Entries with tag faith matters .

Bartholomew and the Environment: The Origins and Background of the “Green Patriarch”

It may seem remarkable and even inexplicable to many that a religious leader would be so involved, as has been His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, in addressing the world’s environmental crisis.  After all, the public policy responses to this looming problem have been dominated by the secular commercial, political, and scientific actors whose past actions have been directly responsible for setting into motion the current environmental disorder.  Nonetheless, an understanding of Orthodox Christianity’s theology and attendant worldview reveals a spiritual and intellectual intimacy between faith and environment.  Likewise, recognition of the extraordinary yet humble dedication and service to God, humanity, and all of creation that characterizes the spiritual, intellectual, and ecclesiastical life of Patriarch Bartholomew underscores why this particular Church leader has also become a world leader, a pioneering visionary in the protection of nature.    

Several studies have been published in the last decade that offer us impressive histories of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s writing and work in advancing global environmental awareness and action.  Two seminal works stand out as perhaps the most important among these sources: the 2011 volume authored by His All Holiness and edited by Rev. Fr. John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the third and final volume in a series of collected writings by Patriarch Bartholomew; and the 2009 publication of Fr. Chryssavgis’ book, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew, which provides us with a clear view of the life and labors of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  Both of these meticulously assembled volumes blend reflective, original writing with impressive collections of primary materials that reflect Bartholomew’s vision and work on the environment.   

As example, despite the enormity and wealth of the book’s primary sources, Fr. Chryssavgis’ Cosmic Grace is not merely a linear collection of Patriarch Bartholomew’s pronouncements on the environment.  In this publication, like On Earth as in Heaven, we can see how Bartholomew has for decades moved past mere encyclicals that urge others to take up the hard work of protecting nature to championing that responsibility himself.  Indeed, through his introduction in Cosmic Grace, Fr. Chryssavgis (a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues) has written an invaluable contextualization of Bartholomew’s thoughts and actual labors as they relate to ecology.  In short, Fr. Chryssavgis successfully discusses Orthodox theology’s understanding of ecology and thus presents us with a useful primer for reading and interpreting Bartholomew’s documents and record of accomplishment on the environment.  Fr. Chryssavgis’ work is also notable for its excellent biographical sketch of Bartholomew, one that goes beyond achievements and accolades to reveal the Ecumenical Patriarch’s human face. 

Patriarch Bartholomew was born Demetrios Archontonis on February 29, 1940, to parents Christos and Merope, natives of the modest village of Aghios Theodoros (Zeytinili Koyu) on the northern Aegean island of Imbros (Gokceada).  Situated near the entry to the Dardanelles, Imbros, despite its historically homogeneous Greek population, was awarded to Turkey on strategic grounds by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.  Before the Turkish state’s ethnic cleansing of Imbros, beginning in earnest in the 1940s, the young Demetrios’ island was home to over 10,000 ethnic Greeks, who have been reduced to fewer than 300 today.  Indeed, before their obliteration in the 1960s and 1970s, Imbros’ Greek farming, fishing, and winemaking villages formed thirteen small but vibrant communities throughout the island.  Imbros’ villages and its countryside were long revered for their spiritual aesthetic and for their outpouring of men of faith and leadership, including the island’s native son, the late Archbishop Iakovos, godfather of Demetrios Archontonis. 

Demonstrating an extraordinary brilliance at a very early age, after attending elementary school in Imbros, Demetrios completed his secondary education at the Istanbul Greek community’s famous Zographeion Lyceum.  Driven by his faith, a deep and abiding love of the Orthodox Church, and a kindness that his contemporaries uniformly described as humbling, as well as perhaps the ennobling example of his godfather—Iakovos, the future Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America—Demetrios pursued his undergraduate training at the Patriarchal Theological School of Halki, the seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  In 1961, Demetrios graduated from Halki with honors and was ordained in August of that same year to the deaconate, receiving the ecclesiastical name Bartholomew.

