Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why the Patriarch is Green

I'm not a believer in conspiracy theories, but I am convinced that the Wall Street Journal has a clear anti-Orthodox bias. I can't think of a single article or editorial they've published in recent years that hasn't been both misinformed and malicious. Their latest attempt at smearing the Church comes in the form of a perfectly dreadful hack job entitled "The Unorthodox Patriarch" by Charlotte Allen, whose only cited qualification is that she's the author of a book entitled The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, published nearly a decade ago and now out of print. (As an aside, my advice to all of you is that whenever someone starts talking about the search for the "historical Jesus," run as fast as your legs will take you. And if you happen by good luck to run into a bookshop, pick up this book to clear your head.)

One wonders if the Wall Street Journal employs fact checkers. Here's the very first sentence: "Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, can be regarded as the 'pope,' or at least the symbol of unity, of Orthodox Christianity." For the umpteenth time, this is simply not true. It's so patently false that it's unworthy of refutation. Then there's this: "In December 2006, Bartholomew, patriarch since 1991, was thrust under the world-wide media spotlight when he celebrated the Orthodox Divine Liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI." Thankfully, this also is simply not true. It is true that Pope Benedict did attend a Liturgy celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew, but had they actually concelebrated one would have heard a thing or two about it, to put it mildly. Ms. Allen writes:
Orthodox Christianity is not dead yet. Its famous monastery on Mount Athos in Greece has enjoyed new growth recently, and in America some Orthodox churches are drawing converts attracted by the glorious liturgy and ancient traditions. It is unfortunate that Orthodoxy's spiritual leader feels compelled to position the Orthodox with a Western Europe that is, in fact, spiritually dead.
Where does one start? Orthodoxy is not dead yet? And there's only one monastery on Mount Athos? Throughout the article Ms Allen consistently exaggerates what she sees as the irreversible demographic decline of the Orthodox community, as if wanting to write it out of history, a quaint remnant of the Byzantine Empire. It is certainly true that life in any predominantly Islamic country makes life for Christians of any denomination practically impossible. It is also true that Russia is facing a drastically lowering birthrate. But what Ms Allen ignores altogether is the dynamic rebirth of Orthodoxy in formerly Communist lands. Albania, for instance, has gone from a country in which the Orthodoxy Church as an institution had been entirely wiped out to one in which there is a flourishing Orthodox community. And it takes an act of deliberate blindness not to see the rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia, not only as a community of faith, but also as a potent political force. (Mr Putin is a devout Orthodox believer, who enjoys the active support of the Church.) She is further wrong in associating Orthodoxy exclusively with historically Orthodox countries, ignoring the vibrant presence of Orthodoxy both in the world-wide "diaspora" and as a rapidly growing missionary presence.

Ms. Allen has very little to say about the book itself; in fact, she dedicates all of one paragraph to it. She writes that "the book reveals the jarringly secular-sounding ideological positions its leader seemingly feels compelled to take in order to cultivate the sympathy of a Western European political order that is at best indifferent to Christianity." Now, this may very well be true. I haven't seen the book, and I'd frankly be quite surprised if it were any good. But her criticism is essentially political: "this exercise in fiddling while the new Rome burns" she writes, "seems pathetic, presenting a picture of a church leader so intimidated by his country's Islamic majority that he cannot speak up for his dwindling flock even as its members are murdered at his doorstep." She is perfectly aware of the Phanar's precarious existence in Turkey. Now, what if the Patriarch actually had criticized the Turkish government? That, simply put, would be the end of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And why should he give so much attention to appealing to Western Europe? Because the entry of Turkey into the EU is his only chance of gaining basic religious freedom for him and his flock. Ms Allen stumbles on to this herself, writing:
On the other hand, Bartholomew's "green" crusade across Western Europe may actually represent a shrewd last-ditch effort to secure a visible profile and powerful protectors for his beleaguered church. The patriarch has been an incessant lobbyist for Turkey's admission to the European Union, and his hope has been that the EU will condition Turkey's entry on greater religious freedoms for all faiths.
To which I can only say: Well, duh! Western Europe may be spiritually dead, but its political institutions can provide the only safeguard for the continuing presence of Orthodoxy in Turkey. (Of course, whether the entry of Turkey into the EU would be good for Europe is another question entirely.) Rather than being a "shrewd last-ditch effort," it is in fact a considered pragmatic approach, even if one that does result in a few lousy books along the way.

(The photograph above was taken in September 1955, following a state-sponsored and unspeakably vicious pogrom against the Greek Orthodox community.)

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