December 6, 1999
Patriarch of Constantinople Preaches Environmentalism
By MARLISE SIMONS
URNU 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
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
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
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
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