Orthodox Patriarch Opens Latest Ecological Campaign With Other Faiths Taking Notice
May 30, 2003
Athens, Greece -- He has cast flower wreaths onto the oil-fouled Danube River. He's warned that the Black Sea is teetering on ecological collapse. After touring pollution hotspots along the Adriatic coast, he has joined Pope John Paul II in proclaiming a "moral and spiritual" duty to protect the environment. And Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians, has gone even further. Years ago, he declared that harming the environment is a sin, and he has been pushing religious leaders and believers to make conservation an integral part of faith ever since.
The so-called "green patriarch" is bringing his message next to the Baltic Sea, with its shores that touch eco-sensitive Scandinavia and toxin-spewing factories in the former East Bloc. Bartholomew's journey, which begins Saturday in Poland, is his fifth mission since 1995 aimed at uniting clerics, scholars, activists and politicians under the banner of ecological interests. His efforts and those of other religious leaders could be potentially pivotal in shaping doctrine and ethics surrounding the environment, theologians and others say. "Bartholomew saw this potential long ago. He was way ahead of the curve -- miles ahead," said Richard Foltz, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida, who has written extensively on faith and ecology.
Bartholomew, the "first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs, would appear an unlikely crusader. Tradition is the bedrock of Orthodoxy and any hints of even mild reforms are often met with suspicion. The churches of the Orthodox heartland, from the Balkans to Russia, are generally divided along ethnic lines - issues of nationalism and religious customs are paramount. Few old-guard Orthodox priests venture with ease into uncharted moral terrain such as the environment. The 63-year-old Bartholomew, however, has so far succeeded in nudging the Orthodox in unexpected directions since he was elected ecumenical patriarch in 1991.
Bartholomew -- who presides from Istanbul, Turkey -- initially, angered many Orthodox groups with overtures to end the nearly 1,000-year-old estrangement with Roman Catholics. But his gestures at reconciliation opened the way for papal visits to Orthodox nations that shattered many taboos about dialogue with the Vatican.
Bartholomew's environmental push has followed a similar course. His first major attempt to link faith and ecology -- a conference on the Aegean Sea island of Patmos in 1995 -- passed almost unnoticed. Then after a 1997 trip around the Black Sea, Bartholomew made a declaration that made headlines around the world: "To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin." The clarity of his statement opened important theological discussions on the role of ecology on religious life. It also served as support and inspiration for groups trying to merge environmental ethics with religious tenets.
In 1999, Bartholomew led a journey to examine environmental catastrophes along the Danube River. Last year, more than 250 people - from professors to priests, rabbis and imams -- joined his trip around the Adriatic that covered chemical spills in Albania and rising water levels that threaten to swamp Venice. "He certainly sees the potential to use the environment to try to find common ground across the Orthodox world, which is too often dominated by old vendettas and narrow issues," said Thomas Fitzgerald, a professor at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. "But it's much bigger than just the Orthodox. Bartholomew is following his own inner instinct that (the environment) is an important issue and it's the duty of religious leaders from all faiths to deal with it."
Other denominations are getting involved. Groups such as Interfaith Power and Light urge for energy efficient systems in churches and other sites. The Evangelical Environmental Network brings ecology to Bible Belt pulpits and elsewhere. The U.S. Roman Catholic bishops conference has an environmental justice program that awards parish grants for eco-friendly projects and training. A rabbi, Fred Scherlinder Dobb, has led the group Religious Witness for the Earth in protests against oil exploration plans in the Alaskan wilderness.
Some scholars and others have even drawn parallels to the religious elements that pushed forward the civil rights movement in the United States or the anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa. But they also wonder how much of the environmental ethos actually reaches the average worshipper. "For every congregation that sees the connection between religious life and the environment, there are 20, 40 or 100 or 1,000 that don't," said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which brings together major Christian and Jewish groups. "It's a very early awakening."
What's ahead, said professor Rebecca Gould, could be a slow evolution as different faiths reassess the concepts of "worldliness" -- balancing the tangible needs of the physical environment with spiritual teachings. "It is happening slowly," said Gould, who teaches religion and environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. "But I don't think it can be stopped."
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