- Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today
As climate change becomes the defining humanitarian issue of the twenty-first century, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew emerges as a strong advocate for an urgent and comprehensive response to the crisis. Inspired by a biblical foundation of the principles of environmental stewardship and a commitment to caring for the world’s impoverished peoples, he urges action and cooperation for those who will bear the direct brunt of environmental changes. Bartholomew’s status gives him voice to speak with authority on this and other issues of contemporary urgency.
Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today is a foray into the manifold activities of the patriarch in recent years, exploring human rights, global warming, world poverty economics, religious fundamentalism, and nationalism from a religious perspective. The book speaks particularly to Orthodox readers about the contemporary social and political dimensions of their ancient faith, but Patriarch Bartholomew’s message is pertinent to adherents of other confessions and faiths, introducing an ecumenical dimension to basic Orthodox tenets. Patriarch Bartholomew boldly addresses difficult and sensitive issues: deep mistrust between East and West, respect for human rights, destruction of the natural environment, and sharp division among religious faiths. As one who knows firsthand what it means to survive in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation presently seeking admission to the European Union, the patriarch has struggled to reduce conflict among divided factions despite personal and institutional persecution. While the ecumenical patriarchate has survived wars, the Crusades, invasions, and sultanate rules, today it is routinely harassed by the notorious “Gray Wolves” in virulent demonstrations of Turkey’s nationalism. Ironically, His All Holiness ardently supports Turkey’s bid for entry to the EU, regarding this alliance as the most hopeful and viable means for achieving improvement in Greek-Turkish relations and security in the wider region — even beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, [End Page 125] whose role has recently diminished. Moreover, the patriarch has assumed unprecedented leadership in promoting tolerance in the Middle East, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, with the motto “War in the name of religion is war against religion.” He recognizes Orthodoxy’s unique responsibility in assisting rapprochement between East and West, having — as he is fond of saying — “a foot in both worlds.” In the words of Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, “The Ecumenical Patriarch is renowned as a bridge-builder. Encountering the Mystery is a bridge in book form.”
Standing as it does at the crossroads of continents and civilizations, the ecumenical patriarchate has initiated bilateral interfaith dialogue with the Islamic communities on such matters as authority, coexistence, peace, justice, and pluralism in the modern world. A major feature in today’s changing world is the growth of secularism, which the patriarch also discusses. Secularism is a bone of contention within the otherwise overwhelmingly Muslim state of Turkey. By law, Patriarch Bartholomew remains subject to a constitution that enshrines the modern, secularist principles formulated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the national hero who established the modern state of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Yet in Turkey, where the distribution of income is already among the most imbalanced within Europe, strict application of secular policy did not bridge the gap between the classes.
Backlash against the current regime is a valid concern, given the support for a more Islamic (or Islamist sympathetic) government among the population. Turkey’s reliance on military-backed hardliners to enforce the secular agenda in Ankara has been effective, but groups like Human Rights Watch have declared that Turkey’s flat prohibition of headscarves violates principles of human rights no less than does the forced adoption of headscarves in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the military backstop may no longer be an option. In 2004, constitutional reforms passed by the Turkish parliament included the removal of military representatives from the Council of Higher Education. As an EU candidate, Turkey is expected to further reduce the military’s capacity for intervention in government. Whether Turkey...