After fulfilling his obligatory military service in the Turkish army as a reserve officer between 1961 and 1963, Bartholomew went to Europe to pursue postgraduate studies.  From 1963 to 1968, Bartholomew began his scholarly research with a series of prestigious appointments at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey in Switzerland, and the Pontifical Oriental Institute of the Gregorian University in Rome.  Completing his doctorate on Canon Law in Rome, Bartholomew, whose command of languages includes English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Turkish, taught as a lecturer at the Pontifical Oriental Institute before returning to Turkey, where in 1969 he was ordained to the priesthood.                                 

Shortly before Bartholomew’s ordination, he entered the faculty at the Theological School of Halki by appointment under Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.  Bartholomew held his teaching position until 1971, when, in a blatant act of religious persecution, the Turkish authorities forcibly closed Halki.  During the tenure of Athenagoras’ successor, Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I, from 1972 to 1991, Bartholomew served as director of the newly established Office of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and in 1973 he was elected Metropolitan of Philadelphia in Asia Minor. 

In his capacity as a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Bartholomew participated throughout those years of service in the General Assemblies of the World Council of Churches, serving at different times as Vice-Chairman of the Faith and Order Commission, as well as working on its Central and Executive Committees.  This almost two-decade period was critical for the formative development of the environmental sensitivity of this influential international organization, and for affording Bartholomew a global platform and network to initiate the articulation of his ecological vision. 

In 1990, in recognition of his accomplishments, Bartholomew was elected Metropolitan of Chalcedon, the most senior position among the bishops of the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople.  In October 1991, following the death of Patriarch Demetrios, Bartholomew was elected Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  Immediately after his enthronement in November of that same year, Bartholomew inaugurated a new phase in his longstanding dedication to actualizing Orthodoxy’s understanding and commitment to environmental stewardship.  Bartholomew’s record of global environmental leadership and the Orthodox theology underpinning the Ecumenical Patriarch’s initiatives in this area will be the focus of this blog’s next essay.

Dr. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.


What Happened to St. Peter?

What happened to St. Peter? The short answer is that we don’t know.  The long answer is more interesting. It is precisely the lack of authoritative information about St. Peter that enabled later Christians to develop competing legends about the final years of his life. In some cases, these differences are quite surprising, especially for modern readers used to associating St. Peter with the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. But not all of the ancient stories about St. Peter place him in Rome.

Why is there such an important discrepancy? And what, exactly, does the Orthodox Church teach about his final years? The last biographical mention of St. Peter in the New Testament occurs in the Acts of the Apostles (15). This chapter places St. Peter at a meeting of the disciples in Jerusalem. For biographers, there’s not much else to go on. Two ancient letters (1st and 2nd Peter), attributed to the Apostle, offer no information about him apart from a vague reference that sends greetings from “Babylon.”

The earliest written accounts of St. Peter’s post-biblical activity, known as “apocrypha,” date to the late second century A.D. Many of these stories are elaborate tales in which St. Peter is a heroic protagonist. Among the oldest surviving references to St. Peter in this material is a story that he traveled to Rome in order to combat the false teaching of a sorcerer named Simon. That story builds on material known from earlier writers. In Acts 8, for example, St. Peter had rebuked a man named Simon for trying to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, Simon will reappear in almost every apocryphal account of Peter’s activities as a kind of arch-nemesis.

The Martyrdom of Peter and the Acts of Peter are apocryphal texts that exemplify this kind of dramatic encounter with Simon. In both accounts, St. Peter and Simon trade supernatural blows. In some versions, Simon dies and St. Peter’s demonstration of power leads to widespread conversion. Some writers place this quasi-duel in Rome. Then, they proceed to narrate St. Peter’s martyrdom there. In one account, St. Peter is killed by a group of angry Roman landowners because the saint has convinced their wives to adopt celibacy. 

