January 8, 2015

Interview with Patriarch Bartholomew on Religious Fanaticism, the Patriarchal Role, the Athonite Avaton, and the Future of Orthodoxy in Turkey, among other things

An Interview with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
by the Journalistic Team of the School of Bakogiannis 
on November 30, 2014

As part of a humanitarian education and the conveying of principles, values and ideals to young people in difficult times, the journalistic team of the School of Bakogiannis, with the coordination of Mr. Dastafridis Anastasios and members of the student body Theodora Antoniou, Constantine Efthymiadis, Vasilios Papoutsoglou, Helen Tsoutsis, Helen Chalitsiou and Georgia Harmani, it continues its work. In an effort to find answers to religious pursuits it came in contact with His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who honoring their work gave the following interview.

At what age did you decide to dedicate your life to the Church and under what influences?

I was born and raised, as you know, in Imbros, an island that has always been characterized with the known island piety. The people of Imbros are pious and traditional and a people who very much love church services. They love the Church, their priests, their Metropolitan, their chapels, the sacred icons, fasting, prayer, the Liturgy, Vespers, and all the sacred services. If you read Papadiamantis you will understand. The spiritual atmosphere of Imbros is pure Papadiamantite. Growing up in such an atmosphere, both in our home and in our village and in the whole island, and having before my eyes constantly a good priest as our parish priest, it was natural to fill my early childhood soul with sacred experiences. I went to the altar, helped Fr. Asterios (this was the name of our priest) as an acolyte, and accompanied him even to the chapels that he would go to liturgize. I rejoiced! I felt a strong presence of the grace of God! So from an early age I had the desire to become a priest and to serve Christ and the Church. It did not enter my mind that something else would fit me better. Thus I made an early decision, with the blessing and paternal support of our late Metropolitan Meliton, my Elder.

How difficult is the spiritual and religious guidance of 300,000,000 Christians, having as an established see an area dominated by the Muslim religion, and what is the relationship of the Orthodox Church with the secular state of Turkey?

The Ecumenical Patriarch is certainly the First of Orthodoxy, but the responsibility for the spiritual guidance of all believers is distributed among the local Patriarchs, Archbishops, Metropolitans and Bishops.

Beyond the Archdiocese of Constantinople his own role is regulatory and coordinatory, for which he is Prelate. He is always vigilant and overseeing from the Phanar, watching if everything is going according to the will of God and ecclesiastical orderliness, as much within the climate of the Patriarchate as well as the other Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches. But the responsibility is institutional and general. And of course, the weight is enormous.

Regarding our relations with the secular state of Turkey, as with all the Churches which are in secular states, our roles are completely distinct. We do not enter into discussions on political issues. We are purely a spiritual body and trying to do our sacred work within our limits, without scandalizing anyone or giving rise to problems. As citizens of the country we diligently perform our duties. We pay taxes, serve in the army, because the service is compulsory, vote in elections, honor the principles of the State, we keep the laws. Whenever we feel that we are unjustly treated, especially as part of the Diaspora, we legally assert our own and wish not to be considered subordinate to other people. If necessary we resort to the European Court of Human Rights.

How do you see the future of the Greek minority in Istanbul and in the wider region of Turkey?

It is true that we have experienced in the past very difficult situations, because of which our numbers shrank dramatically. In recent years the atmosphere has begun to change significantly, so it is now possible not only that they will not leave and expatriate abroad, but many can return back and live here again and find their roots. It is something that as a Church we desire and encourage. Moreover, many have come from Greece, without having origins in Istanbul or another region of the country, and they are working here either in business or mainly in education. We have, for example, many Greek teachers in Turkish Universities in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and elsewhere. Still, many expatriates are returning to Imbros, at least in the summers, renovating their homes, and they feel again the joy of returning to their homeland.

Are you afraid of the spread of jihad, in particular by using inhumane and violent methods and practices?

Religious fanaticism is dangerous for all religions, particularly when driven armed with weapons. Yes, jihadists are dangerous. Remember though also the Thirty Years War, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and the blood in Northern Ireland. The root of evil is no different. Fanaticism is blindness of the soul, true demonism, in whatever religion it arises. We pray that there will prevail logic, temperance, tolerance and respect for our fellow man, regardless of religious beliefs.

What do you think will become of the issue of reopening the Halki seminary?

Forty years our Theological School is now closed, against our will and despite our repeated calls. And despite the support of many throughout the world of people of good will, who have joined their voices to ours, nothing has yet been done. We certainly have repetitively been given assurances and hopes that soon, today or tomorrow, it will open. But after a while they were disproved. This is certainly a sufficiently serious breach of our basic human right to educate our liturgists and theologians of the Church in our area. Nevertheless we do not lose hope. There is a God! As we have seen and experienced many miracles to date, we hope that we will also experience this!

What do you think about the current situation of the sacred temple which is the symbol of Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia?

If it is not possible for it to return to what in the outset it was, namely a Christian church, which we certainly would have wanted, we prefer that it stay as it is, namely a Museum, so that it is accessible to everyone.

What does the Church do today to attract young people within its bosom?

Many things! Here our relationship with young people and children is very warm. They feel that they are living members of the ecclesiastical body, we show them our concern in many ways, along with our support and our love. Everyone knows that if necessary they can come and see the Patriarch himself, who is ready to hear them with affection and understanding. We have a camp for children in the Princes' Islands, we go together on pilgrimage tours, we organize nice opportunistic events, we monitor their progress at school, we care sacrificially for their education and studies. We give our young people our entire hearts! Our Patriarchate also has convened here at the headquarters repeated Congresses of Orthodox Youth with much success.

Christianity is a universal religion that professes the principle of gender equality. Is this in line with the tradition of the avaton of Mount Athos?

It is in line! A Woman reigns over Mount Athos! The Panagia! She is the Eldress, the Superintendent, the Abbess of the Holy Mountain! Her presence covers and represents the entire female sex. But be aware that there are also female monasteries, not a lot of course, which are inaccessible to men!

What is your opinion on the issue of political oaths for each person elected?

Taking into view that the oath is forbidden by the Lord in the Gospel, in principle we cannot support the need for using a religious oath by government officials or even as a procedural by the faithful in the Courts. Where religious "vows" in the Church exist today they are merely tolerated with extreme oikonomia. It is not in its good pleasure, but a condescension for others. For the believer the "I say to you, do not swear an oath at all" (Matt. 5:34) always applies.

A message from you to the students and for the teachers?

Love Education. Not just being educated, but education and learning, combining knowledge and inner cultivation! Learning and morals! What is sufficient for qualifications, but also character! The Soul! Dry knowledge is of little benefit. Sometimes it even damages. The beautiful and good, as our ancient sages would say. I would add: and above all be Christians! Christ will bless your education and sanctify the course of your life! This is the light that will illuminate through the dark paths of our difficult times and will give you inner peace and completeness. It will fill your life with meaning. And remember, Christ and His Church are one and inseparable! Let it, then, be your ambition to be with Christ and to live with joy the life of the Church!

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.