Entries with tag faith matters .

Faith Witness in Albania

Albania, which is not high on most desirable destination lists, has long competed against a not-so-untruthful global reputation. Having spent 12 days touring most of the country, I can attest that some clichés are rightly earned. But any minor nation that spent 45 years of the last century completely isolated under a repressive and paranoid Communist dictator may have a few issues here and there.

However, despite Albania’s underdevelopment, there is a beauty to the land and the people that is slowly garnering attention. One such dimension is the religious plurality that has blossomed out of the world’s first atheist state.

Due to its history and geographic location, an intricate religious web is woven in Albania. Throughout the first millennium, the territory of modern Albania was essentially split with the northern half belonging to the Western Roman Empire and the southern portion belonging to the Eastern, resulting in Catholic and Orthodox populations, respectively. The territory changed hands a few times as the Bulgarians, Serbians, and Venetians all vied for control in the Late Middle Ages. Finally, the rise of the Ottoman Empire consumed the Balkan peninsula and brought Sunni Islam, from which sprouted the Bektashi order of Sufism. Many Albanian natives converted to Islam, by choice or by force, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians survived albeit in an oppressive condition.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

 

After World War II, Enver Hoxha seized Albania’s government as first secretary of the country’s communist party and held grip until his death in 1985. During his reign, Hoxha pushed communist objectives that makes Joseph Stalin seem like a reasonable man. By 1967, his aggressive agenda officially outlawed the practice of religion. Whereas even the Soviet Union left some wiggle room, Albania became the first nation to mandate strict atheism as government policy.

Churches and mosques were destroyed or converted into hotels and nightclubs, clerics were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, and the people were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers in fear of their lives. When communism finally toppled in 1991, the religious landscape was decimated. Yet, like tiny seedlings in an arid climate, the consciousness of Albania’s religious communities revived as democracy opened the floodgates.

Learning from its experiences, history has taught Albania the necessity of a peaceful religious coexistence. Now a secular state, the small country does not ignore or repel the importance of its local religious traditions. As the new parliament was forming, civil authorities worked with religious leaders to ensure a smooth, tolerant transition that would minimize the risk of an extremist takeover.

The spiritual leaders of these communities have worked tirelessly over the last twenty-five years to fulfill the underserved needs of the Albanian people. Outreach programs, such as food and homeless shelters, orphanages, vocational schools and medical facilities, were established to fill the gaps of a government trying to get back on its feet. They even helped rebuild each other’s places of worship.

In all that they did, Albanian Muslims and Christians did it freely for the love of God and the love of their neighbor. Herein lies the foundation of World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins today.

Declared in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, World Interfaith Harmony Week was proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan after witnessing the ongoing religious turmoil in the Middle East. A common thread of the Abrahamic faiths, King Abdullah reiterated the greatest commandment of loving both God and neighbor with all one’s heart, mind and soul.

From this, the United Nations has proclaimed the first week of February as a time to “spread…the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship…based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.”

World Interfaith Harmony Week serves an important purpose in our increasing secular lives today. It sets aside time to reflect on our relationships with our religious neighbors. How well do we know each other? Are we cooperating for the greater good of society and the honor of God? Do we see Christ in our neighbors?

Such interaction does not give reason to compete with other faiths or water down one’s own, but rather it provides the opportunity to bear witness to one’s faith. For an Orthodox Christian, all interreligious engagements should be approached with humility, asking “what can I learn?” And upon observing our neighbor, we then ask “what can I offer?” What we learn and what we offer will depend on the circumstances, yet we always respond with the same embrace the Church offers her children.

Albania is just one of the many parts of the world where the Good Samaritan has strengthened communities and given life to the beaten and downtrodden. World Interfaith Harmony Week invites us all to return to the core of our beliefs, that innate goodness with which Christ created all people—the goodness sought and expressed by all faith traditions—so that we may be the Good Samaritan Christ has called us to become.

