In an interview with the Greek journalist Athanassios Avgherinos, Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa addressed the issue of the absence of the Moscow Patriarchate at the Council of Crete, of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, and of the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey. Please find here large excerpts of this interview.
The meeting between the journalist and Metropolitan Elpidophoros took place in Thessaloniki during the recent international theological conference on the reception of the Crete Council. In this regard, Metropolitan Elpidophoros said: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate is convinced that the more there are complications, the more we feel the need for councils and meetings and to support dialogue, so that we can overcome these difficulties, by becoming worthy of the descent of the Holy Spirit and of the help of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In addition, the Metropolitan considers “the absence of the Russian Orthodox Church at the Holy and Grand Council of the Orthodox Church as the manifestation of a theological and ecclesiological insufficiency “. Speaking about the churches that ultimately decided not to participate in the council as “satellites of Moscow”, with the exception of the Church of Antioch, the Metropolitan says that these churches simply supported their position “on the decision taken beforehand by the Russian Church to separate themselves from the other churches”. “It is widely recognized that the non-participation of Moscow and other churches was not provoked by theological, ecclesiological or canonical convictions,” highlighted the Metropolitan. At the same time, he thinks that “the links are not cut yet, that the communication channels are not destroyed, but simply that the Russian Orthodox Church needs to strive a bit more to win back the trust, not only of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but also of the ten Orthodox Churches that she outraged and hurt by her absence and her action behind the scenes, thus inciting other churches not to participate “.
Responding to critics, namely the impression that the Council of Crete was an event carried out under the patronage of the US State Department, Metropolitan Elpidophoros described these statements as “para-literature” and explained that the “Ecumenical Patriarchate , who was responsible for the organization of the Council, enlisted the help of American Greeks, namely hierarchs of the Archdiocese of America, experienced in organization, as well as Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who assisted during the council on a practical level. These were merely ecclesiastical personalities and members of the archdiocese of America, who had no relation whatsoever with the American secret services or anyone else. ”
As for the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, the Metropolitan expressed categorically, disagreeing even with the compromise positions previously adopted by the Phanar, which included the prior agreement of the other local Churches to proclaim autocephaly: “During these 2,000 years of existence of the Christian Church in this world, the granting of autocephaly has been done by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, that’s it.” “However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, despite its right to grant autocephaly, does not want to ignore the other churches… As you know, the Russian Church started an information campaign of other churches, in fact a campaign of slander against the Ecumenical Patriarchate… This is why the Patriarchate has decided to appoint a delegation of bishops from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They will visit the Orthodox Churches around the world and will inform them about the real facts, the real intentions, and the real way in which the question of Ukraine is handled, in order to dispel this misleading information and these distorted news spread by the Russian Church “. “The criterion and purpose of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not autocephaly in itself. This is not a goal in itself. If autocephaly is ultimately adopted, it must function for the unity of the people of the Ukraine. The current division implies the division of an entire people.
To the question on the real nature of “this misleading information”, the Metropolitan gave the following answer: ” In 2009, when we were preparing for the official visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Ukraine, at the time of President Yushchenko and Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan of Kiev, we heard exactly the same argumentation and the same wording, as if they had come out of the same printer. The Russian Church had carried out the exact same information campaign of all the other churches, threatening them with a schism, with Armageddon, with the end of the world. They were saying that the patriarch was going to the Ukraine to bring division, etc. Finally, none of that happened, and for this reason, I do not worry now about the same words used by the Moscow Patriarchate. ”
Responding to the statement that the Ukraine is plunged into a civil war in which the government exposes entire regions to artillery fire, and that the president himself, who made the request for autocephaly, has his hands full of blood of his fellow citizens, the Metropolitan replied that as bishop and man of the Church, he does not want to fall “in the temptation to comment on political situations and politicians, because it is outside the scope of my skills and abilities… Personally, I believe that the resolution of the ecclesiastical problem is not going to aggravate the horrible situation that exists at present. On the contrary, I think it will contribute to pacification, to union, and appeasement of religious passions “.
As to know whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate had the right to restore “patriarch” Filaret to the episcopal rank, from which he was deposed by the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Elpidophoros replied: “The fact that someone is anti-canonical does not mean he does not exist. The fact that he is schismatic does not deprive him of the right to ask for his rehabilitation and the settlement of his case. Outstanding issues relating to schismatic, anti-canonical and problematic situations fall within the competence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Among its privileges, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has that of appeal, that is to say that a bishop or a priest condemned by his Church for some transgression, has the right to appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch to hear his case and reopen his file for a final decision. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is regarded as the supreme court and the last resort, to use secular terms, in the Orthodox Church. Therefore, receiving an appeal is a right that can be exercised by the Ecumenical Patriarch in this case, and he cannot reject a request on the pretext that it comes from a schismatic and non-canonical cleric. It is precisely because he is schismatic and non-canonical that he is given the right to appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch and to ask for the judgment of his case and for the reopening of his case for a final decision. For this reason, the requests that can be addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the granting of autocephaly can come from anti-canonical, schismatic, or canonical personalities, or from Uniates, so-called “Greek Catholics”.
