Entries with tag human rights .

“Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery”—Dispatches from the Ecumenical Patriarchate

The problem of slavery, one of humanity’s greatest evils, remains with us today. The overt chattel form of slavery, which Christian abolitionists raged against in the nineteenth century, has all but disappeared, but new less visible forms of bondage and exploitation have arisen. In fact, one of the most severe abuses of human rights, modern slavery is a concealed crime that is a pervasive aspect of contemporary life, operating on a global scale.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recently became the international fulcrum for addressing the scourge of modern slavery. Under the auspices of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a global gathering, “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery,” took place in Istanbul, February 6-7, 2017. The result of an initiative by His All-Holiness Bartholomew and His Grace Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and Primate of All England, launched during Bartholomew’s official Patriarchal visit to the Church of England’s Lamberth Palace in November 2015, the Forum brought together more than 70 distinguished scholars, religious leaders, government officials, non-governmental experts, and policymakers from across the globe.

Inasmuch as Orthodoxy—the living continuation of the Early Church—has always taught human dignity, personhood, and freedom as fundamental to Christian belief and practice, it is natural and fitting that the Ecumenical Patriarchate should champion the international cause of ending slavery in all its forms. These fundamental Orthodox convictions are affirmed by Saint Paul’s pronouncement that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). The Church Father, Saint, and Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, described slavery as “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery, the fruit of sin and of human rebellion against our true Father.”

As a Patriarchal successor to Chrysostom, Bartholomew continues in contemporary times the Orthodox Church’s unwavering commitment to universal freedom and human dignity. Moreover, His All-Holiness has consistently made clear through his own long, salient record of work and activism that the Church’s responsibility is to combine belief and practice, to actualize faith through the organic connection to action. Honoring the belief that religious leaders are obligated to speak out against social injustice and exploitation, Bartholomew, through the Patriarchate’s Forum on modern slavery, focused attention on an invisible, but wide-reaching crime against humanity.

The magnitude and pernicious effects of modern slavery are enormous. More people are enslaved today than at any other time in human history. The most authoritative research on this subject, produced by the Global Slavery Index, indicates that at present, almost 46 million people in over 160 countries are captive in some form of modern slavery. This shocking reality, however, is obscured by the continued emphasis on the race-based model of Colonial-era New World slavery, which ignores the shift to globalized contemporary slave practices and forms, and which promotes the modernist conceit that slavery was ended in the West with the American Civil War. The current manifestations of slavery, as systematically outlined and analyzed by several of the Patriarchal Forum’s presenters and discussants, are oftentimes subtler and, therefore, more subversive than past forms of open slavery. Examples of modern slavery include human smuggling and human trafficking, forced sex trafficking of children and adults, involuntary domestic servitude, forced labor, coercive bonded labor or debt bondage, abduction and forced conscription of children as soldiers, and the enslavement of children and women as spoils of war.

Although the enslaved today are predominantly associated with conflict zones in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, slavery in the twenty-first century is deeply rooted in many societies across the globe. India, for example, with 18.4 million people living in slavery, has the ignominious distinction of leading the world’s list of enslaved populations by country. China is second with 3.4 million, followed by Pakistan, which has more than 2.1 million enslaved people. Four other Asian countries each have enslaved populations that exceed one million. Leading the list of Middle Eastern countries are Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, each with roughly 500,000 people living in slavery. The undeniably globalized nature and networks of modern slavery implicates all countries, from developing countries to those in the developed West, as morally damaged and institutionally corrupted by the presence of enslaved human beings in the midst of these societies. In the United States, it is estimated that approximately 58,000 people exist in conditions defined as slavery.

The international community has a mixed record in its response to the problem of modern slavery. While several states, especially those with strong civil societies and traditions of government accountability, enjoy good reputations for combatting modern slavery, many other states, in particular those with closed and authoritarian systems, are characterized by government complicity. With few exceptions, virtually all states and their corresponding media have demonstrated very little interest in addressing the problem of modern slavery. This general attitude of disinterest helps to explain public unawareness, misunderstanding, and indifference to the plight of the enslaved and to the conditions that fuel modern slavery. Finally, although the international community has to some extent evolved to identify the changing forms of slavery and has recognized its gross human rights abuses, it has failed, often despite good intentions, to establish effective enforcement mechanisms to fight slavery.