Demonstrating Faith Through Works: Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017

Ephesians 6:12

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”- Ephesians 6:12

Each year on January 27, the United Nations commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day,[1] corresponding with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. This Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, articulates a unique, yet significant concept that is often missing from acknowledgement of historical atrocities: while it is certainly important to remember those who have been lost, it is equally as significant to learn from these events so that we may ensure it does not happen again. In doing so, we can provide an element of hope to an otherwise somber day by showcasing those who, in the face of evil, demonstrated love, compassion and courage.

As Christians, we have a duty to preserve the shared memory with our fellow man of the greatest evil of the 20th century, in order that we never see it repeated. Attempting to comprehend why and how the Holocaust was allowed to happen is an arduous task, filled with political, cultural and societal complexities better left for another post. However, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew gave some clarity from a Christian perspective. Upon visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he remarked:

“The images of this place, the terror of which we glimpse but for a moment here, was suffered in the unspeakable depths of living images of God -- men, women and children…We must understand that such depravity of human action was caused by a deprivation of human spirit.  We cannot help but see in this place that Jews and Christians bear a special responsibility toward the hope and guarantee that this terrible evil must never again take root within the human psyche.”

Despite the horrors of this period, we can take some element of solace in the fact that when faced with brutality, many of our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters stood up in the face of this evil to protect the value of all human life, whether or not they were Christian.

To demonstrate, I call to your attention the story of Yolanda Avram Willis, a native of Thessaloniki and a child during World War II. Called a ‘hidden child,’ Mrs. Willis was born into a Jewish family, one of thousands of Jewish Greeks living in Greece at the time.[2] When the war finally arrived in Greece in 1940, many Greeks, including clergy members and bishops, protected and hid their Jewish brothers and sisters in order to safeguard their well-being. Because of her religion, Mrs. Willis and her family, along with thousands of other Jewish Greeks, had to adopt a new identity to evade persecution at the hands of Nazi officials that had infiltrated Greece.

She and her family moved around Greece, hiding in the mountains of Crete and seeking refuge in caves. Her family ultimately separated, merging with different Orthodox Christian families, and her parents were able to convince authorities that they were childless. After pretending to be non-Jewish, she was finally reunited with her family after four years, and they eventually made their way to the United States, where she remains today. [3]

With the spirit of Mrs. Willis and all those who aided her in mind, it is important to recognize the effort and struggle that they went through when faced with ‘spiritual wickedness and their fight against ‘principalities…powers… and the rulers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). Patriarch Bartholomew notes that “silence in the face of injustice, silence in the shadows of helpless suffering, silence in the darkness of Auschwitz's bitter night will never again be allowed. True Christian faith ought to be manifest toward every people of faith, any faith.”

This was best exemplified through Mrs. Willis’ story, along with numerous other examples of individuals putting others ahead of themselves. Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, risking harm when Nazi officials arrived in the city demanding a list of all Jews, falsified thousands of baptismal certificates in order to hide the true identities of these citizens from the Nazi officials.[4] Similarly, the Athens police chief Angelos Evert provided over 27,000 false identity papers to those attempting to flee Greece after orders came in from the Nazis to procure a list of all those Jews currently living in Athens.[5]

As Christians, it is important to ensure that we are not Christian in name only, but in our actions as well. Outside of these examples, history is full of indifferent populaces to ongoing injustices, meaning people often struggle to connect their faith with their actions. As we hear in the Epistle of James: “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble” (James 2:18-19).

The rescuers of the Jews in Greece and around the world were living testaments to the Christian faith. They understood that to have faith alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by action as well. (James 2:24-26). We have the ability to discern right from wrong, but we must look outward towards our fellow man, both Christian and non-Christian alike, and ensure that when we perceive an injustice, we do not look the other way, ensuring that our faith is aligned with our actions.                                                                                                                  

 

Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.


[1] https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/

[2] http://holocaustcenterpgh.org/exhibitions/in-celebration-of-life-living-legacy-project/yolanda-willis-2/

[3] http://triblive.com/news/valleynewsdispatch/10228514-74/willis-family-holocaust

[4] http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/es/generales/archbishop-damaskinos/

[5] Id.

