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from issue no. 11 - 2004

PEOPLE. A meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos

Orthodox self-assertion

He reaffirms that “the Orthodox Church is a Church of tradition”. But the main fronts on which he fights are the public importance of Christian culture and the Christian roots of European civilization. In full agreement with the guidelines of the current pontificate.An interview with the Archbishop of Athens

by Gianni Valente

Chistodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and Primate of the Orthodox Church of Greece

Chistodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and Primate of the Orthodox Church of Greece

They say that if he were to present himself in the political elections he would get a landslide vote. His vehemence as a crowd stirrer seems to fit the national pride still vivid in Greece after the summer triumphs in the European football cup and the very successful Olympics. Yet, at the beginning of October, a vote among his fellow metropolitans of the Orthodox Synod whose result was unambiguous (42 votes to 15) has postponed sine die the visit that his Beatitude Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and Primate of the Orthodox Church of Greece, intended to make to Rome to meet the Pope and pray at the tombs of the apostles. A visit cancelled when everything was ready, and the Pontifical Lateran University had already prepared an honoris causa degree for him.
Christodoulos, who is sixty-five years old and has been archbishop of Athens since 1998, would have been the first head of the Church of Greece to visit the Eternal City since the time of the Eastern Schism. The failed visit gives a glimpse of tensions and quarrels in the Orthodox Churches at a moment when relations between the Orthodoxy and the See of Rome seems colored by an eager, promising desire for change.
The interview that follows, given in part during the audience granted by a fervent Christodoulos to a group of Italian journalists last 20 October, starts from the failed visit to Rome of the head of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Your Beatitude, the Synod of the Greek Church in October blocked your visit to Rome at the last minute. What was the purpose of your visit, now officially postponed, to the Eternal City?
CHRISTODOULOS: Leaving aside our theological and ecclesiological differences with the Catholic Church, today we see that Christians in Europe and throughout the world have the historical responsibility to collaborate on questions on which they do agree so as to provide a strong and positive presence in the contemporary world.
The theological differences to which you refer center on the role of the bishop of Rome.
CHRISTODOULOS: The question of the primacy of the bishop of Rome will be discussed within the framework of theological dialogue that we hope will restart soon. Our opinion on the point is different, and the difference is one of the fundamental obstacles to Christian unity. According to us the bishop of Rome has a primacy of honor, not of jurisdiction. We believe that the head of each local Church is primus inter pares among other bishops. He presides the local Synod, but the Synod itself stands above the person who presides it. The same is true also in relations between the heads of local Churches. There is a deaconate of honor among them, as defined by the ecumenical Councils, and recognized by the Churches, but there is no head of which all the others are simple representatives.
Archbishop Christodoulos with the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Athens 15 March 2002

Archbishop Christodoulos with the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Athens 15 March 2002

As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger once wrote: «Rome must not demand from the East, in regard to the doctrine of the primacy, more than was formulated and lived during the first millennium».
CHRISTODOULOS: I don’t know Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase, but a good starting point in the theological dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics would be to deal with the question of the primacy of the bishop of Rome on the basis of what was in force during the first millennium.
The apostolic origin of the Church of Rome is also founded on the martyrdom of Saint Paul. What do you think of the suggestion made by various scholars to undertake an excavation in the Basilica of Saint Paul without the Wall, like the one conducted in Saint Peter’s, to investigate the historicity of tradition concerning the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles?
CHRISTODOULOS: I am absolutely in agreement. Every initiative that contributes to the uncovering of the truth and the mission of the Church is a blessed one. The Apostle Paul unites the Church of Athens to the Church of Rome; and also gave a fundamental contribution to the encounter between the Christian faith and Greco-Roman civilization, which is the basis of European civilization also.
You have described those who opposed your visit and your good relation with the Church of Rome as «Orthodox taleban». Who are they?
CHRISTODOULOS: I want to point out that my expression “Orthodox taleban” did not refer to those who asked for my trip to Rome to be postponed, that is the majority of my brother bishops in the Church of Greece, who retained that the visit should take place in better times, to achieve better results. The taleban, in my humble opinion, are those among the Orthodox who reject relations of collaboration with other Christians and try to impose their fanaticism on the whole Church, and on the guidelines of its pastoral office.
Archbishop Christodoulos with John Paul II near the Acropolis of Athens 4 May 2001