What is equally remarkable, though, is that not all of the ancient stories place St. Peter in the city of Rome. An alternate view is provided by a collection of texts known as the Pseudo-Clementines. These texts were written in Palestine by a variety of authors in the fourth century A.D. The collection contains homilies, supposedly preached by Peter; a treatise; and two letters. In all but one of the letters, the disparate writers see Jerusalem—not Rome—as the center of the Christian world. The texts themselves deal exclusively with the churches of Palestine and Syria.

For many of the same reasons that the Roman church would eventually emphasize the connections between St. Peter, Rome, and the Roman church, so too these other documents, the Pseudo-Clementines, emphasize St. Peter’s role in the foundation narratives of many Syrian and Palestinian communities. None of these apocryphal texts describe St. Peter as a bishop. Only a very few, moreover, describe him as having any relationship to the episcopal structure of Rome. 

To be sure, there are some other second and third century sources (anti-heretical writings and letters) that do link Peter to the episcopal structure of the Roman Church.  But it is important to emphasize that there was no single authoritative teaching in the Orthodox Church about what happened to St. Peter when he drops out of the historical narrative of the Book of Acts. We should not confuse legends and apocrypha with theological belief. 

So where does this leave us?  How does the Orthodox Christian reconcile the conflicting accounts of the end of St. Peter’s life that have circulated so widely? The answer lies in our hymnography.  It is there, in the experience of communal worship, that Church offers its most authoritative means for communicating the significance of St. Peter’s life.  And it is telling that the hymns of the Church provide no biographical information about St. Peter that is not contained in the New Testament. Indeed, for all of the hymns that the Church developed over the centuries, not a single one situates St. Peter in a historic space. For Orthodox Christians, the Liturgical commemoration of St. Peter is a celebration of his faith, his leadership, and—most significantly—his repentance. 

George E Demacopoulos, Author of The Invention of Peter:  Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press). Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University. @GDemacopoulos

Appropriation Without Attribution: The Problem of the Western Narrative, and the Pope’s Encyclical on the Environment

The late British scholar Romilly James Heald Jenkins, one of the West’s leading postwar Medieval historians, who occupied the prestigious Chair as Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College in London and was Professor of Byzantine History and Language at Dumbarton Oaks, famously observed that Western views and attitudes towards Byzantium and the Orthodox world were “dictated first by ignorance and second by prejudice,” while also noting that “the West’s long-enduring hatred of Byzantium is plainly discernible.”  One of the legacies of that historic Western enmity towards Byzantium has been the construction of a distinctly Western narrative that has largely expunged Byzantium and Orthodoxy from the history of Europe. 

Teaching Byzantine history and civilization to American university students, as I have for more than two decades, poses certain unique challenges.  Most Americans, including most Greek Americans, have little or no accurate and meaningful knowledge of Byzantium and the Medieval Orthodox world.  Furthermore, they come to Byzantine history with a Western-centric (meaning Western European/originally Western Christian) narrative with which they have been thoroughly inculcated by both their formal educations and by Western cultural experience that complicates their study of Byzantium.  These influences produce students who, through no fault of their own, are not only unaware of Byzantium’s seminal place in history, but are handicapped by centuries-old Western narratives that are rooted in an historic hostility towards Byzantium, one that is uncritically, unwittingly parroted by even the most well intentioned, but uninformed, teachers and professors. 

Again, one of the byproducts of this hostility—originating in the Medieval West’s sense of cultural inferiority and lack of political legitimacy vis-à-vis Byzantium, and compounded by the historical ignorance and religious prejudices of the Western Enlightenment—has been the construction of a Western grand narrative that is not entirely accurate.  This Western narrative is premised upon a distorted and fatuous history of the West itself at the expense of, and juxtaposed against, the “East” (with the East, meaning, depending on the shifting needs of the West, any part of the world not rooted in a Western Christian past), beginning with the West’s rivalry and aggression against Byzantium and Eastern Christianity.  This discourse—both religious and secular in its expression—explicitly and implicitly elevates the West in all its forms (its churches, states, societies, institutions, practices, cultures, and ideas) as superior, always first, original, more innovative, and more important than the imagined East in all its forms (Orthodox, Muslim, Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, “Oriental,” etc.).     

