The Lonely Path of Integrity
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GreekNews - December 28, 2009

A Review of Orthodox Church Events in 2009

By H.E. Spyridon, former Archbishop of America

The wind of renewal recently observed in the traditional lands of Orthodoxy continued to blow beneficially in 2009. The ever-growing presence of the Church in the lives of Orthodox believers and Orthodox Church activities are increasingly brought to the attention of the international community. This, of course, does not mean that controversies have been uprooted altogether and that self-isolation and stagnation have disappeared. Overall, however, the life and the initiatives of most Orthodox centers throughout the world are characterized by an exceptional vigorousness that sends forth a most hopeful message for the future.

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The Ecumenical Patriarchate consistently pursued its efforts, mainly in the direction of the European Community and the USA, so as to promote the recognition of its legal status as an entity of worldwide religious mission, while Turkish authorities still persist on viewing and treating it as a religious institution responsible only for Turkish Orthodox believers. Likewise, the Patriarchate grasped every opportunity to further the cause of having the renowned Theological School of Halki re-opened. The seminary was closed down by Turkish authorities in 1972 on various pretexts. Today, the issue appears to seriously trouble the Turkish state if one judges from the dialogue being carried out currently in the Turkish media.

Another question facing the Patriarchate is the repeated seizure of church properties by the government. In the last decades, Turkish authorities began contesting the property titles of church communities and Greek Orthodox schools, closing down such facilities and leasing them for other usage. The Patriarchate has decided to go to law, and, if need be, to the European Court for Human Rights, for the seizure of 23 institutions and church communities that have been arbitrarily defined as "occupied" by the Turkish administration.

In an effort to improve Turkey's image internationally and in view of a new round of negotiations towards Turkey's integration as a member of the European Union (a political structure that occasionally demonstrates a high degree of sensitivity on matters of religious freedom), the Turkish Prime Minister announced that all hierarchs of the Patriarchate, whether serving in Turkey or abroad, will henceforth have the possibility to participate in the election of an Ecumenical Patriarch and/or even be themselves candidates for such position, as long as they apply for Turkish citizenship first. Such an unexpected announcement seems to cause mixed feelings and to seriously puzzle hierachs serving in other countries who, still undecided, suggest that all aspects of the matter be studied.

A new page in the relations between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Russia seems to have been opened following the visit of Moscow's new patriarch to the Phanar. Church officials observed that Kirill's visit "rekindled" the relations between Moscow and Constantinople and, as a result, the road has been cleared for resuming common initiatives towards the preparation of the future Saint and Great Council of the Orthodox Church as well as for pursuing theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, these relations will be further tested when certain delicate issues will inevitably be discussed. Such issues are, for example, the autonomy granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Esthonian Church in 1996, the future of the Ukranian Orthodox Church and the initiatives undertaken by both Patriarchates in the Far East.

On Mount Athos the situation at the Esfigmenou Monastery continues to remain stagnant. The historic abbey has been occupied since 1972 by a group of anti-canonical monks who refuse to have any relations whatsoever with local religious authorities or with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

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The Patriarchate of Jerusalem was able to iron out its relations with Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority with the latter shown to be extremely supportive. Such normalization seems to now offer the appropriate conditions for opening a new period in the local Church's history. At the level of humanitarian aid, cultural development, and educational promotion, the Patriarchate has always been a point of reference for the peoples in the region. However, it will still need a great deal of time to recollect its forces and make capital out of the enormous possibilities available.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate and the Armenian clergy in the Holy Land reached an agreement whereby the status quo regarding pilgrims will be observed. In the past, such status had repeatedly been contested by the Armenian clergy. Their claims had led to violent incidents that have had a most negative impact on public opinion worldwide.

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Under Kirill, the new Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church is pursuing her feverish efforts to re-instill Christian values in the lives of the Russian people and to lay the ground for a spiritual revival. What immediately strikes every visitor to Russia is the erection of new churches, the renovations of old abbeys and places of worship, and an ever-growing participation of young people in church sacraments, etc. In this difficult task, the Church of Russia enjoys the powerful support of state authorities. There are already six hundred and fifty priests serving in five hundred and thirty military chapels. Moreover, the Russian Minister of Culture affirms that the hour has come for the "Principles of Orthodox Culture" to be taught in high schools.

At the same time, under the new Patriarch of Moscow, the presence of the Russian Church on the international platform is becoming more noticeable everyday.

Of course, the Patriarchate of Moscow is called to deal with certain sensitive issues that are still pending, such as: a) its relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, b) the unstable ecclesiatical situation in the Ukraine where the Orthodox people are divided in three rival Churches, c) its relations with the Roman Catholic Church, seriously impaired by proselytic activities of Roman Catholic clergy in Russia, as well as by the occupation of hundreds of Orthodox churches by "Greek Catholic" Uniats in the Western Ukraine. How successful Kirill will be in handling these issues will largely depend on the new patriarch's ability to exceed the traditional rigidity of the Russian Church and give proof of modern realism and flexibility.

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After a two-year illness, Patriarch Pavel, primate of the Church of Serbia, died in Belgrad at the age of 95. During his tenure (1990-2009), the Church was able to restore prestige within the Serbian society and become a symbol of unity for the Serbian people. Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro, considered to be the most likely successor to Pavel, was appointed locum tenens until January 22, 2010 when the election of a new primate will take place.

