By Anthony J. Limberakis, MD
Recently, Americans learned anew the unique role of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world�s 300 million Orthodox Christian. He came to the United States not alone to visit his flock, but to lecture on "Byzantine Icons: A Legacy of Humanism" to a full auditorium, with simulcast in another room, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The lecture was in connection with a critically acclaimed exhibit, "Byzantium: Faith and Power", the third exhibit to bring Byzantine culture to a world audience.
His All Holiness, over the 13 years since his enthronement, has become well known for his deep learning and appreciation of culture, his advocacy of the environmental cause and for his efforts toward inter-religious dialogue in answer to the crisis of terrorism and ethnic and religious conflict. He poses no fa�ade, he is not superficial nor is his decision making based on the fickle and ephemeral political trends of the day. Rather he is the real thing. Substance over appearance. But, fidelity to the canons of Orthodoxy and the steadfast desire to spread the word of God takes precedence over doing that which today may be popular or expedient but tomorrow may be devastating to Orthodoxy, whether it is in Greece, the United States, Cuba, South America, Hong Kong or anywhere in the world.
Yet His All Holiness knows when change is appropriate and in the context of Orthodoxy, when it is necessary for the common good. When the Church in America was traversing stormy seas several years ago, what did he do? Was he intransigent? No. Was he unresponsive? No. Was he stern? No, for he had the wisdom, the good judgment and the love for the Church in America, the greatest Eparchy of the Ecumenical Throne as he lovingly refers to us, to send us our beloved Archbishop Demetrios, who calmed the waters and set the Archdiocese back on course. He demonstrated equally brilliant judgment when the Archdiocese requested a new charter for the Church in America. Over the course of several years there was a dialogue, not a soliloquy, but a dialogue, a conversation between the hierarchy and lay leadership of the Church in America and the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople, which ultimately granted us a magnificent Charter that takes into account the concerns of our Church
So we appreciate the good and pious judgment of the Ecumenical Patriarch regarding his stewardship of world Orthodoxy. His All Holiness is entrusted with the awesome responsibility of holding true to the faith of our fathers and the word of God. The teachings, the dogma and the Holy Canons by which we live as Orthodox Christians are as valid and authentic today, as they were at the time of the first Ecumenical Council in 325 held in Nicea, an ancient city not far from Constantinople and the seat of world Orthodoxy. It is comforting to know that His All Holiness is maintaining with fidelity our Orthodox Christian Faith.
With the recent announcement from His All Holiness that the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople will now be comprised of 6 hierarchs from Turkey and 6 hierarchs outside of Turkey, once again, the Ecumenical Patriarch has demonstrated a brilliant initiative that strengthens world Orthodoxy and strengthens the Synod that now has the benefit of the intellectual input of among others our beloved Archbishop Demetrios of America. In fact, this policy fortifies the very status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople vis a vis the international community and vis a vis the Turkish government.
His All Holiness is a theologian who holds a doctorate degree in Canon Law. A theological lawyer if you will. He speaks 7 languages fluently. This polyglot ability not only is a significant linguistic accomplishment in and of itself, but more importantly it enables His All Holiness to make everyone comfortable conversing with him person to person, as one friend to another, as a father to his offspring, in any setting, whether in the Halls of Congress or at the White House, or at a children's hospital in Havana distributing wheelchairs to children without limbs, something I personally witnessed, or visiting children in Westfield, New Jersey at the Sights and Sounds Event, the Ecumenical Patriarch is one with whom you can speak and share your concerns.
The Archons, the world�s oldest honorary designation for those in service to the Christian Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate are synergistic. I know this first hand, I have witnessed this first hand as have the Archons in this room who have traveled to the Phanar to seek the guidance of His All Holiness and support of his sacred mission of salvation. But when we do make this meager sacrifice of love to our Holy Mother Church, it not only revitalizes our own personal commitment to defend the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, but I believe it gives comfort and succor to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as well, knowing that her children love and support her, as we do with all our hearts and substance. I must say, we are a great team and we receive our inspiration and guidance from this Holy man, the 270th successor of St. Andrew who was the first called Apostle.