Archbishop Christodoulos with John Paul II near the Acropolis of Athens 4 May 2001

Not only in Greece but elsewhere also, the faith is being reduced to an ideology of ethnic or cultural-political identification. What, according to you, is the antidote to this reduction of the faith to ideology?
CHRISTODOULOS: The decadence of the Church can be seen in its secularization, given that our Lord Jesus Christ has told us that one cannot serve two masters, the world and Him. The secularization of the Church is seen among other things in its aspiration to acquire secular power, in its subjection to nationalistic aims, or in its reduction to a tool of propaganda of whatever kind. There have always been differences between local Churches, but if today many of these Churches have also a national character, that must not lead them to lose their universal openness by misrepresenting the nature of their own mission. The fact that we love our family or our country must not mean that we don’t love our neighbor in the same way, whoever he is and whatever he believes. If we don’t act in that way, we are not Christians but Pharisees.
What is the most obvious effects of secularization, and what can the Church do to deal with the phenomenon?
CRISTODOULOS: Secularization distances many people from the Church. Whereas people want a Church that stays close to them, that defends them, and that derives its strength from the people themselves, together with the strength that comes to it from God.
According to me, today, given secularization, the traditional way in which the Church looks at the world is the best way to bring us back to the roots of our life. The Orthodox Church is a Church of tradition. The worship of God has precedence in our life, and a large segment of the people takes part in it. We have kept so many rules so as not to lose the ascetic ethos of our Church, such as fasting, practiced by a great many faithful, and the vigils of prayer. Our monasteries are the centers of this spiritual life. Our Church is aware of having changed nothing in what was formulated and expressed by the apostles and the saintly Fathers of the Church. Above all in matters of faith we have no power to make changes. In Greece all modernism is considered extraneous to the garden of the Church. It is not the goal of the Church to follow the world so as to win it over and conquer it, but rather it is called to stand before the people and point the way to salvation. That is what the Church does, and not promote the development of a vast social system. Even if social questions are certainly not alien to us. We in Greece have developed considerably the social character of our Church.
The interpenetration of Church and State that exists in Greece is criticized by many people. But the leaders of the Church have always rejected the wishes of those who desire greater separation. For example, they have defended the law requiring indication of religion on identity documents.
CHRISTODOULOS: The relation between Church and State works and is regulated in different ways in the various countries of Europe. The situation in the United Kingdom is different, that in Sweden, or in Italy, or in Germany, or France and Belgium is different. The particular relationship between our Church and the Greek State is the product of our history, the result of the wish of our people. That relationship is defined by the Constitution and by the laws. But in Greece our roles are completely distinct. There is absolute religious freedom.
Archbishop Christodoulos greeting the Greek football team in Athens after their victory in the European championship on 5 July 2004

Archbishop Christodoulos greeting the Greek football team in Athens after their victory in the European championship on 5 July 2004

