Ecumenical Patriarch visits Washington and White House

Published November 5, 2009

Washington DCWith his flowing black robe and long white beard, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I is a living portrait of the 2000-year-old Orthodox Christian faith.And yet, he says, he’s something of a revolutionary.”By calling Christianity revolutionary, and saying it is dedicated to change, we are not siding with progressives – just as, by conserving it, we are not siding with conservatives,” he said in a lecture at Georgetown University in Washington on November 3.”The only side that we take is that of our faith, which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another, but in truth we are always only in one camp, that of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”The speech of the Istanbul-based patriarch was one of numerous appearances by the man known for his advocacy of interfaith relations and religious freedom, and often dubbed the “green patriarch” for working to combat environmental degradation, Religion News Service reports.During his two-and-a-half week U.S. visit, he’s spoken from the banks of the Mississippi River, where he led a conference on problems affecting the world’s major bodies of water. He later travelled to New York, where he received an honorary degree from Catholic leaders at Fordham University, visited a Manhattan synagogue and conducted a prayer service at the United Nations.The 69-year-old patriarch is seen by many as the top spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and their primary messenger to people unfamiliar with Orthodox traditions or theology.”He’s someone who can speak a language that everyone understands,” said Elizabeth Prodromou, a Greek Orthodox Christian and director of a programme on international relations and religion at Boston University. “He makes religion accessible in terms of those urgent problems that preoccupy all of us as human beings and American citizens.”Bartholomeos may speak for the grass roots but he has the ear of the powerful across Washington.In addition to meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, the patriarch’s schedule includes dinner at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence, meetings with congressional leaders and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and sessions with ambassadors to Turkey and Greece.The Patriarch also planned to have a private breakfast with schoolmates from the Theological School of Halki that was closed by Turkey in the 1970s. In his April meeting with Obama in Turkey, he discussed the closed seminary, which Obama has urged Turkish lawmakers to reopen. A congressional resolution welcoming Bartholomeos to Washington also called for the school to be reopened.A White House statement on Obama’s meeting with Bartholomeos noted that the president reaffirmed his support for the seminary.”He also took the opportunity to reiterate the U.S. commitment to confronting global climate change and to applaud the Ecumenical Patriarch for his work on global interfaith dialogue,” the Obama administration said.At Fordham, Bartholomeos congratulated the Jesuit college on its ecumenical efforts – including offering Orthodox Christian studies – and called for greater co-operation across faiths.”As faith communities and as religious leaders, it is our obligation constantly to pursue and persistently to proclaim alternative ways to order human affairs, ways that reject violence and reach for peace,” he said in a 27 October speech. “Human conflict may well be inevitable in our world; but war certainly is not.”At many stops – from Fordham to Georgetown to the White House – Bartholomeos returned to his priority of caring for the environment, saying those who “tyrannise the earth” are committing sins.”It’s very significant to have so prominent an Orthodox figure not talking just to the church but very much talking to the world,” said the Rev. Alexander Rentel, assistant professor of canon law and Byzantine Studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York.His blending of faith and environmental concerns pleases Orthodox Christians like Rentel, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America who was struck by the patriarch’s image of “late antiquity mixed with Huck Finn” [Huckleberry Finn] as he visited the Mississippi River in New Orleans.


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