Because of the false history produced by the Western narrative—the bedrock of a modern education—one of the first challenges confronting those who teach Byzantine history is how to help students deconstruct and break through the distorted discourse that is a basic part of their educations and cultural baggage.  The goal of such teaching is not to substitute an Eastern-centric narrative that belittles the West for the Western-centric narrative that belittles the East.  Instead, the goal is to recognize and tackle bias, prejudice, and falsehoods in order to form a more accurate and rigorous understanding of both Byzantium and the West.  Likewise, by deconstructing the West’s prevarications and myths about itself and Byzantium, students can more effectively evaluate how those myths and erroneous histories resonate across time and continue to influence and distort our perception of the world in the present. 

The cherished, unquestioned canards that permeate the Western narrative and that have been repeated over many centuries through Western Christianity, culture, and “learning” are simply too extensive to review here, they are legion.  Nonetheless, to offer correctives to just a few widely accepted fabrications that are important to the Western narrative against Byzantium and Orthodoxy, one might consider the following: the Roman Empire did not fall nor end in the fifth century; the Roman Empire was not restored by Charlemagne in the ninth century; Greek and Roman civilization, classical knowledge, and literacy did not disappear during the Middle Ages; medicine, philosophy, and Greek literature were not preserved only by the Arab Muslims to be ultimately transferred to the West by Moorish Spain; the Bishop of Rome (later pope) had no authority over the Christian Church beyond the territorial jurisdiction of his ecclesiastical See in the Western part of the Roman Empire; the Early Church was not organized under any one, centralized hierarchical authority; and the Orthodox Church was not a schismatic offshoot of Roman Catholicism.

In addition to altering the historical record, part of the logic of the Western grand narrative has been to appropriate advancements from the East without attribution.  The most recent example of this phenomenon is Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, climate change, and human society.  Indeed, the already neatly packaged media consensus on the Pope’s formal pronouncements on the environment demonstrates the enduring power of the Western narrative to shape public discourse and perception.  Likewise, it also provides us with a remarkable example of how this narrative, even no longer with active intention, continues to diminish Eastern Christianity’s contributions and role in the world.

Pope Francis’ much-anticipated June 18 encyclical, Laudato Si (“Praise Be to You”), calls for immediate unified global action to confront the environmental degradation of the planet produced by rapacious profiteering, apathy, and a blind faith in reckless technology.  The Pope’s encyclical drew from multiple sources, including prominently the writing and work of his friend and brother-in-Christ, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Bartholomew I.  This is not surprising given the fact that during the 1990s Bartholomew became the first major international religious leader to systematically link theology to environmental problems and policy on a global level, an issue that he has continued to tirelessly advance and for which he has been recognized as a world leader for the last quarter century.  Indeed, Bartholomew’s pioneering initiatives on the protection of the natural environment—marked by international, interfaith, and interdisciplinary symposia and summits—began years before faith-based environmental movements in the West became political and fashionable.    

Despite Francis’ laudable and appropriate acknowledgment of the original and seminal role played by Bartholomew in promoting a Christian understanding of, and approach to, the environmental crisis of the present, the media generally ignored this attribution in Laudato Si and in the background reporting on Christianity and the environment.  Instead, the media has been quick to develop a distorted narrative that puts Francis in the role as the first major international religious leader to link theology to environmental issues.  In short, the inexorable force of the Western narrative has already produced a distorted story about religion, innovation, leadership, and originality that sidelines Orthodoxy and that presents Orthodoxy’s theology, language, ideas, and actions as Roman Catholic, as Western—a case of appropriation without attribution.