Reflections from Yad Vashem: Israel’s Official Holocaust Memorial

The United Nations is remembering the Holocaust this week through a series of programs and activities related to the theme of “educating for a better future.”

 

Coincidentally, I was in Israel just three weeks ago and found myself at Yad Vashem, the country’s official memorial to the victims of that catastrophe. One of its primary aims is education.

 

For those wondering, the name “Yad Vashem” in Biblical Hebrew comes from the book of Isaiah:

 

Even to them I will give in My house

And within My walls a place and a name

Better than that of sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

That shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:5)

 

The name “Yad Vashem” conveys the memorial’s purpose as a place where the names of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims can be enshrined forever, even those who have no one to carry their names after death.

 

I admit, it came as somewhat of a personal surprise that this visit to Yad Vashem was one of the most moving moments of my life, as the complex’s museum and various monuments present an exceptionally robust and sensitive encapsulation of the Holocaust’s pain, endurance and hope all in one place—on the western slope of Mount Herzl on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

 

Yad Vashem is an emotionally weighty site for Jews for obvious reasons; for non-Jews, it is not only an abiding reminder of our shared humanity, but of how a festering prejudice can beguile the public firmament and bring about the worst and most destructive tendencies in all of us.

 

The museum—easily one of the best I have ever visited—begins with a snapshot of the many early 20th century Jewish communities in Europe before pivoting to Adolf Hitler’s rise and the genesis of German anti-Semitism.

 

The museum was careful to illustrate that despite Hitler’s and his ministers’ fanaticism, the bulk of the Holocaust’s many atrocities were committed by very regular people who were deceived and poisoned by decades of propagated fear.

 

Of course, an event like the Holocaust attracts the most sadistic and antisocial individuals in a society; but it’s the horrible crimes otherwise good people committed against fellow human beings—many of them their own neighbors—that should strike a nerve in all of us.

 

The act of murder being so unnatural, young German soldiers often had to get drunk before they could make themselves shoot an innocent Jewish man, woman or child for the first time. But many of them later recounted that it got easier the more times they did it, and that it eventually became easy.

 

In fact, it is important to note that no German soldier was ever punished for refusing to kill a Jew—contrary to popular belief, those duties were entirely optional.

 

This prompted our tour guide to ask: When the humiliation, torture and murder of innocent people becomes easy, who really loses their humanity? The victims or the perpetrators?

 

If those German soldiers occupy one end of Yad Vashem’s portrait of humanity, the opposite can be found in its Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Along with thousands of trees, the garden contains walls inscribed with the 26,120 individuals who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

 

The title “Righteous Among the Nations” is, in fact, the highest honor bestowed by the State of Israel to non-Jews, and entitles the recipient to a medal and a certificate, along with Israeli citizenship with a pension and free healthcare for life should he or she choose to resettle.

 

The distinction is given without regard to the social status of the person—queens and princesses to the most humble individuals have all been recognized. People who fit somewhere in the middle, like the famous Oskar and Emilie Schindler, have their names engraved on the walls as well.

 

Yad Vashem works tirelessly to ensure that visitors remain in the present. Its museum, for example, does not formally end; enormous glass doors lead out of the building to the edge of the mountain and a stunning view of the hills surrounding Jerusalem—meant to symbolize that the history and the memory of the Holocaust itself do not actually end.

 

In a literal sense, they do not end because victims continue to be identified and Righteous continue to be honored. In a symbolic sense, they cannot end because the risk of a similar catastrophe always remains.

 

Hitler, our guide reminded us, did not take power in a violent revolution. He was peacefully elected by a willing public.

 

As the U.N. commemorates the Holocaust this week, we know that its painful memory does not belong only to Jews. It belongs to all of us—to every human being who has a voice in this world.

 

The memory of those 6 million victims charges each and every one of us to recall and revoke the depravity of their untimely and violent deaths, and insists with fervent conviction that such a catastrophe must never happen again. The normalization and institutionalization of bigotry must never happen again.

 

We must educate, like Yad Vashem and like the U.N. this week do, both ourselves and those we know.

 

And then we must ask ourselves: Are we the deceived, or are we the righteous?

