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December 6, 1999

Patriarch of Constantinople Preaches Environmentalism


TURNU MAGURELE, Romania -- His appearance could not be more timeless: Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople moves around with a silver-headed staff, a prophet's great white beard and flowing robes and headdress.

But the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians delivers thoroughly modern messages on his frequent travels to the outposts of his far-flung church.

When his riverboat docked recently at the remote Romanian town of Turnu Magurele on the banks of the Danube, it was the environment that was on his mind.

Nearby, dilapidated chemical plants, relics from the Soviet era, befouled the air and the waterfront.

"The Danube has been a life-giving river," he told his audience, many of them young people. "Yet it is in danger of becoming a river of death, carrying pollutants and toxic substances." Blaming the authorities and industries is not enough, he went on. "Ordinary citizens also cause pollution. It is imperative that we all become mobilized."

When Bartholomew became ecumenical patriarch in 1991, soon after the collapse of communism, the widespread abuse of nature had been named as one of the Soviets' worst legacies. Great debates took place about the filthy air, soil and water and the declining health of people in the former East Bloc, the stronghold of Orthodoxy. Since then, those debates have almost fallen silent, pushed aside by the region's political and economic troubles. But the "green" voice of Patriarch Bartholomew has been getting louder.

He has briefed himself on environmental issues in meetings with scientists and ecologists. He has consulted with theologians. Newly confident of his vision, he has made the fight against pollution official church policy. He raises environmental concerns wherever he goes.

Patriarch Bartholomew, who is 59, is not the pioneer of modern church environmentalism. For the past decade, American and European clerics of all the major faiths have talked with scientists about the need for action.

But the Orthodox leader has gone further than any Christian leader of his stature. He has called polluting a "sin" against creation. He has branded it "a sacrilege." Most recently -- after blessing the upper Danube in Germany, where it begins its journey through Central and Eastern Europe -- he told politicians that dumping harmful materials in a river was "selfish" and "unscrupulous." The basic rule, he said, is that "it is morally unacceptable to burden others with our waste."

The patriarch's drive to embrace environmentalism, according to some of his aides, is part of his broader agenda to modernize his church and make it more relevant to people's lives. Its clergy is often seen as distant and insular, involved in lengthy Byzantine rites and mysticism. Many priests are having to relearn some of the roles from which they were long cut off during communism, including education and pastoral and social work.

The aides say that defending the creation poses no theological problems, and that the environment serves not least as a unifying theme in a church full of rivalries and nationalist rifts.

Not all primates and archbishops of Orthodoxy, however, are persuaded. Orthodoxy consists of 15 independent national churches and the ecumenical patriarch does not have the same ecclesiastical powers to impose his views that Pope John Paul II has among the Roman Catholics. But as "first among equals," as he is known, he can set the agenda and provide a forum for discussion.

"I think there is a great threat, a great danger in our destruction of the environment," the patriarch said during a dinner on board his ship. "We hope we can make the younger generation more aware and more involved."

Soon, the patriarch's see in Istanbul, Turkey, will open an environmental office, said Archdeacon Tarassios, a close collaborator.The church is also preparing educational material for religious education. Its theological institute on the island of Halki, in Turkey, runs environmental seminars to prepare clergymen and lay workers. In Russia, several universities are offering programs on environment and theology.

"It's in the parishes where there is not enough going on yet," said the Rev. John Chryssargis, a coordinator of the Halki seminars. "The idea is to help the priests understand that part of worshipping God is to respect the natural world. In modernity we have separated the soul from nature. We are saying that we should bring them back together again."

The patriarch's agenda is far broader than just the environmental issue. He travels more widely and has become more outspoken on world affairs than his predecessors who were constrained by communism. In the tradition of Pope John Paul II, he has sought to combine spiritual values with a public engagement in current issues.

During a recent visit to the Yugoslav city of Novi Sad, where he met with Muslim, Jewish and Catholic clerics, he called for more democracy but also for an end to the West's boycott of the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

In Bucharest, Romania's capital, he urged worshippers in a packed church to reject the unmitigated consumerism that he said was eroding the spiritual values in the West, besides calling on the European Union to accept the Balkan countries as members. "We refute the notion that Europe ends where Orthodoxy begins," he said.

How much the patriarch can do to modernize a deeply traditional and conservative church has been a matter of much debate in some Orthodox quarters. It was also the focus of a discussion on the prelate's riverboat, whose passengers included bishops from the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican church. The boat was a floating conference called "Religion, Science and Environment," dealing specifically with international pollution of the Danube.

"Bartholomew is trying to shed the reputation of the patriarchate as a relic of Byzantium and to play a useful international role," said a Greek church worker. "The main question is if the powerful primates of Russia and Greece will let him."

The conversation shifted to the enduring rifts within the Orthodox church -- in Ukraine alone, Orthodoxy has split into three factions. There was the sensitive issue of the patriarch's ongoing efforts to improve relations with the Vatican. For this he has received some support, but many church conservatives and nationalists are fervently opposed. The powerful hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has outright rejected any ecumenical discussions with the Vatican.

"Clearly the patriarch will need a lot of help from the Holy Spirit," said one bishop, not an Orthodox prelate, sighing deeply as other church problems were reviewed. "Protecting the environment is difficult," he said. "But it may be the lesser of his problems."

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