The subject of Francis’ encyclical may have marked a first for the Roman Catholic Church but it is not a first for and within Christianity.  Furthermore, although the Pope’s lengthy encyclical may contain some new assertive calls for action in the spheres of politics, government, and economics, the theological underpinnings from which the encyclical proceeds are derivative of Orthodox theology, in general, and the work and writing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in particular.  Indeed, the encyclical’s central theme and repeated invocation of human stewardship and balance with nature represents a Roman Catholic volte-face, a complete rupture from the historic Roman Catholic materialist theology premised upon divine-right domination over the environment in favor of Orthodox thinking about the triune relationship between God, humanity, and nature.  Finally, inasmuch as the Vatican claims that Francis’ encyclical is intended as an ecumenical document to promote discussion and action within and across all faith traditions, it is equally important to respect the principles of ecumenicity by recognizing that such a discussion had been inaugurated well before the publication of Laudato Si and that the Pope’s encyclical is, in fact, an echo, a reflection, a product of that preexisting discussion, not its originating source.  In that spirit, the next two contributions to this blog will focus on the work of Francis’ forerunner in global environmentalism, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Mission: Impossible - Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday

I can hardly believe it, but Great Lent is almost over.

The 40-day Fast is nearing its end, and we have been through it all with Christ. 

We have climbed up the tree to get a glimpse of Him. We have been brought before Him by faithful friends and have had our sins forgiven. We have been thrown to the ground by evil spirits and have been lifted up by His grace. We have asked Him to give us whatever we want. 

And now, we stand on the verge of Holy Week, and we are about to welcome Him into our hearts, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Jn. 12:13)

And welcome Him we should!

After all, our celebration of Palm Sunday is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, as well as the joyful entry of fish into our stomachs for this brief interim between Great Lent and Holy Week. 

(That’s right: Great Lent doesn’t end with the Resurrection, it ends with the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.  We prepare for our preparation.)

So yes, Christ is triumphant. But exactly what is the triumph?

Just the day before Palm Sunday, we celebrate Lazarus Saturday, in which Jesus journeys to the town of Bethany because His friend Lazarus has fallen sick and died. 

Allow me to set the scene: a few days before traveling to Bethany, Jesus receives news that Lazarus is sick and that his sisters, Martha and Mary, are asking Christ to come heal Lazarus. When He hears this, however, He deliberately chooses to stay where He is for another TWO DAYS. Like a boss.

In fact, Jesus waits until He knows Lazarus is dead. And then He goes to Bethany.

When word gets to the sisters that Christ has finally arrived in Bethany, they each, in turn, say the same thing to Him: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). “If you had come just a little sooner,” they say. “Didn’t You hear? We told you he was sick, and now he’s dead.”

“Where were You when we needed you?”

Oh, how often my words to the Lord sound like this. 

The sisters offer this lament, their prayer sparked by the nothingness they are experiencing in the loss of their brother (on the one hand) and the faith they have in the One who could have saved Him (on the other hand).

And so they wonder: “Where were You?”

By the time they offer this lament to Christ, however, their brother has been dead four days, long enough for his body to begin to stink. 

He’s buried.


But Christ offers them hope – “Your brother will rise again” (Jn. 11:23)

“Yeah, yeah,” Martha says. “I know he will live again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn. 11:24).

But Christ isn’t interested in what Martha knows. He doesn’t want to hear the information she has learned in Sunday school. No, He invites her to trust in Him.  

I am the Resurrection and the Life,” He tells her (Jn. 11:25).

For Christ, belief in the resurrection is not doctrine regarding a future event, but rather, belief in the Resurrection is something to be located squarely in His Person. Jesus invites Martha and Mary not to hope for some future event, but rather to hope in Him, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the One who is coming into the world, He who is the Resurrection of the dead

So do we trust in Him, with the totality of our personhood? Or do we trust in what our brains “know” He can do?

The sisters expected that Jesus would arrive to cure their sick brother. After all, they had seen Him do this with others – certainly He could do it with their brother, who was Jesus’s friend! But Christ deliberately waits until this, the healing of the sick, is beyond the realm of possibility. Indeed, He waits until He is put in a place where He will be forced to do the impossible: raise the dead.

How often do we place our expectations on Christ? How often do we stand in prayer asking God why He didn’t act to do this or that for us? And how often does God subsequently burst through any limits we arbitrarily impose on Him? Our God is a God who raises the dead, for “with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk. 1:37). 

