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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.