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The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria is demonstrating an ever-growing concern that the hostile activities by the Orthodox schismatic group, under Metropolitan Innokenti, have intensified recently following a judgement by the European Court for Human Rights. The Court considered it a violation of religious freedom when the Bulgarian government returned approximately one hundred churches and monasteries to the official Church in 2004.

Known for its conservatism, the Bulgarian Patriarchate is now considering the possibility of reintroducing the Old Calendar, known as the Julian Calendar, into the life of the Church in Bulgaria.

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In a meeting held at the Cathedral of Suhumi, priests of the Diocese of Abkhazia proclaimed their diocese independent from the Patriarchate of Georgia to which they hitherto belonged. The clerics maintain their diocese had been forcibly placed under the jurisdiction of the Georgian Patriarchate in 1943. They now seem to put all their hopes for recognition in the Patriarchate of Moscow.

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The Church of Cyprus announced its intention to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to denounce Turkey for violating the right of worship in churches and monasteries and for the destruction of five hundred and twenty two churches and monuments in Northern Cyprus occupied by the Turkish Army. Meanwhile, the European Commission, considering that "the salvage of the Cypriot cultural heritage and in particular that of Greek Orthodox churches and monuments is of the highest importance to the whole of Europe", reaffirmed its readiness to increase EU subsidies towards the preservation of such heritage.

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In Greece, Church and State, now in search of "a way of better collaboration in order to cultivate, upgrade and serve the people", are hastily heading towards a review of the whole of their relations. Among the main issues to be examined are: taxation of Church properties and institutions, and religious education in public schools. As regards to the latter, the discussion revolves around whether religious education should be compulsory or optional for all students and whether it should be of Orthodox discipline or not. Another matter that will eventually be of issue for the negotiating parties is the display of religious symbols on public premises (courts, schools, etc.). A discussion on such issue seems unavoidable considering that there is already a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that bans the crucifix from public classrooms in Italy, another member of EU.

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Following a long judicial conflict, the Metropolis of Argyrocastro, Albania, was granted the authorization to build a spiritual center, administrative offices, as well as a school for children. This development is considered "very positive" as it marks a first beginning in satisfying a series of requests and claims made by the Orthodox Albanian Church in the last eighteen years.

Today, there are a hundred and forty priests serving approximately 700,000 Orthodox believers in Albania. Since 1991, a hundred and fifty churches were erected, and seventy abbeys and historic Orthodox monuments were restored. Furthermore, another hundred and sixty churches, that were returned to the Church by Albanian authorities, have also been renovated and re-opened for worship. The Orthodox Church of Albania is particularly active today in the sectors of healthcare, education, social welfare, culture and inter-faith dialogue.

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While the Ukranian state is trying to ensure the spiritual unity of its people by encouraging dialogue, the Ukrainian Orthodox believers continue to be split in three major bodies: the "Ukranian Orthodox Church" under the authority of the Patriarchate of Moscow; the "Ukranian Autocephalous Orthodox Church" that has 1500 parishes and has requested to be placed as "autonomous" under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and the "Patriarchate of Kiev and all Russian Ukraine." A delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate recently visited the Ukraine and had discussions with local ecclesiastical leaders in an effort to find a solution to their problems.

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The preparation of the Saint and Great Council of the Orthodox Church was pursued through the convocation of the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Conference held at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Geneva from June 7th-13th, 2009. The participants examined and completed the study on the issue of Orthodox Diaspora, one of the gravest questions facing the Orthodox Church in our times. It was repeatedly stressed that the way the Orthodox Diaspora is organized today, with its parallel jurisdictions, falls short of being in harmony with Orthodox canonicity and ecclesiology. As a temporary means towards a final solution, the Conference, on the basis of previous studies, proposed the establishment of Regional Episcopal Conferences and approved the by-laws that should govern such bodies.

Moreover, the Pan-Orthodox Preparatory Committee for the future Council of the Orthodox Church convened at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Geneva from December 9th-17th, 2009, and studied the issue of Autocephaly and the procedure to be followed in proclaiming such status. The committee unanimously asserted that it is the responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch to officially proclaim the autocephaly of a Church that may have made such request. The official act will be signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch in concert with all other Orthodox primates. The committee also appproved a text formulating the unified position of all Orthodox Churches on the issue of church Autonomy.

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The Theological Dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church was pursued in compliance with a resolution adopted by all Orthodox Churches in 2008. Thus, the eleventh meeting of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church was held in Paphos, Cyprus, from the 16th through the 23rd of October, 2009. The Commission studied the theme, "The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium", on the basis of a draft text prepared in Ravenna, Italy, in 2007. It amended the draft text and resolved to complete its study next year, at its 12th plenary session in Vienna, Austria, from September 20th - 27th of 2010. The meeting in Paphos was marked by a "spirit of friendship and trustful collaboration."

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In France, Olivier Clément, a well-known historian and professor at the Theological Institute of Saint Serge in Paris, died at the age of 87. The late theologian was one of the most important proponents of the Orthodox faith in Western Europe during the second half of the 20th century. He is the author of many books and studies including one that is dedicated to Patriarch Athenagoras. Many of his works have been translated in various European languages.