Through His All-Holiness’ widely recognized leadership in raising international awareness of and activism on environmental issues, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has demonstrated that the Orthodox Church provides both a global network, and a living theological commitment that can transcend geopolitical impediments and the limitations of states in tackling some of the world’s most serious problems. With this same characteristic understanding and vision, Bartholomew inspired and brought to fruition “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery.” Indeed, as in his seminal work on the environment, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has emphasized the unique transnational structural resources, capacity, and moral framework that enable the Orthodox Church to be a natural agent for change, emancipation, and healing when it comes to ending slavery in today’s world.

In His All-Holiness’ keynote address to the Forum on February 7, Bartholomew reflected on the immutable bonds between humanity’s stewardship of creation and the moral imperative to abolish slavery and protect human dignity: “We live in a world full of contradictions. Prosperity grows amidst famine; the struggle for peace and reconciliation is confronted with terrorism and the spread of hatred and religious fundamentalism; ecological movements coexist with technocracy and the deification of economic growth; the protection of human rights is confronted with social injustice and the lack of respect for human dignity as well as the phenomenon of modern slavery. This is precisely why we are convinced that responding to the problem of modern slavery is directly and inseparably linked to creation care, which has been at the very center of our patriarchal ministry over the last quarter century. The entire world is the body of Christ, just as human beings are the very body of Christ. The whole planet bears the traces of God, just as every person is created in the image of God. The way we respect creation reflects the way we respond to our fellow human beings. The scars that we inflict on our environment reveal our willingness to exploit our brother and sister.”

His Grace Archbishop of Canterbury Justin echoed and amplified Bartholomew’s insights. In His Grace’s address, Justin observed that slavery does not occur in isolation, that it is nourished by conflict, chaos, and the breakdown of rule of law, and that it persists because it remains a highly profitable criminal activity. Speaking to the decisive role played by Christian Churches historically and at present in providing relief to ravaged populations, Justin commented: “I am reminded that the Church, like no other organization, is there before, during, and after conflict. Churches in these situations find themselves in the front line in the battle against modern day slavery. We need to look at ways of strengthening the capacity of Churches in conflict and fragile states to provide compassionate and loving service to those at risk. We need to resource them to identify the telltale signs of slavery and to support them to challenge the stigma that many survivors experience.”

Emphasizing their unity of purpose, Bartholomew and Justin presented a Joint Declaration at the close of the Forum. The Declaration condemned “all forms of human enslavement as the most heinous of sins, inasmuch as it violates the free will and the integrity of every human being created in the image of God.” The Declaration detailed ways the Orthodox Church and the Church of England will collaborate in the battle against modern slavery. In addition to establishing a joint taskforce, the Declaration emphasized the importance of local, national, and global alliance building to widen the networks of public and private institutions that together can produce tangible responses to the problem of slavery.

Earlier, in his keynote address, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew cast in sharp relief the path forward for confronting and defeating modern slavery: “How then can we face this crisis? How can we attempt to heal the wounds of our divided world? It is obvious that such a problem demands from us all immense mobilization, common action, common goals, strength and responsibility. Nobody—no state, no Church, no religion, neither science nor technology—can face the current challenges alone. We regard the worldwide crisis as an opportunity for building bridges, for openness and mutual trust. Our future is common and the way towards it is a common journey.”

The Orthodox Church can help light the path on which that common journey must unfold. Christian theology, Eastern and Western, proclaims that Christ came to free the oppressed, to end abominations to human dignity. Both Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin reminded us through “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery,” that theology is to be lived and transformed into action. In that way, we all have a responsibility to help break the chains of slavery that deny people their God-given freedom to experience dignity and the fullness of life.

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.