But this movement toward faith is hard.

It’s hard because sometimes God deliberately waits to act. Indeed, He waits until all that can be accomplished by human strength is no longer possible, and then – sometimes only then – will He act. Lazarus didn’t need to be sick or dead to manifest God’s ultimate power over death; Lazarus needed to be really dead – like, really, really dead. This work of Christ’s needed to be the clear and decisive work of God so that none could argue that God had indeed sent Christ (Jn. 11:42).

Sometimes God intentionally withholds His action in order to bring us to that point where we simply cry out to Him, pleading that He do something – anything. And what’s more: it will often be something we could never have anticipated. 

He wants to move us from what we know (or think we know) to genuine faith in Him

Christ’s triumph over death in Bethany paves the way for His entrance into Jerusalem, where the crowd welcomes Him gladly into their midst! Jesus has just done something spectacular, something that no human hand could have done. He has raised a man from the dead, restoring him to those who had counted him as lost forever! What cause is there to prevent fervent festivity and flaring fanfares? 

Let us, with the crowd, welcome Him with joy into our hearts!

But let us also approach this day with trepidation and great solemnity. For within only a matter of days, this crowd will turn their backs on Him. What were previously the shouts of a joyful crowd will quickly turn to the cries of a murderous mob. The mouths that proclaim “Blessed is He” will shortly be shouting “Crucify Him!”

And unfortunately, we are that crowd.

So where will we stand next week when they take Him away to be killed? Will we run away in fear and despair? 

Or will we stand beside Him and die with Him, trusting that He is a God who does the impossible and raises the dead?

-Christian Gonzalez 

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.


For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on what happens after we die, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on struggling with doubt, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Functions of Religion, and the Symbolism of a Myrtle Tree

The Izmir University of Economics honored His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome Bartholomew with the title of Honorary Doctor of Sociology on February 9, 2015.  The University’s Faculty Senate resolution conferring the honorary doctorate emphasized the fact that the title was being awarded to Bartholomew in recognition of his All Holiness’ service to humanity and contribution to interfaith dialogue.  After accepting his degree from Ogun Esen, the Rector of the University, Bartholomew delivered a speech, “Building Bridges: Interfaith Dialogue, Ecological Awareness, and the Culture of Solidarity.”  The Ecumenical Patriarch addressed University faculty and students, representatives of the Turkish state, members of the foreign diplomatic community in Izmir, members of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and others. 

The thematic pieces of Bartholomew’s speech, emphasizing dialogue, ecology, and human solidarity, were constructed as part of a fascinating architecture that addressed the timeless functions of religion.  His All Holiness established the context for his discussion by reflecting on “the return of God” in public life and world affairs.  Bartholomew observed that the longstanding modernist expectation of an end to religion has proven to be a flawed secularist prejudice, refuted by myriad expressions worldwide that indicate the reaffirmation of religion as a central dimension in private and public life in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, because of the historical and ongoing importance of religion, it is crucial to reevaluate the role and function of religion in and across cultures and societies.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew identified four crucial functions of religion.  One, “religion is connected with the deep concerns of the human being…which permanently affect the human soul.”  In other words, religion provides answers to humanity’s existential questions; it provides orientation, purpose, meaning, and understanding of life. 

Two, religion is fundamental to the identity of peoples and cultures and to the positive awareness and interaction between groups.  Bartholomew noted, “this is why knowledge of the belief and the religion of the other is an indispensable precondition of understanding otherness and of the establishment of communication and dialogue.” 

Three, religions, more than any other force in history, have created and preserved the greatest cultural achievements of humankind, essential moral values, and respect for human dignity and the living world.  His All Holiness reflected, “Religion is the arc of wisdom and of the spiritual inheritance of humanity.  Culture has in general the stamp of religion.  Even modern humanistic secular movements, for example the human rights movement, cannot be understood and evaluated independently of their religious roots.” 