Under the guidance of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, the Exarch of the Ecumenical Throne, whom we respect and love, the Archons of America continuously pursue a path that unites the Mother Church with her greatest Eparchy. As the National Council of Archons develops programs and initiatives to further our mission to promote and defend the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it is no secret to reveal that the more we travel to the Phanar and witness the Martyria and Diakonia of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the more we realize that we must never give up, never, never, never give up, in our struggle to improve the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
So where are we in our mission to defend the Mother Church and what progress has been made since 1998 when the baton was passed to the current Archon administration? Allow me to offer several personal observations. The Archons have now arrived at the point where we freely express ourselves to both our own government leaders in Washington and to the new leaders of the ruling AK Party who govern Turkey, a country 68 million in number who seem to still get hung up with a minute Orthodox Christian minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But things I believe are getting better and the climate has improved noticeably. We have moved from barely exchanging courteous pleasantries in 1998 when an Archon delegation met with the then Mayor of Istanbul Tayyip Erdogan, who currently serves as the Prime Minister of Turkey, to a situation where we are embraced by the Minister of the Interior Abdullah Aksu whom we first met at the Ecumenical Patriarchate just several weeks before the landslide victory of the AK party at a reception in honor of the then US Ambassador to Turkey, Bob Pearson. This demonstrates how important it is for the visiting Archons to host events in Turkey in honor of His All Holiness and our US Ambassador, as we do every time we travel to the Phanar and Ankara so that relationships develop and channels of communication are formed. I perhaps inappropriately just used the term visiting when I was referring to our traveling to the Patriarchate, as if we are guests visiting some outside establishment.
In fact we are not visiting, but we are returning to our home, the home where the Christian faith developed and was nurtured and where its foundation was secured during the Ecumenical Councils. So fellow Archons, when we return home to the Phanar and to our spiritual father His All Holiness, we now do so with a level of expertise on the issues that confront us, that frustrate religious human rights and that must be addressed if Turkey is to ultimately gain accession into the European Union and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is to freely pursue its sacred ministry. What are the issues and where are we?
Opening the Halki School of Theology:
When the Archon delegation traveled to Ankara recently to meet with the Turkish Government, we were accompanied every step of the way by US Ambassador Eric Edelman. At the Education Ministry under whose jurisdiction is Halki we met with Education Minister Huseyin Celik who indicated that "We would like to open Halki, not to improve our image, but because it suits us, it is the right thing to do. This is not just my personal view, but the view of the Government. You know my views. I accepted a lunch invitation at the Patriarchate. I attended the 550th anniversary of a Greek high school. But the Government also supports the opening of Halki. Halki was allowed to operate under Ottoman sultans in the time of the Caliphate. It is unacceptable, therefore, that a "secular" State does not allow it to open. How can this be?"
Property Rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and affiliated foundations.
This is a monumental problem that is preventing our Orthodox institutions from realizing vital rental income from properties confiscated by the Turkish government. Hundreds of properties have been seized by the authorities due to various laws passed by the Turkish Assembly and by Court decisions that adversely affect the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Balukli Hospital, a 650 bed institution that treats 40-50,000 patients a year and numerous individual churches. These properties are then sold to third parties and are lost forever. Legal Counselor Archon Christopher Stratakis is working on this specific issue and is gathering evidence and documentation to be used by the Order at the appropriate time.
Interference by the Turkish Government in the selection of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy and Sacred Synod:
We are actively researching the issue of the so-called "Turkish Citizenship" requirement of the Ecumenical Patriarch. We are questioning the Turkish Government's claim that the Ecumenical Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen. We have only scratched the surface on this issue, which requires further research and investigation.
The refusal of the Turkish Government to recognize the "ecumenicity" of the Ecumenical Patriarchate:
We, the Archons of America are beginning to educate the Turkish government regarding this issue with the assistance of the American Ambassador who stated to Minister of the Interior Aksu: "I am here to demonstrate that the issues of the Archons are important to the United States, for the Orthodox community in the United States, but also for all Americans because of the importance of religious freedom." Through our research, we understand that the Turkish delegation during the deliberations of the Treaty of Lausanne appeared to adopt the Ottoman position that the ecclesiastical nature of the Patriarchate went beyond borders of Turkey hence an "ecumenical" position. This poignant fact was pointed out by Legal Counselor Stratakis to the Foreign Minister official present at the meeting.
We will never give up, never, never, never. We will not go away and we will be relentless in the scientific and systematic approach to these problems knowing that Turkey's accession to the European Union may represent the missing link to solving these centuries old problems.