Health and Literacy: An Often Overlooked Connection That Impacts Lives

 

2016 marks the celebration of two important milestones: the 50th anniversary of World Literacy Day and the implementation of a new United Nations agenda, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These targets converge on many issues, but one important one is often overlooked, namely, literacy. Broadly defined, literacy is the ability to read and write, and ultimately comprehend information. While these skills are important by themselves, they can be impactful on essential aspects of daily life, particularly health and wellness, and they can affect morbidity and mortality rates. Since the right to health has been declared by the UN since 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, this suggests that these issues are intertwined in such a way that when one improves, the other will consequently improve.

Literacy is a tool used to educate and empower individuals around the world. It is part of Sustainable Development Goal #4, which seeks to “ensure inclusive quality education and promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies.” But literacy means far more than a person’s ability to read and write: it has a direct connection to a person’s quality of life and mortality. Studies have shown that limited literacy acts as an indicator of poor health. It leads to life-threatening errors when taking medication, poorer understanding of diseases and their root causes, as well limited access to preventative care measures. Barriers to literacy also limit people’s ability to address chronic conditions and various other health-related issues. These studies have shown that when a person’s literacy is poor, they face difficulties that others do not, including communicating with healthcare professionals about their health.

Imagine, for example, a scenario where a person has a condition that is not easily diagnosable through basic examination. If the patient lacks the cognitive ability to either describe his or her symptoms, or is incapable of comprehending the instructions given by the medical professional, they will suffer accordingly.

According to the 2015 figures articulated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 757 million adults presently lack literacy skills. This means that a significant portion of the world’s population has an increased mortality rate and a higher risk for health problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that the majority of deaths are the result of chronic conditions. This includes physical ailments like diabetes and hypertension, but also various mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Here is where the two issues converge, creating an opportunity to improvements in both health and literacy.

Health Literacy describes a patient’s ability to process information related to their health. This means that the patient should be able to comprehend the information provided to them by medical professionals, thereby avoiding diagnosis and treatment problems. If a person is unable to obtain or lacks the skills to comprehend certain information, he or she will be unable to properly look out for him or herself, nor make appropriate health-conscious decisions. In order to combat the rise in these conditions, it has been argued that individuals need to engage in the practice of self-management, which outlines the skills and practices needed in order for a person to learn how to live with certain conditions, thus improving their daily lives while simultaneously reducing mortality.

With improved literacy, individuals will be able to self-manage a significant portion of their ailments. Due to the day-to-day nature of many chronic conditions, individuals must be able to understand health information, including instructions regarding a particular health regimen, or the ability to plan and execute any lifestyle changes that need to be made. In countries and particular populations with low literacy rates, the ability to self-manage is diminished. Thus, those individuals are at a higher risk for health problems. For example, an individual with poor literacy skills who suffers from diabetes may be unaware that they are presently living with the condition, or if they do know about it, they may be ignorant of treatment methods. Diabetes typically requires vigilant control over one’s diet and the constant checking of blood sugar, both of which, if done correctly, allow for a relatively normal life. Ignored, and that person may struggle to participate in daily activities. With increased literacy will come the recognition of self-management skills, namely that blood sugar needs to be maintained.

Recognizing the correlation between literacy and health will ultimately benefit both issues. After fifty years of acknowledging literacy as an essential issue, connected to many facets of life for the world, things have certainly improved. There are 50 million fewer illiterate people in the world today than fifteen years ago thanks to the work of governments, the private sector and various organizations dedicated to this issue. Despite this, however, work remains to be done.  According to the UNESCO, 250 million children are likely to enter adulthood without basic literacy skills. And these problems do not exist in isolation of other problems: many exist because of a particular population or country’s inability to escape from a cycle of poverty and illiteracy. By improving at least one of these issues, literacy, you will be potentially removing a burden to escaping that cycle, while simultaneously creating a healthier existence for many.