 

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).


The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

Health and Human Rights in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS: A Modern-Day Civil Rights Struggle

As Orthodox Christians, we are charged with viewing people of all races equally, both under God as well as societally. This stems not from political opinion, but rather our shared view that we are all created in His image.

This year, as we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reminded of his tremendous work towards racial equality and the sacrifices he made for civil rights. When evaluating the impact he has had on the world, we must not become complacent. As Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory articulated in his explanation for being in Selma and marching with Rev. King: “We cannot be Christians in name, and not in spirit and action.” We must be knowledgeable and prepared to act while injustice endures. This is felt quite vividly in the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. And while HIV/AIDS is not often associated with the civil rights movement, the racial components of the crisis renders it a crucial part of the path to realizing Dr. King’s vision.

Since the first cases of AIDS began to spread in the early 1980s, significant improvements have been made around the world in both the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Despite the advances, many argue that HIV/AIDS is a civil rights issue, centered on the fact that it disproportionately affects the African-American community compared to its share of the overall population. African-Americans represent about 12% of the U.S. population, yet they make up approximately 44% of new infections of HIV.[1] Similarly, they account for 49% of new AIDS diagnoses, both demonstrating a lingering impact of the disease that isn’t shared by all demographic groups. As of 2013, there were more than 1.1 million individuals living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; alarmingly, 506,000 of those were African American!

This trend does not seem to be improving. While the overall number of infections and deaths have decreased, a disparity remains and will endure unless we provide the appropriate medical aid to this population. In the U.S., the numbers for new cases of HIV/AIDS tends to be more prevalent in a few specific groups, for a variety of reasons. For example, the LGBT community, individuals living in rural communities, and those of lower socioeconomic status all have higher rates of infection than the general population.[2] Nonetheless, the African-American population intersects with all these population subsets, yet we do not see similar rates of infection.

Dr. Donna McCree, Associate Director for Health Equity of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, suggests a disappointing, yet insightful explanation for this phenomenon. She describes a so-called ‘perfect storm’ of economic and cultural barriers that have led to the lagging and disproportionately high rates of infection among the African-American population.

Things like higher incarceration rates, lower medical coverage rates, and substance abuse all impact contraction. Similarly, contracting the disease has a negative impact on a person’s socioeconomic status by constraining their ability to be employed and earn income.[3]  For example, 45% of individuals with HIV/AIDS are unemployed[4] which, coupled with the remaining stigmas faced at both familial and clinical levels, can discourage individuals from seeking treatment, further exacerbating the problem.

Civil rights have maintained a central place in the Church’s message of unconditional love during the latter half of the 20th century and continues to serve as a catalyst for mutual understand, respect and love among all people. Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America summed up our mission in a 1963 statement:

But the Christians of America should feel that they have a special mandate to work for equal rights for all. We are challenged to prove that the Legions of Christ can, in His Name, uphold these rights wherever and whenever they are endangered. Christian love is not a semantic symbol. It is a commandment to which we must conform our actions as Christians and strive in every way to make a reality, consistent with the will of God which was expressed by His Son Jesus Christ when He said, Love ye one another.

This message remains our focus today. Individuals with HIV/AIDS continue to be possess the image of God, and we are mandated to overcome our own shortcomings and love them, have mercy on them, and pray for them. True to Iakovos’ vision in 1963, the Orthodox Church is not only a supporter of civil rights as an idea and political theory, it seeks to put into practice the love of Christ in her own work. Humanitarian organizations such as IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities), which partners with local churches around the world to serve the needs of those most vulnerable, and FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve), which offers adults and children access to healthcare through their medical centers, have helped the Church and her communicants answer the call to love one another as children of God, irrespective of our racial or ethnic differences.

 

Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.


[1] http://files.kff.org/attachment/fact-sheet-black-americans-and-hiv-aids

[2] http://www.ebony.com/wellness-empowerment/aids-2012-new-data-show-black-gay-men-face-worlds-highest-risk-of-hiv#axzz2JxYL2v1J

[3] http://www.ebony.com/news-views/the-state-of-hivaids-in-black-america-405#axzz4VEXkJse0

[4] http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/hiv-aids.aspx

 

 

Sowing Kernels of Truth

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. 