Four, Bartholomew identified peacemaking as an essential function of religion.  Inasmuch as religion can be, and has been, used to divide people, such conditions and their results, including intolerance and violence, represent the failure of religion, not its essence, which is the protection of human life and dignity.  Reminding us that the revival of religion has a vital role to play in reconciliation and peace, His All Holiness pointed out, “In our times, the credibility of religions depends largely on their commitment to peace.  The way to peace and reconciliation is interreligious dialogue and cooperation in view of the main contemporary challenges, like the destruction of the natural environment and the growing economic and social crisis.”

Invoking the constructive perspective and hopefulness that comes from faith, Bartholomew observed that, although the world is, indeed, in crisis, never before in history have so many human beings, enabled by advances in technology, “had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people and to the global community simply through encounter and dialogue.  While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there has also never been greater chances for communication and dialogue.”

Two days before the February 9 event at the Izmir University of Economics, Bartholomew stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence through dialogue between people of every religion, in a sermon following the Divine Liturgy.  Bartholomew officiated that Liturgy in the only Greek Orthodox church in Izmir, historic Smyrna, a city where, less than a century ago, one would have encountered countless churches, chapels, and cathedrals serving hundreds of thousands of Christians.  The Divine Liturgy took place in the church of Aghios Voukolos (known as Ayavukla to the Turks).  Built in 1887 and named in honor of the patron saint of Smyrna, Saint Voukolos, a student of John the Apostle, and the first bishop of the once great cosmopolitan Greek port city, the church is situated in the district of Basmane, where, before their annihilation in 1922, the Armenian and Greek communities converged. 

Although it was charred, looted, and damaged, Aghios Voukolos was the only church to survive the notorious burning of Smyrna by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist Turkish forces in September 1922.  Following the murder and expulsion of Smyrna’s Christian population, the Turkish state authorities seized Aghios Voukolos and, after initially using the building for secular purposes and despite its official designation as an “archaeological museum,” eventually abandoned the structure in a deliberately act designed to promote the church’s erosion over many decades of neglect and decay.  In an arbitrary turn, the municipal government of Izmir undertook a restoration of the church from 2009 to 2012, with the project’s official goal being to save Aghios Voukolos as “a cultural, arts, and education center.” 

During his sermon, Bartholomew thanked Izmir’s current mayor, Aziz Kocaoglu, for preserving and renovating the Church of Aghios Voukolos, and called Smyrna “a city of creation and prosperity, but also a city of pain, grief, and suffering.”  Adding to the poignancy of the setting, the Divine Liturgy was attended by many descendants of the survivors and refugees of the destruction of Smyrna.  Following the Divine Liturgy, His All Holiness planted a myrtle tree in the church’s courtyard and lit a candle where, according to legend, Saint Voukolos’ tomb is located.  

While honorary degrees are well and good, they are symbolic gestures devoid of real meaning when absent the essence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s message in Smyrna.  His All Holiness’ spoken message of reconciliation, through remembrance and repentance, was amplified in his choice to plant a myrtle tree at Aghios Voukolos.  The myrtle tree was associated in Biblical times with love, repentance, rebuilding, and prosperity.  Today, Orthodox Christians still remember the destruction of Smyrna and its vibrant Armenian and Greek Christian populations.  However, Turkey’s government denies its own actions—there is no remembering, because there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the act of religious cleansing, part of the larger process of genocide against Ottoman Turkey’s Christians, that culminated in the destruction of Smyrna.  Because there is no acknowledgement, there is no repentance.  And without repentance, there can be no true reconciliation, no meaningful and honest dialogue. 

The newly planted myrtle tree at the Church of Aghios Voukolos can bear fruit only if there is acknowledgment and repentance by Turkey of what all Orthodox Christians still remember.  Only then can there be true reconciliation.  Only then will Aghios Voukolos become a living church, an ecclesial space reflecting the potential of reconciliation through love.  In the meanwhile, the newly refurbished Church of Aghios Voukolos and its small myrtle tree will stand as an eternal reminder of what once was.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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