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June 10, 2010

60 Minutes' Associate Producer Meets The Patriarch

On The Road: Traveling Back in Time

60 Minutes' Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson Reflects on Meeting The Patriarch

Dec. 20, 2009
CBS News

Written by 60 Minutes Associate Producer Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson.

Last May I had the privilege of traveling to Istanbul, Turkey. We were heading there to profile the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I. I didn't know very much about him. For one, I always assumed the heart of the Orthodox Church was in Athens, Greece. Finding out it was in Istanbul, Turkey was the beginning of my history lesson.

My knowledge of Greco-Turk relations was also very thin and so learning about the fragile position the Orthodox Church finds itself in, in a country that is 99 percent Muslim was also an eye opener. As with all stories done on "60 Minutes" the first step is research; some stories require more than others and this one involved 17 centuries worth of research! I knew that I was going to see Istanbul; Cappadocia in Eastern Turkey, the Sinai in Egypt and our trip would end in Jerusalem. Overall our story was about the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the position of Christianity in the part of the world where it all began.

Seeing Istanbul for the first time is like walking into a giant museum; not only is it a beautiful city, but you somehow get a sense that things happened there a very long time ago. Turkey in general is a beautiful country with lovely people and such a rich culture. So I constantly had to remind myself that our story was about a controversial issue in Turkey which had to do with a minority of people - Turks of Greek ancestry - whose presence had gone from a population of nearly 2 million in the early 1920s to only 4,000 today. The story was ultimately about discrimination and the lack of religious freedom on the part of the Turkish government. Our profile of His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was to be his first on a major American television network and his candor, calm and determination are qualities to be appreciated considering the risk he took in speaking with us.

A slight man in stature, his presence is that of greatness. My first encounter with him is one that I will never forget. I was filming some shots with my camera crew at the Phanar - the Church's headquarters in Istanbul - when someone from His All Holiness's office came to us stating that The Patriarch wanted to meet us right then and there. Because this meeting was not to happen until that evening, I didn’t feel I was appropriately dressed to meet him right then and there. We are so focused on people's perceptions of first impressions that I feared his first impression of me wouldn't have been so positive. I felt - and was - underdressed to meet such a person of his stature, but of course I couldn't exactly say 'no, I'd rather go back and change and meet him later.' So here I am feeling both nervous and shy, walking through these lovely corridors and through two doors.

I walk in and up from his desk Patriarch Bartholomew walks towards me, with his hand out to shake mine and as soon as I felt him, I simply begin to weep. Rarely have I felt someone exude so much goodness, and he just held my hand for what seemed to be a good, long while in the most reassuring way. I composed myself and was invited to sit down.

Someone brought in a treat called "Mastica" which was a sweet, white paste on a spoon in a glass of cold water. I watched as the others began licking their spoons, so I followed and as the Patriarch was licking his, I couldn't help but think that here we are, so relaxed and this man is fighting a battle of survival, the survival of his church. It was really quite surreal.

That evening we had dinner with His All Holiness and other members of The Church. He talked of his travels and his education at the Halki School of Theology, his family and his life. He spoke fondly of his parents and his siblings and growing up on his home island of Imvros. A lot of the conversation was also in French, a language he's more comfortable in than English. Bob Simon and I are lucky to speak it and that made The Patriarch feel more at ease.

After that dinner we were to catch a flight to Cappadocia in Eastern Turkey and His All Holiness was very keen to know what our experience would be there upon our return to Istanbul. He told us that seeing the small churches there would make us better understand why the heart of the Orthodox Church is in Turkey and despite what he feels are efforts on the part of Turkish officials to eventually squeeze the church out of Turkey, seeing Cappadocia would, to him, make us better understand why leaving that land is out of the question.

With barely enough time to rest after our arrival in Cappadocia, our adventure began at about 5:00 a.m. in a hot air balloon. It was my first time in one and my curiosity and excitement about what I was about to see completely overshadowed any fear I had of getting in a balloon. The landscape just took my breath away and yet I also felt as though I was on another planet, or on the set of a George Lucas film. Seeing these caves carved into the side of these stone mountains was something unimaginable. I wondered how the people who lived in these caves survived and yet the evidence is there that these places were lived in for what seemed to be a long time.

I was also surprised to see quite a number of pilgrims there, yet another eye opener that not everything only happens in The Holy Land. Hearing that most of the caves with were built in the late 4th to early 5th centuries and seeing these frescoes painted on their walls just simply rendered me speechless.

We headed back to Istanbul and thanks to our trip to Cappadocia we were better prepared for the formal interview with His All Holiness at the Halki School of Theology.

The Halki was shut down by the Turkish government back in 1971 according to a Turkish law that states that due to that country’s secular position, there can be no religious instruction. The Halki's closure is His All Holiness's greatest battle and he’s determined that in his lifetime the school will reopen because he feels that its closure threatens the future of his church. The school is on a lovely property located on an island called Heybeliada, part of the Princes Islands. We took a private boat to the island from Istanbul because I was told that when His All Holiness would take the regular ferry, many times he was ridiculed and even spat on by non-Christians. The school, built in 1844, is inhabited by about three monks who maintain the grounds with a handful of helpers. It is kept in immaculate condition, at the ready, in case the Turkish government gives permission to reopen its doors. Throughout our tour, His All Holiness showed us the empty dormitories, classrooms and library. By the time we sat down with him he summed up the Turkish government’s actions towards him and his church in one word: crucifixion. Aside from the sniffles heard in that room, one could hear a pin drop.

Following our stay in Turkey, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew also sent us the Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai in Egypt. That was yet another trip back in time and yet so 21st century. Seeing Christian monks living side by side with Bedouins, in total harmony was also an eye opening experience. It was an issue of National Geographic coming to life! It was a very peaceful place and the monks were, for the most part distant, but some were also very friendly and excited to see other faces. Seeing the largest collection of icons, protected by these 25 men was just another mind-blowing experience. I couldn’t believe that I was sleeping in a place, at the foot of Mount Moses (its correct name, I’m told - NOT Mt. Sinai), where Moses came down with the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The end of our trip took us to Jerusalem and I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa… All of those Sundays of my life in (Catholic) Church all came to life during this trip; all the references to gospels and apostles were all now real in front of me and simply put, I felt like one of the luckiest people on Earth. What a privilege it was and I will never forget it.