Orthodox leader blesses green agenda

From a most unlikely quarter, the global environmental movement has gained a new leader, one with hundreds of millions of potential followers.

Last month, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, led fellow clerics in blessing the Baltic Sea from the deck of a cruise ship. He was accompanied by nearly 200 scientists, political leaders, and journalists huddled together against the chilly Nordic night.

"To protect the oceans is to do God's work," the Orthodox leader later said, in a speech calling for the establishment of marine protected areas and an end to overfishing. "To harm them, even if we are ignorant of the harm we cause, is to diminish His divine creation."

The situation is even more unusual when one considers that Bartholomew, the patriarch of the ancient "mother church" in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the titular head of Orthodox Christianity, is the leader of a faith with a centuries-old reputation for avoiding involvement in politics and other worldly affairs.

Saving creation itself

But since becoming patriarch 12 years ago, Bartholomew has led his reluctant church back onto the world stage in an effort to help save creation itself.

In 1997, Bartholomew declared that the wanton destruction of nature was a sin, as were actions that caused the extinction of species; altered the climate; stripped the world of its forests; and poisoned the air, land, and water.

His theological school on the Turkish island of Halki has been running environmental training seminars for priests and church officials from the Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches, each of which is self-governing.

Bartholomew has traveled to so many of Europe's environmental hot spots - usually as part of a series of shipboard symposia between religious and scientific leaders - that the European press has dubbed him the "Green Patriarch."

Recently, his chief theologian, Metropolitan John of Pergamon, took things a step further, declaring that humans must not simply act as stewards of the environment, but as "priests of creation," embracing nature rather than simply managing it "The human being is almost by its very constitution the link between creation and God," he explained. "We are part of nature."

"This is historic, unique, unprecedented, and critically important," says Mary Evelyn Tucker, a historian of religion at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. "Orthodoxy sees the whole natural world as a sacred entity, and that makes our work within nature sacred if done within limits and boundaries."

Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Wash., who has taken part in several of the patriarch's shipboard symposia, adds: "Bartholomew is unique amongst the world's religious leaders in the degree to which he has devoted his ministry to helping his flock understand the impact of human beings on the earth. This thrills me because, as a scientist, I have not been able to get the message out, but when the patriarch speaks, it's immediately newsworthy."

There have been concrete results as well. Bartholomew's 1997 symposium on the Black Sea, which was attended by senior European Union and World Bank officials, led to renewed funding of the international Black Sea Environment Program by both bodies, according to Laurence Mee, who was head of the Program at the time. "It was quite effective in getting the attention of these institutions," he says.

Green agenda bridges faith divides

While pursuing his green agenda, Bartholomew has also opened an unprecedented dialogue with the leaders of other faiths, scientists, and political leaders from around the world. He has hosted muftis and cardinals, Anglican archbishops, Jewish rabbis, and Lutheran bishops.

These contacts have helped smooth relations between various churches. Last year, Bartholomew signed a joint declaration on the environment with Pope John Paul II, a move that has helped ease centuries of tension between the Vatican and the Orthodox Churches, which excommunicated one another in the Great Schism of 1054.

"We not only have a common faith, we have common problems," explains Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief emissary to other churches. "These [environmental problems] are a bridge between the Orthodox and Catholic world where we can build mutual trust."

"We already share a common interest in preserving God's creation," says Tarasios, the orthodox metropolitan of Buenos Aires. "This lets us display worldwide that there are areas where we can work together [with the Vatican] that don't touch upon more sensitive doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues."

Bartholomew is also using green issues to try to overcome fractious relations among the Orthodox churches, many of which are embroiled in territorial struggles dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He's used his shipboard symposia as a politically neutral platform on which to tour much of the former Byzantine Empire and its client states in the Adriatic and Baltic regions, meeting with fellow patriarchs and weeping crowds of the faithful.

But relations with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexi, remain tense. In 1996, the Orthodox world teetered on the edge of a schism over the status of church property in Estonia, claimed by both Constantinople and Moscow. A compromise is being worked out, but relations remain so poor that Bartholomew canceled a ship visit to St. Petersburg last month when Alexi revoked his invitation.

But the biggest obstacle to Bartholomew's environmental agenda may lie in his own parish churches, where it is encountering resistance from conservative rank-and-file priests. Older priests, John of Pergamon admits, "don't feel that this is part of their work," so the patriarchate has focused on bringing environmental education to the theological seminaries. "Our hope is with the newcomers," he adds, "with the new generation of priests."

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