 

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 (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

 

 

Sources:

MLK & Iakovos: Living Icons of Christ

On the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” a feast that commemorates the Church’s victory over iconoclasm. For over a century (726-843 AD), the Church was divided between the iconoclasts, who argued against the use and veneration of icons, and the iconodules (or iconophiles), who maintained that the veneration of icons was consistent with the tradition and teachings of the Church. During this time, the champions of Orthodoxy stressed that the presence of icons in the life of the Church was not a form of idolatry, but rather, served as windows to heaven, connecting humanity to Christ—to God. Preserving this teaching was of paramount importance because it was grounded in the Incarnation. In other words, if the Church rejected the use of icons, especially the icon of Christ, it would affirm a false teaching of the Incarnation, namely that the Son of God did not really take on flesh.

For many of us today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is an opportunity to be proud of our faith and heritage. We go to church with our families, bearing the icon of our patron saints in hand. We are proud to be Orthodox, we say, and thankful that we are not members of some other religion. Interestingly, in their eagerness to celebrate membership in the Orthodox Church, many forget that their current status is largely due to circumstances outside of their control. Of course, this is not the case with those who have embraced Orthodoxy as adults or for all those who were baptized as infants and who later reaffirmed their faith as adults.

Undeniably, there are moments in life when all people have given thanks (sometime to God) that they are not viewed as other. The divide between us verses the them could be drawn along a number of issues, including, gender, age, class, political affiliation, wealth, and of course, race. While it is possible for people to move from one condition to another (e.g. wealth and poverty), it is not always possible to make such a transition in all circumstances. One’s race, for instance, cannot be changed.

Indeed, it is not only impossible for someone to change her race; it is impossible for her to keep it hidden (at least, not very easily), making it even easier to be considered other.

The Orthodox Church, for over two millennia, has engaged in the struggle to view and treat all people as equals, especially equal under God. Such a position has not been shaped by holding onto a certain political position, but rather, by maintaining the revelation that all people, since the moment of creation, are created in the image of God. This crown of this truth is found in the Incarnation—when the Son of God takes on flesh, is crucified and later rises from the dead for all people. Of course, there are moments in history where this legacy is pronounced, and other instances where the Church is seemingly absent from the debate.

In March of 1965, through the person of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory, the Orthodox Church was not only present in the effort to overcome racism, it assumed a central role. As the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America, Iakovos was able to take a local movement and transfer its message on an ecumenical platform. Indeed, according to Coretta Scott King, Archbishop Iakovos’ willingness to submit to the dangers of the struggle “elevated the struggle” and highlighted the importance of the Civil Rights Movement [1].

In his remarks at the memorial service for the Reverend James Reeb, Archbishop Iakovos declared that he traveled to Selma “to show [his] willingness to continue the fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution” [2]. Later, following the events in Selma, the Archbishop reminds both his supporters and critics that the noble cause of equality for all was “the essence of our Christianity, behind which we cannot shield ourselves with righteousness.” He goes on and affirms, “We cannot be Christians in name, and not in spirit and action. If our most prized possession is merely the respectability of Christianity, then we bring to it nothing but disrepute and dishonor. Christianity is not a jewel for safe keeping; it is a living thing which struggles with the challenge of an evil, rejoices spiritually when the evil is overcome, and dies when the challenge remains unmet and the evil triumphs” [3].

From these and other statements by Archbishop Iakovos, it is clear that in March of 1965, the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” was upheld in Selma, Alabama. The universal truth of Orthodoxy was pronounced in Selma not because people bore icons in their hands, but rather, because the men and women who gathered there bore witness to the truth in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, and in churches [4]. And through their struggle against prejudice and racism, Dr. King and Archbishop Iakovos reaffirmed that the all people are living icons of God, deserving to be treated with love, dignity and respect. 

Theophania and the Human Right to Water

By Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, with Theodore Pritsis

As we enter 2015 and celebrate the Feast of Theophany, Orthodox Christians are presented with an opportune moment to reflect on a recently passed resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015.”  It’s a fair bet that most Orthodox Christians, indeed, most U.S. citizens, are unaware that we are entering the final year in a decade of efforts spearheaded by the UNGA aimed towards achieving the goal of “sustainable development of water resources,” and more fundamentally, towards ensuring the actualization of “the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation,” a right which the UNGA recognize as “essential to the realisation of all human rights.”  

