Greek Orthodox: Utahns learning from ‘Green Patriarch’

November 20, 2009
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune

Bartholomew teaches rising generations to care for planet.

"To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin," says the gray-haired patriarch, staring into the camera. "For human beings to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air and its life -- all of these are sins."

As the black-robed religious figure speaks, two dozen or so youths at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Holladay nod. They have come together on this Sunday afternoon to watch a new video about the worldwide leader of their faith, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is becoming an international leader in the fight to preserve the planet.

Last month, Bartholomew, who has been dubbed the "Green Patriarch," spent more than two weeks in the United States, beginning in New Orleans with a symposium on religion, science and the environment. He also spoke on the banks of the Mississippi River, at Fordham, and at the United Nations and met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was part of his ongoing effort to bring together scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders and policymakers to work on what he sees as an impending ecological disaster.

The film follows him on his trips to the most ecologically threatened areas of the planet -- from Brazil's rain forests to the Baltic Sea, where the fish population has been severely depleted, to Greenland's melting glaciers.

In conjunction with his visit, Greek Orthodox youths nationwide, including in Utah, watched the 50-minute film. And they seemed to like what they saw.

"He is pretty cool," Michael Zoumudakis said. "I like how he walks instead of taking cars all the time."

The 69-year-old patriarch is an important role model for these young people, said the Rev. Michael Kouremetis, head priest of Utah's Greek Orthodox parish.

"I grew up among smokestacks and wouldn't hesitate to throw a McDonald's bag out the window. We had no environmental consciousness," Kouremetis said, addressing the kids. "Thank God for your generation."


Limited by Turkey

Bartholomew is the 270th leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which includes 300 million-plus believers worldwide and more than 2 million in the United States. While individual churches in each city and state are self-governed, they look to Bartholomew as the "first among equals," a leader believed to be in direct succession from the Apostle Andrew.

Beginning with the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, Constantinople, now Istanbul, has been the faith's world headquarters.

Since the 1920s, however, Istanbul has not been friendly territory for Christians. In that decade, the government expelled more than a million Orthodox Christians and stripped those remaining of their rights.

Only 3,000 Orthodox Christians live in Turkey today, where the Muslim-controlled government long ago confiscated nearly 94 percent of the church's property and closed down the church's only theological school. The leaders also have said that only Turkish nationals could hold the office of Ecumenical Patriarch.

Last year, members of Utah's Greek Orthodox Church persuaded the state's Legislature to issue a "human rights" resolution, urging Turkey to "grant the Ecumenical Patriarch appropriate international recognition, ecclesiastical succession and the right to train clergy of all nationalities." Other states passed similar resolutions.

In Turkey, only the patriarch is allowed to wear his black clerical robes in Istanbul's streets, Kouremetis said. All other priests and archbishops must wear suits.

Not long ago, Kouremetis was in Istanbul's St. Sophia's, which was once an Orthodox church, then a mosque and now a museum. The Utah priest felt moved to recite the Nicene Creed. Within a few minutes, two guards appeared at his side to escort him to a separate room and question him.

"It is against the law," they told him, "for Christians to pray in public."


Kid connection

Teens in jeans and hoodies at Prophet Elias glowed with pride Sunday at their activist leader.

"I am so pleased that our patriarch is talking about the environment rather than controversial issues such as abortion or gay marriage," Pilar Pappas said. "He could help unite people."

Andrew Katsohirakis added, "I feel proud that he makes efforts to include other religions."

Scientists long have been talking about the dangers of wrecking the environment, said Steven Katsohirakis, Andrew's brother. "Now he's making it a religious issue."

The young people agreed that even they could do a lot more -- like "greening" the popular Greek Festival.

They could give up the Styrofoam containers, use biodegradable implements, recycle water bottles and limit paper products.

"We need to do more," Pappas said. "We could all make a difference."

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About Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

» Born, Dimitrios Arhondonis, in 1940 on Island of Imvros (Gokceada).

» Graduated in 1961 with highest honors from Theological School of Halki; named to the Holy Diaconate and received name Bartholomew.

» Elected in 1991 as 270th Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.

» Proposed in 1992 to all Orthodox churches that every Sept. 1 be celebrated as a special day of prayer for the environment.

» Co-sponsored the Peace and Tolerance Conference in Istanbul in 1994, bringing together Christians, Muslims and Jews.

» Convened in 1995 first of seven symposiums to study the fate of waters, bringing together scientists, policymakers and religious leaders.

» Established an Orthodox Archdiocese in Hong Kong in 1996, first official visit and presence in China since World War II.

» Addressed Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2001 on "the contribution of religion to the establishment of peace."

» Signed a joint statement with Pope John Paul II in 2002 protecting the environment.

» Prayed in 2008 with Pope Benedict XVI in Sistine Chapel.

» Met this month with President Barack Obama.