In addition to the controversy concerning the Ukraine, Metropolitan Elpidophoros also referred to the current activity of the hierarchs of Constantinople on Turkish territory and in Muslim circles, even speaking of “revival of Christianity in Turkey”: “This is an immense historical success, a bold action by our ecumenical patriarch, patriarch Bartholomew. He is the first patriarch, after the disaster of Asia Minor [massacre and expulsion of the Greek population of Asia Minor in 1922], who dared, if you allow me the expression, to open a breach towards the East. He opened again the roads to the monuments and sacred buildings of our Church and Nation, at Pontus, in Asia Minor, in Cappadocia, in Ionia and elsewhere, in Bithynia, in Anatolia. During the first decades following the disaster in Asia Minor, there was a phobia and a great reluctance to travel to Anatolia to venerate our important sanctuaries, which we had left behind. This, however, has been gradually overcome, and we owe it to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who began with the celebration of divine Liturgies he organized on the ruins of the churches, in Cappadocia, Myra, Lycia [today Demre] and other regions. It turned out that the local Muslim population, our fellow Turks, were very cooperative, very friendly, and very hospitable towards our patriarch and bishops who went with pilgrims to celebrate the divine liturgies. Thus reciprocal trust was restored between the Patriarchate and the local Turkish authorities, but also with the local population. This trust, during almost three decades under Patriarch Bartholomew, has reached a level of excellent collaboration.
I will remind you that for the feast of the second millennium of Christianity, the Turkish State requested the collaboration of the Patriarchate to develop “religious tourism“, because you know that Asia Minor, the territory of today’s Turkey, includes the cradle of Christianity, the cities where the Apostle Paul preached during his travels, the cities where the Church Fathers were pastors, such as John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, St. Nicholas of Myra, etc. There is a whole multitude of saints and hierarchs who labored in these territories with their blood and sweat, and actions. Therefore, it is very significant, from the spiritual and ecclesiastical point of view, that the link with these cradles of Christianity be renewed. Moreover, in recent decades, mainly after the fall of communism, there has been a great mobility towards Turkey, as in the rest of the world, of Slavic Orthodox peoples. They went to Turkey, among other places, to conclude mixed marriages or to work in factories or services, etc. As a result, in the dioceses and geographical areas in which the orthodox Christian presence had disappeared, there was a revival, a reappearance of an orthodox flock.
The first successful attempt occurred in Attalia [today Antalya] thanks to Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia, who had previously served in Korea, where he was the local Metropolitan. Having reached a certain age, he retired from his mission in Korea and received the honorary title of titular Metropolitan of Pisidia, without any pastoral charge. He found out that at the seat of this diocese, located in Attalia, lived at least 15,000 Russians, Ukrainians and other Orthodox with Turkish nationality, and who had pastoral, liturgical and sacramental needs. Thus he bought the old Greek Orthodox church of Attalia, which was privately owned, had it restored, and did the same with another church in Alanya. This is how we now have two parishes and a living metropolis, which came back to life thanks to this presence.
In the same way, other metropolitan dioceses came back to life, including mine, in Bursa. It now has about 1,000 families, mainly Slavic-speaking Orthodox who concluded mixed marriages in Bursa or who work there. Then, through fundraising abroad and in Greece, I bought two Byzantine churches in the Bursa region. One dates back to the 9th century, the Taxiarca Church in Sigi [today Kumyaka]. And the other church is famous, that of the Mother of God “Pantovasilissa” in Triglia [Tirilye]. As the metropolitan of the place, I appointed a priest on a permanent basis in Bursa, I bought two churches and a residence for the priest. We are currently trying to restore the two churches and the residence, so that the priest can settle there and celebrate services on a regular basis. Meanwhile, weekly divine liturgies take place, baptisms, marriages, and other sacraments. This is how Christianity came back to life in Bursa, Attalia, Smyrna, and other places in Asia Minor…”
After recalling efforts to revive also the Halki Theological School, the Metropolitan talked about the Erdoğan government and highlighted the following: “We cannot fail to recognize that under Erdoğan’s government, minorities live their best days in Turkey. Their situation has improved. For the first time, members of minorities are considered equal citizens. The religious leaders, and our patriarch, are respected by the Turkish authorities. He faces neither suspicion nor hostility, nor malice, but is the object of respect and attention. I do not hide the fact that it flatters and rejoices us. We are very pleased. For sure, many things still need to be corrected and done, but as men of God and of the Church, we must be objective and fair, we must not just express our grievances and ask for injustice to be undone, we must also recognize the positive steps that are going in the right direction. ”