It’s probably a safe bet that most of us do not stop to think about the enormous blessing that is our access to clean water and sanitation, much less to consider the implications choosing/having to purchase bottled water at the nearest grocery or convenience store.  It’s also likely that we are unaware of the fact that regular, unimpeded access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a point of growing tension and conflict in the Holy Land, especially at the Jordan River, the place of the original Theophania

Before turning to consider water in the Holy Land,  let’s review some basic data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia: as of 2010, an estimated 780 million men, women, and children worldwide (11% of the world’s population) did not have access to safe water sources; more than 2.5 billion people (over 35% of the global population) did not have access to sustainable sanitation; and, of the 801,000 children under the age of five die from illnesses caused by unsafe and inadequate water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation.  Even these few statistics should be enough, at the least, to raise curiosity about, and more justifiably, to end indifference to, water as a major human rights issue in the 21st century. 

Within the specific context of the Holy Land, the urgency and complexity of water as a human rights issue takes on tragic dimensions—for, in the lands of Jesus Christ’s birth, teaching and preaching, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by St. John, the Forerunner, universal access to clean water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation, is anything but a given.  The Jordan River system, along with the Sea of Galilee and limited underground sources, provide water to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories.  However, geography and politics, and especially, more than a half-century of continuing war, conflict, and refusal to recognize that water unites all humanity, are combining to make the salvific waters of the Jordan River into a stark expression of humanity’s failings. 

Even so, the Theophania event offers a reminder of hope for overcoming the limitations of the Fallen state.  Likewise, at a time when courageous and visionary leadership from all parties and brokers to the “Israeli-Palestinian Problem” is in staggeringly short supply, the example of John the Baptizer is worth recollection.

The event of Theophany focuses on the awesome synthesis of Jesus Christ’s divine and human natures.  Popularly referred to as Epiphany, the Theophania is, literally, the visible manifestation of God as man, with the public revelation, for the first time, of the Divine nature of Jesus as God, the Christ and Co-Eternal Son.  Theophany inaugurates the salvific mission of Jesus of Nazareth as human, and the exact location of Christ’s baptism, five kilometers north of the Dead Sea, carries enormous historical significance.  It marks the very spot where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River led by Moses’ successor, Joshua (Jesus) of Navi.  It is also the site of the Prophet Elijah’s ascent into Heaven on a chariot of fire, ordaining the Prophet Elisha as his successor.  The succession of these significant events, which culminate in the Baptism of the Incarnate Logos, has transformed the Jordan River into one of the most frequented pilgrimage sites throughout the Holy Land, from the period of Late Antiquity to the present. 

Pilgrimage to the Jordan River has been challenged by the unrelenting conditions of conflict in lands surrounding Christ’s baptismal location.  Pilgrimages were made difficult from 1948-1994, due to the Israeli-Jordanian conflict, and while the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty normalized diplomatic relations between those two countries, access to the Jordan River occurs within the broader geopolitical context of the Holy Land, which can hardly be characterized as normal.  Diplomatic complications and physical security dangers notwithstanding, thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism.

On January 18th of every year (the Julian Calendar equivalent to the Gregorian Calendar date of January 6th) according to the New Calendar, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and all Palestine, along with a delegation from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, including thousands of Christian pilgrims, travels to the Jordan River, where an agiasmos (a service of sanctification of the waters) service is celebrated.  For those able to participate in the Theophany blessing of the waters of the Jordan River, the energy of the moment is palpable and enlivening, a combination of humility, joy, and hope. 

