ADDRESS By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the 2nd International Conference of Athens for Religious and Cultural Pluralism and for Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East (Athens, 29-31 October 2017)

Your Beatitudes,
Your Eminences,
Your Excellencies,
Most honorable participants,

“A merciful heart is a heart burning for all creation,
for people, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing.”1

We cite these words of St. Isaac the Syrian, a native of ancient Syria, by way of an introduction, because only a truly merciful heart, consumed by true compassion, can partially comprehend the tragedy occurring in Syria and the broader region.

Moved by such sentiments, we find ourselves once again at this common consultation, the 2nd International Conference of Athens, thanks to the gracious initiative of His Excellency Professor Nikos Kotzias, the Hellenic Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Our participation is understood as a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Undoubtedly, our common desire is to offer a constructive contribution to the promotion of dialogue in interreligious and intercultural challenges, whose resolution is a prerequisite for the reestablishment of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, as well in other regions of our unsettled modern world.

Since we find ourselves in the glorious city of Athens, we deem it essential and beneficial to our conference that we briefly consider the sources so that we may at the very least be reminded of certain familiar principles and foundational values, which were originally cultivated in this country and particularly in this city, whence they were offered as a gift to the whole world.

What likely comes first to the minds of many of you is the term democracy, especially as this was recently praised by distinguished leaders of great nations. Surely none among us doubts that this term lies at the very heart of our deliberations, since wherever democracy is either absent or violated, tyranny triumphs in a destructive manner.

Civilization is a central issue of this conference. In this land and especially in the city of Athens, the three following fundamental cultural categories and values of human existence were first realized to the highest degree:
Truth (Τό ἀληθές), through philosophy and the sciences.
Righteousness (Τό ἀγαθόν), through Ethics and Justice, and
Beauty (Τό κάλλος), through Art.
These three values urgently require safeguarding not only in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, but also globally.

However, our present conference calls us to dialogue concerning what should be done in the framework of the responsibilities and capabilities of each individual, and of all of us collectively, in order to address acute existential problems, whose severity and urgency has led the Greek Government to undertake this praiseworthy initiative. 

As we all know, wherever people ignore or discontinue dialogue, taking the place of dialogue are monolithic ideologies, totalitarian regimes, the cruel demagogy, and, ultimately, weapons, destruction and death. This is why we recommend a dialogue of truth and love, which promotes mutual trust and empowers participants to assume the necessary initiatives and responsibilities together. Sincere dialogue can change the flow of history.

Thus, we consider imperative the expansion, elevation and establishment of interreligious dialogue on every level, while bearing in mind past failures, present needs, and future prospects.  As unrest increases daily throughout the world, it incites unhealthy feelings of insecurity, depression, and suspicion of new, unpleasant and dire surprises.

Interreligious dialogue is obligated and able to acquire value, purpose and effectiveness only if we are able to rid people of faith from the fear that pan-religious syncretism is allegedly pursued through such dialogue. Moreover, we must simultaneously point out in convincing fashion the value and necessity of mutual respect, forgiveness, love and solidarity for social cohesion, peace, restoration of justice, discouragement of fundamentalist fanaticism and acceptance of “others” in a rapidly globalized society, where the cohabitation of diverse nationalities, religions, and persuasions is henceforth unavoidable.

Let us work together to avoid civil distress, destruction of ancient religious and cultural goods, uprooting of entire nations from their traditional homelands — which is occurring today in the regions we are discussing — first and foremost, so that Christians may avoid the lethal crossing of oceans and numerous other hardships. Above all, we consider and condemn as the most abhorrent crime, every form of abuse, exploitation and slaughter of countless children in the wider region of the Mediterranean, as well as globally.

Beloved symposium participants,
St. Paul in his sermon at the foot of the Acropolis’ Areopagus preached to the Athenians that God “made every nation of one blood...” (Acts 17:26). Inasmuch as we are all members of the one human family:

Firstly, any homicide is a detestable act of fratricide! Any war is civil war! However, whenever they take place in the name of God, they constitute the ultimate blasphemy.

Secondly, since we are all brothers and sisters of one blood, racism of any kind is unjustified and condemned. Today as in the past, but most especially in 1872, the Orthodox Church denounced phyletism. Moreover, in June of 2016, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, convened at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, and referred, among other things, to the contribution of “the Orthodox Church in the realization of peace, justice, freedom, fraternity and love among peoples, as well as in the removal of racial and other discriminations.” Thus, this Council emphasized the value of the human person, underlining that “it is essential to develop inter-Christian cooperation in every direction for the protection of human dignity and of course for the good of peace, so that the peacekeeping efforts of all Christians without exception may acquire greater weight and significance.”

During our first conference held in Athens in 2015, we understood that it was the wish of all to contribute towards the eradication of tension and violence. But how? “Everyone from our own perspective.” Without casting doubt on the good intentions of everyone, we wonder how sufficient or efficient such a response might be. The magnitude of the challenge diminishes, and even eliminates the effectiveness of each of us acting “from our own perspective.” This is precisely why we addressed religious leaders at the time, and we fervently repeat today, that we must establish a stable channel of communication for a truly effective contribution toward preventing and addressing acts of violence that supposedly occur out of religious conviction and mandate.  Such an institution would also be able to develop a constructive cooperation with the Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East and other organizations.

The channel that we are proposing is rendered especially necessary because we find ourselves before an extremely challenging twofold issue. For, even if we achieve what we hope for, namely a swift and satisfactory response to these current issues — such as immigration and the peace that we all desire — the remaining issues will not only require money, time and much toil, but also common responsibility and solid cooperation. After all, the tragic suffering of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples has already caused and continues to cause a great deal of devastation in human relations, as well as in the natural, cultural, and religious environment. This is precisely why the highest level of mobilization will be required for interreligious cooperation and the handling of ongoing religious crises, the healing of the emotional wounds of people — which are perpetuated by this conflict — but also for the cultivation of a moderate atmosphere for the restoration of peaceful and creative coexistence among religions and civilizations.

Finally, permit us to inform you all about a meeting held some years ago at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with Their Beatitudes the Primates of the ancient Orthodox Patriarchates and Churches, our beloved brothers in the Lord: Theodoros of Alexandria, Theophilos of Jerusalem, Chrysostomos of Cyprus, and Isaac of Apameia (representing the Patriarchate of Antioch), where we deemed useful and necessary a detailed draft of an Ecological Charter of the Mediterranean. Such a Charter presupposes many years and many dimensions of cooperation among the three monotheistic traditions in order to jointly address the ecological challenges of the Mediterranean and the region at large, while at the same time promoting a peaceful coexistence among the children of Abraham.  It is our hope and prayer that positive developments will be forthcoming in that region and will allow for an interchurch and interfaith examination and application of the aforementioned Charter.

We look forward to the constructive deliberations and recommendations of this conference and trust that the restoration of peace in the deeply troubled regions of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East will soon prevail.

We thank you for your attention!

1 Isaac the Syrian, Ascetic Homilies, Critical Edition, Markellos Pirar, Holy Monastery of Iviron: Mount Athos, 2012, Homily 62, p. 736.