This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

 

During his great life, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a multitude of sermons and speeches, both prepared and spontaneous, to audiences as small as a few dozen and as large as a few hundred thousand. Words were his most influential instrument in the struggle for equal civil rights against the systematic segregation imposed by a country claiming “liberty and justice for all.” As he spoke, his words were both Biblical and prophetic, and he was never shy at projecting God’s truth in the face of evil.

Truth is held tightly by the Orthodox Church. Since Christ’s crucifixion and glorious resurrection, the Church has maintained the fullness of the truth of His message, which is, as it relates to human relationships, the genuine communication of love. Such is an innate intention of all the world’s major faiths and traditions. Some might argue this contradicts the claim of Orthodoxy or dilutes the richness and diversity of world religions. However, from the Orthodox perspective, this is completely compatible through the anthropological element of creation. In creating man in His image and likeness, God breathed life into dirt and we became more than just beings, we became temples of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth. Therefore, Truth dwells within all mankind, to the degree at which we allow it, and all people are capable of expounding “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

If every person possesses the kernel of truth and love, how then does man allow himself to turn against his fellow man? The Orthodox Church attributes the actions against love to the Fall of Adam and Eve, the moment when humanity thought itself better than to need an authentic relationship with God. With the Fall came the birth of sin, which distorts the treasures of love and truth into desire and injustice. Sin is a heavy veil that proceeds to blind the needs of those around us. Contemplating on the antithesis of love, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania offers the notion that it is not hate that severs relationships but rather the ego. Often interpreted as the opposite of love, hate is merely one of the many ramifications of when the ego within becomes too strong to tame. Jealousy, greed, and lust are also among the consequences. These negative traits are therefore unnatural to the human person in that they draw us away from attaining God’s likeness and keep us away from each other.

Dr. King and other civil rights leaders of his time were acutely aware that the fight for equality began countless generations before them, even before the discovery of the New World. For too long, the ego has sought to manipulate the hearts and minds of those with an advantageous position over another. The ego has infiltrated every society and institution in which man takes part, which is how the government of “one Nation under God, indivisible,” justified the indoctrination of divisibility. King recognized the ego’s puppeteering presence behind segregation, writing, “It not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and degrades the personality. It inflicts the segregated with a false sense of inferiority, while confirming the segregator in a false estimate of his own superiority.” The United States, challenged by cumulative egos of apprehensive or racist whites, could not accept the tremendous racial and economic divide to which it had grown accustom.

Thrust into the international spotlight during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, the endeavor for equality of all people catalyzed like never before. King led the crusade against the unjust power of one man over another with his championed combat method of dialogue and rhetoric. Instead of turning to the violent uses of force and defamation which evil invites, King opted for the purity of Christ’s message by “speaking the truth in love.”

Despite the obstacles of prison, physical assault, and death threats, Dr. King remained steadfast in his promotion of love. Like a gardener tending to his rosebuds, King patiently appealed to that kernel of truth within every person, nurturing its growth with every opportune speech, sermon, and interview. That truth, through the power of its natural purity, unravels ego’s veil, and invigorates the Spirit that dwells within. King sought a change in public policy by means of a change in the hearts of the public. He understood that beyond the unjust governmental regulations and discriminatory laws was a dark force obstructing the intrinsic compassion of the opposition: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The illumination of King’s words motivated love, ultimately changing the way racial segregation and inequality is viewed in our country.

April 4, 1968 was a day when darkness overcame one man’s heart so much so that he acted on the desire to take Dr. King’s life. King foreshadowed his death the night before while offering his final sermon in Memphis: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The shock of his assassination was not enough to stifle his message nor stir hate among his followers. His words were powerful, moving, and germinated the kernels of truth of even those strewn on rocks and among thorns. To this day and for generations more, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s God-inspired message lives on despite his untimely death, proving that indeed “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

____________________

Andrew Calivas is the Coordinator of Ecumenical Projects for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations

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