In contributing to this post, Theodore Pritsis recounted the details of one of the Theophany services that he attended over the past two years in his service in the Holy Land:  “I watched as hundreds of Christian pilgrims jumped into the Jordan River’s frigid waters—as if it were a scorching summer day in Jericho, where temperatures reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit—embracing the baptismal experience as a hajji, a Christian who is re-baptized in the waters of the Jordan.  I will never forget the perfectly positioned dove on the Patriarchal staff, which eventually flew off and landed on the bare head of His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, who continued to read calmly the Gospel passage for Theophany.   In a very personal kind of way, this was the revelation of God for me.  It all made sense: this was the joy of the Lord, majesty by way of simplicity.  God chose to reveal Himself by allowing a dove to land on the bare head of the bishop of the Resurrection.  This was our Baptized Lord’s method of assuring us not to fear, that He is always with us and that He is always beside the suffering Christians in the Holy Land.  With each passing generation, being a Christian in the Holy Land becomes significantly harder due to the mass exodus of Palestinian Christians from their homeland.  The Theophany blessing at the waters of the Jordan River, is a reminder of the organic connection of mankind to his physical environment, and a comforting expression of the fact that Christians are a part of the natural fabric of society in the Middle East, such that the integrity and reconciliation in this region must support on a strong, vibrant, living, Christian presence.”

Of course, the revelatory centerpiece of the Theophania events is also connected to another message, namely, the heroism of John the Forerunner.  John’s role, within the context of soteriology, is not limited to the event of the Baptism.  The title of “Forerunner, o Prodromos” that the Church attributes to the son of Elizabeth and Zachariah suggests the anticipation, inspiration, and radical boldness, of John as the Baptizer of Christ.  Christ described the preeminent significance of John the Forerunner as “the greatest man born of a woman until that point” (Mark 11:11), and patristic understandings of John the Baptizer present him as a sort of boundary between the Old and New Testaments.  According to Augustine of Hippo, “because John represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.”

In his role as Forerunner, John is fearless, yet his fearlessness does not trump his humility, when he quotes the Prophet Isaiah, describing himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23).  John utilizes baptism as a way of encouraging people to turn away from sin and to seek righteousness, and in the process, expresses the centrality of water for healing, reconciliation, peace, and the fullness of life—for all human beings. 

This year, as Orthodox Christians commemorate the Theophany events at the River Jordan in the Holy Land—the revelation of Christ as Son of God and the new, salvific beginning offered through the Holy Spirit, as well as the humility and fearlessness of John, the Forerunner and Baptist—by attending agiasmo services and departing church with bottles filled with blessed water, we would do well to pray for those deprived of the human right to clean water.  The waters of the Jordan, which baptized the icon of God the Father, the Incarnate Christ, the physical manifestation of Love, offered the reconciliation between the created and the Uncreated to which Christians are called to aspire.  Water reminds us of the potential to move beyond the limitations of our human condition, just as our very physical survival as human beings is impossible without clean water.  John the Forerunner offers us a prototype for commitment to helping in every effort to ensure that all human beings around the world enjoy the right of unfettered access to clean water.  As we celebrate the Feast of Theophany in the year 2015, we should be mindful that this is also the concluding year of the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015” proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations.  Orthodox Christians should commit to the message of the UNGA resolution, leading by example, and we should connect that message to the Baptist’s unceasing proclamation from the deserts of Palestine, to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

 Theodore Pritsis is Advisor-Liaison to His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, and holds both an M.Div. and M.Th. from the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

“If You See Something, Say Something”: A Call for Help for Christians in the Middle East

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) licensed the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something,” as the slogan for a national campaign intended to raise public awareness of signs of terrorism and, especially, to mobilize citizens to report suspicious activity to U.S. law enforcement officials.  The DHS meme (a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” according to Meriam Webster online) is premised on the linkage between education and action, as well as on the notion that the safety of the collective whole requires individual acuity and responsibility.  I’m certainly not advocating thralldom to the War on Terror rubric from which the DHS maxim was born, but the underlying logic of “If you See Something, Say Something” assumed an apopthegmatic quality when I heard it recently, repositioned within the context of a discussion on the tragedy of Christians in the Middle East. 

