meet and are reconciled…And – most important to the Orthodox Church during many dark ages—in these halls human rights are preserved and human dignity is enhanced."

The Patriarch has been honored also by the United Nations, the European Union and dozens of governments, universities and institutions for his bold efforts to promote peace and understanding, especially between East and West.

"To build a bridge between the East and West has long been a major concern for His All-Holiness…" said Dr. Joël Delobel of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, in conferring an honorary doctorate on Patriarch Bartholomew in 1996. "The Patriarch's entire life has been one of preparation for the task of bridge builder. The first of these bridges is one that reaches out to the various Orthodox churches…

"The second bridge is one which reaches out to Europe, a bridge which has been created from the Patriarch's vigorous pleas for the extension of the European Union to the East and the Southeast of Europe. In the midst of current hesitation concerning the future of the Union, his unremitting plea for a complete Union and his concern for the protection of the environment are guiding lights for both East and West.

"The third bridge is one that will facilitate the dialogue between all the Christian churches.

"It is all the more important, then, that a church leader such as Patriarch Bartholomew…travel all over the world to encourage mutual understanding, to face the problems and create solutions. There is no other way. Such bridge-builders are desperately needed."

Since he became Ecumenical Patriarch on October 22, 1991, Bartholomew has never been content to stay home and focus on theological issues and the difficult problems of trying to survive in a hostile environment. Instead, he has ventured out to every continent to take an active role in the World Council of Churches, address the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress, meet with heads of state and visit Orthodox churches in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, South America, Greece, Russia, Norway, Finland, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Ethiopia, Korea and Cuba.

"There is a deep hunger for spirituality today, a great need to demonstrate to anxious people all over the world the healing power of compassion and goodwill," he says, "and there has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of the world."

As Patriarch over the past 15 years, Bartholomew's inclination has been to take on the most difficult issues facing the world—the deep mistrust between East and West, the destruction of the environment, and the sharp divisions among religious faiths.

The difficulty of the issues he grapples with as he ventures out in the world does not daunt him any more than the abuse he must endure every day at home in Turkey. He is determined to persevere, to make a difference, and it is clear to those who have watched him struggle over the past 15 years that he has already made it.

Among the last blessings offered by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount was one for those who try to promote peace and understanding. "Blessed are the peacemakers," He said, "for they shall be called children of God."

Perhaps He left it for the end because He knew it was the most arduous mission that any human being could undertake.

And perhaps that is the reason Patriarch Bartholomew has made it his life's work.

John Silber
President Emeritus
University Professor and
Professor of Philosophy and Law
Boston University