Yet there are those who want a change in the current status.
CHRISTODOULOS: To do that the Constitution needs to be changed, and it is not a thing one can do in a day. As for the mention of religious denomination on identity documents, it wasn’t us who asked for its insertion. The mention has been there for a hundred years. At a certain point the socialist government of the time decided to remove it without subjecting the decision to public debate. A move that according to us revealed a deep-seated attitude towards the Church. That is why we organized demonstrations and collected three million signatures in favor of a referendum in which citizens could express their opinion directly on the subject. I want to add that the elimination of the mention of religion was given the justification that religious faith constitutes intimate personal information. Yet in the case of Buttiglione his exclusion from the post of European commissioner was based precisely on intrusive questions about his religious beliefs. And the digital European passport contains confidential personal data, easily got at.
Yet on that point, you found yourselves in contrast with the Catholic minority…
CHRISTODOULOS: Unfortunately the Catholic Church opposed our effort, and that saddened us. They believed that the mention of religion constitutes a reason for discrimination. But that is not true. I told my old schoolmate, Catholic Archbishop Foscolos: «If we don’t react immediately to this first measure against the Church, there will come others. We’re all in the same boat, and when it sinks we’ll all drown, independently of whether we’re travelling in third or business class». We oppose any discrimination against any religious or national group because we know that if one group is discriminated against, sooner or later it’ll be the turn of the others.
The fact remains that some see the Church as a drag on the modernization of the country and its legal culture.
CHRISTODOULOS: We in Greece have never experienced feudalism, and our tradition is that society itself chooses its clergy, who participate in all demonstrations of the life of the people. Here in Greece we are the continuation of the ancient assembly of the people. In democratic Athens all citizens participated in the exercise of power in their city. In the Church of Greece today the same thing happens. Everybody participates in the parish, each with his own role. This cannot be understood perhaps by those in other countries who have become accustomed to looking at the clergy as a class that is juxtaposed to them, both ideologically and socially. As for backwardness, just recently a journalist of La Croix wrote that he grasped the identification of the priest with the people when he saw our married priests living with their children and their wives, just like all other men; when he saw them buying the newspaper and driving their cars, when he saw them after mass taking coffee with their faithful. And when he learned that there is much understanding and affection toward the people from the Church, as in matrimonial questions, where two divorces and three marriages are permitted. One can’t understand these things without experiencing them, if one limits oneself to reading what is written on relations between Church and State in Greece.
In terms of geopolitics, a new feature in recent years is that various massive military operations have been conducted in the name of ethical principles. It happened with former Yugoslavia, and also with Iraq, where the war was presented as a means to “export” democracy. What do you think of these matters?
CHRISTODOULOS: As Christians we are against the logic of the right of the strongest and against the subjection of morals to the interests of the powerful of this world. The war in Yugoslavia and the very tough treatment of Serbia has never been morally justified in cogent manner. In that situation one could certainly not say that the Serbians were the bad guys and the others were the goodies. The same is true of the war in Iraq, with thousands of innocent victims, unleashed on the basis of lies, given that it’s never been proved that Iraq had atomic or chemical weapons. In both cases there has been no real effort for peace, because both solutions were not based on criteria of truth and justice.
There is a widespread suggestion that the danger for European Christians today is Islam. What are your relationships with Moslems in Greece? And what do you think of the plan to build a mosque in Athens?
CHRISTODOULOS: Islam as such doesn’t constitute a danger, if anything it is the Moslem fanatics. We in Greece have co-existed with the Moslems for centuries, without problems. There was mutual respect. Obviously I’m not speaking of the Ottoman regime but of ordinary people who without big interests to defend lived close to one another. In northern Greece, where the Moslem minority lives, there are dozens of mosques and Moslem schools, and Christians and Moslems live in harmony. We in Athens, as Church, are willing to accept the building of a mosque for the religious services of Moslems immigrants, but we are against the creation of an Islamic center, given the tough Moslem proselytism already witnessed in Italy, France, Switzerland, England. And then we don’t agree with the siting of the eventual mosque near the international airport. The Moslems of Attica would certainly not be helped by such a siting, and it would be a sign that they want to build this mosque merely for propaganda purposes.
On the question of Turkey’s entry into the European Union opinions, even among Christian leaders, seem divided. All the Christian communities in Turkey are in favor of entry. In the past you have expressed considerable reservation. What is your judgment now?
CHRISTODOULOS: We understand the position of the Christian minorities in Turkey who support entry into the European Union. But it’s not just a matter of bettering their position. The future identity of a united Europe mustn’t be endangered. Which is not only a political or geographical union, but above all a cultural union, one of civilization. If we don’t share cultural principles we won’t even have a shared future.
According to some the Church of Greece should abandon any claim to a monopoly of Greek religious identity (to be found, for example, in the concept of “canonical territory”), because nowadays even faiths and religions must accept the principle of the free market. How do you answer such arguments?
CHRISTODOULOS: Those who believe that forget that in one way or another 98 percent of Greek citizens belong to our Church. And that it has acted as leaven for our people for twenty centuries. In times of peace, but above all in difficult times, when the state didn’t exist, and the Church was like a mother and an ark of salvation for the people. I don’t understand the theory of a free market for religions. If it means guaranteeing the free activity of the sects, the doings of some of which infringe elementary human rights, it’s not simply a matter of safeguarding our flock, but also of safeguarding such rights and of respecting laws and measures established in this regard by the EU and by various European States.

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