The threat of extinction faced by Christians in their lands of origins has been a frequent subject of my blog posts (including on this site) and op-eds, briefings and testimonies to US Congressional and international human rights institutions, and discussions with religious leaders,  faith-based groups, and policymakers in the Middle East and the US.  I look forward to the day when reality allows me to turn my heart, mind, prayers, and keyboard to another subject.  However, that day seems distant, given that, as of this writing, conditions for Christians in what was once the vibrant epicenter of the early Church, continue to deteriorate precipitously. 

Within days, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis will arrive in Jerusalem on a journey being described as an Apostolic Pilgrimage.  This visit by the successors of the Apostolic Sees of St. Andrew and St. Peter commemorates the 50th anniversary of the historic Jerusalem meeting by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI.  That 1964 meeting was an event that declared the commitment of Constantinople and Rome to repair centuries of rupture in ecclesial unity that had followed the mutual excommunications between Constantinople and Rome in the 11th-century Great Schism.  This May’s sojourn to Jerusalem reflects both leaders’ resolute dedication, in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s words, “to work further for Christian unity and reconciliation,” by deepening the spirit of trust and by exploring options for practical cooperation and theological resolution.  The meeting could generate a kind of roadmap for incremental changes which, eventually, can bring about full communion between the Churches East and West. 

More immediately, though, both leaders have made it crystal clear that their joint visit to Jerusalem and the surrounding places (Bethlehem and other sacred sites for Christians) is intended to lend solidarity to beleaguered Christians in the region as a whole.  Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis recognize the emergency facing Christians in the region, so it is by careful design that their plans for worship and dialogue in various fora and formats, will involve Christians of every denomination and tradition.  Christians of the four Eastern Sees of the ancient Pentarchy (those in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem) live besieged, from Turkey to Syria, from Iraq to Egypt, in Israel and Palestine—Christians today are being strangled by state policies of political-economic discrimination and religious persecution, rendered the equivalent of hostages to societal anarchy caused by failing states, targeted and victimized by the tsunami of sectarian violence amongst Muslims, and cynically sacrificed by Great Powers more concerned with their geopolitical interests than with human rights.  Orthodox Christians form the numerical majority and have been disproportionately affected by the humanitarian catastrophes caused by the intersection of the West’s Great Power hubris and the Middle East’s regime-types of secular and religious authoritarianism.  But make no mistake: the erasure of Christians from the lands of Christianity’s origins has affected Orthodox, Copts, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Chaldeans, Maronites, Melchites, Latins, in an ecumenical tragedy of epic proportions.    

Against this backdrop, a recent Vatican statement regarding the upcoming Apostolic Pilgrimage indicated that the visit will be a signal “to sensitize those who have political responsibilities, because peaceful coexistence in that region and in the whole world is at stake."  What is at stake, quite simply, is the survival of the living Christian presence—people and patrimony, faithful and their churches, monasteries, cemeteries, libraries, and texts—in the original geographic footprint of Christianity.  And it’s here that the DHS slogan becomes portable, taking on rich meaning for how the world, and especially, for how fellow Christians, will respond to the modern tragedy of Middle East Christians. 

If we consider the response of Christians living freely in the US and Europe, as well as the Transatlantic governments that purport to be standardbearers for the promotion and protection of universal human rights, including the right of religious freedom, the DHS slogan has been turned on its head: in other words, the response has been to choose to avert their gaze and to remain silent, or to “see nothing and do nothing.”  At a December 2013 conference in Rome by Georgetown University on “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad, Louis Raphael Sako, called on the West to “open its eyes” to the reality of the “mortal danger” faced by Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria.  Similarly, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom, Angaelos, spoke at a September 2013 conference at the National Liberal Club on “Reporting the Middle East: Why the Truth Is Getting Lost,” and lamented the West’s apathy in the face of Christian suffering in the Middle East.  A foreshadowing of their comments occurred in a 2009 in interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew likened his feelings in the face of sustained discrimination and persecution by the Turkish state to “being crucified”—a sentiment unlikely to change in the face of the Turkish government’s threats to convert the magnificent Orthodox Christian Cathedral of Aghia Sophia, a global treasure for all Christians and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a functioning mosque. 

