Exclusive Interview: Ecumenical Patriarch on Environment, Turkey, and the US

Exclusive Interview: Ecumenical Patriarch on Environment, Turkey, and the US

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His All Holiness, The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew proves one more time that his recognition as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people was well deserved. At the end of October he will visit the United States to lead the 8th International Inter-religious Ecological Symposium co-organized by the Patriarchate to help the Mississippi River. After the conference, he will visit New York, Atlanta, and Washington. He has scheduled meetings not only with important businessmen, leaders representing the Greek diaspora, and members of the American government but also with President Obama. In these meetings he will try to promote the Patriarchate’s agenda, which he explains to us exclusively. His last interview was well over a year ago.

We met His All Holiness at the Patriarchal Office in Istanbul a day before the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Earth Day. This day also marked the beginning of the new cycle of the Ecclesiastical Calendar.

It is a great honor for us to meet you.

Your visit gives me joy and I am glad we are meeting today. I would like to take a moment to send my regards to all the readers of Greek Reporter and all the members of Greek diaspora.

You have planned a visit to the US. Please tell us about your upcoming mission.

I will be in the US the last days of October and I will stay until November 10th. I will first visit Mississippi where we will participate at the 8th International Inter-religious Ecological Symposium. This conference was started by the Patriarchate in 1995 and first convened on an island in the Aegean Sea. Subsequent locations included meetings near the Black Sea, Danube River, Adriatic Sea, Baltic Sea, Amazon River, in Finland, and now the 2009 conference is to be held at the Mississippi River from the 18th of October until the 25th.

Are you planning any visits to other states?

From Mississippi I will go to New York for the celebration of St. Demetrius on the 27th of October. On this day the United States Archbishop celebrates not only his name day, but also 10 years since his election to the position. Then I will spend one day in Atlanta because the president of Coca-Cola is Turkish and he is a very good human being and very successful, proof of this is that such a major company chose him to be their CEO.

What will you do in Washington?

I will visit the Capital and I will have meetings with the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The Vice President and the Secretary will each host a dinner in honor of the Patriarchate.

Is your appointment with the President certain?

Yes, it is certain that we will meet but we do not know the exact time and date yet.

You’ve met President Obama before…

Yes, we met here in Istanbul when he came to visit Turkey. He received me in his hotel and then we had time to discuss a few things. After he met with me, he received all the other religious leaders as a group, but he saw me separately.

He has supported the reopening of the Theological School of Chalki…

Yes, he said that officially in front of the Great Assembly of Turkey. He said that the Theological School should reopen and this will send a very important message from Turkey.

Do you think that the Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan, has the same opinion? What did he tell you in the meeting you had at the Prince’s Islands?

It’s true we had a meeting in Prinkipos (Buyukade) where there were also other religious leaders. The most important thing for us was that he visited the old orphanage which at a certain point the Governor of Vakuvia tried to take from us. We lost the legal case here and then we went to the International Court of Human Rights and there we won. So, Mr. Erdogan visited the building that Turkey lost, which is in bad shape. Last, he went to St. George’s Monastery. He was very amenable. He visited the temple of the monastery and went to the reception room and signed the guest book with a very kind message. We were his hosts and we exchanged presents. He gave us a lot of hope for resolutions to the issues between the Patriarchate and Turkey with his friendly attitude and his honesty, especially the reopening of the Theological School in Chalki.

If Turkey allows it, is the school ready to open?

Yes, the school is absolutely ready. It can start operating immediately.

What is the current relationship between the Patriarchate and Turkey?

Things are much better with Turkey now. This government has treated the Patriarchate and minority groups much better than previous administrations. This gives us a lot of hope.

You’ve been called “The Green Patriarch” by many members of the press, because of your involvement with the environment. Tell us a few words about the Patriarchate’s actions for this issue.

Our Patriarchate has been involved with this issue for many years. Environmental protection is a problem for all of humanity, not just the Orthodox community. It is a very hot topic, I have to admit that the actions towards environmental activism of the Patriarchate were initiated by the Patriarch before me, Patriarch Demetrius, and I have been working to continue pressing the issue with these ecological symposiums. Patriarch Demetrius designated the 1st of September as Environment Day for the Orthodox Church. Every year on that day we sing hymns for the protection of the environment. We have also published a book with our thoughts on the issue and why the Church is involved with it. You will see that we were the first Christian Church to become seriously involved with this issue. This is a matter of honor for us.

Is this the first issue on your agenda?

It is one of the first ones. We are also trying to have a dialogue with the other Christians that are not united. We also have discussions with members of the other monotheistic religions. We often meet with members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths to further understand them. We do not want to exist in a state of competition or conflict. We want friendship and to be able to sit at the same table like civilized human beings. The union will come with God’s will. Nobody knows this, but we as human beings–regardless of religion–have to lay the groundwork of mutual respect, love, and collaboration on issues like ecology, war, peace, sickness, and all these matters that do not need dogmatic unity. These are social issues that we can collaborate on even without religious unity.

Photo Credit: Rachel Portele

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