The consistent meme of being ignored, forgotten, and abandoned, runs throughout the statements of Christian leaders from the Middle East, and recalls Martin Luther King’s memorable statement that “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Politics aside, for Christians who live freely and safely in the United States, the call for help from fellow Christians in the Middle East is a matter of conscience.  There’s absolutely no room for ideological claptrap or political dissembling in order to justify looking away and doing nothing in the face of the humanitarian debacle in the region.  Likewise, there can be no excuse for resort to divisive language and a politics of hatred that can only worsen conditions in the region—and that runs counter to Christian teachings to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:39).  All of the aforementioned Christian hierarchs have emphasized that any hope for a durable peace in the region depends on uncompromising support for religious pluralism, on acceptance of the conviction that each and every person is created in the image of God, and in seeing God in the face of one’s neighbor, whether Christians, Muslim, Jew, Druze, Alewite, or anyone from the myriad faith traditions that constitute the peoples of the Middle East.

Earlier this month, the ideas of peace through pluralism and non-violence, as well as the exhortation to see and do something, found an echo chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), co-chairs of the bipartisan Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, convened a press conference in the Capitol complex in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.  Wolf and Eshoo are tireless champions of the universal right of religious freedom.   Wolf pulled no punches in his observation that “now facing an existential threat to their presence in the lands where Christianity has its roots, the Churches in the Middle East fear they have been largely ignored by their coreligionists in the West.” Eshoo, who spoke of her background as an Armenian and Assyrian Christian, recalled the genocide against Armenians and other Christians in Turkey at the start of the 20th century as a warning about the erasure of Christians in today’s Middle East.

The Wolf-Eshoo event was no media stunt.  Instead, the gathering brought together the fullness of the Christian Church, in an ecumenical gathering that included 15 speakers (I was humbled to be one of them) from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions and denominations.  A sampling of the speakers indicates the remarkable ecumenical spirit of the gathering—some of those who spoke were Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White, Chaplain of the St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad; Joseph Kassab, Founder and President of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, who read a statement by Chaldean Archbishop Sako, who could not leave Baghdad); Metropolitan Methodios of Boston, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington; Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan, Armenian Apostolic Church of America; Johnnie Moore, Senior Vice President of Liberty University; Dr. Barrett Duke, Vice President for Pulbic Policy and Research of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and myself and Nina Shea, who served together with me from 2004-2012 tenure on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The speakers offered individual testaments and accounts of the suffering of Middle East Christians, from Turkey to the Holy Land, and spoke in one voice in their signing of a ”Pledge and Call to Action on Behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.” The pledge, which today has well over 200 signatories and will be entered into the Congressional Record later this month, is a grassroots document, drafted with input from many sources from the diverse churches of the region, with no institutional sponsor, but instead, with a grassroots call to bring moral support, diplomatic assistance, and humanitarian aid, to the Middle East’s persecuted Christians. 

Key points in the pledge include “a request to President Barack Obama to appoint a Special Envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, to review U.S. foreign assistance programs to ensure that they uphold policies and principles that relate to religious freedom and pluralism, and to help Christians and other minorities remain safely in the region by providing equitable access to American refugee, humanitarian, and reconstruction aid.”  (See http://wolf.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/media-advisory-press-conference-on-american-christian-leaders-pledge-to)

The emphatic message of those who came together to speak in Washington two weeks ago, to make the “joint pledge to speak up for our fellow Christians and other threatened religious minorities in the Middle East,” was the decision to work together as Christians, in solidarity and ecumenically, to pray, educate, and act, in order to end indifference and to support the universality of human rights for all human beings.  Metropolitan Methodios put it neatly, when he referenced the “If You See Something, Say Something” slogan.  “We have been seeing a lot.  Now is the time to say something.”  That commitment is an inspiring launch for the approaching Apostolic Pilgrimage of Brothers, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope, to Jerusalem later this week.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics.

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