SINS BEFORE OUR EYES: Opening Address By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew


By His All-Holiness
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew


A Forum on Modern Slavery

(Istanbul, February 7, 2017)


Your Grace,
Your Eminences and Excellencies,
Dear representatives of the Presidency of Religious Affairs of Turkey and of the Mufti of Istanbul,
Dear friends,

It is with great joy that we welcome you as guests and as participants at this Forum on Modern Slavery, here to Istanbul, to the Polis, the City of Constantine, the Holy See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a historical crossroad of cultures and religions.

We would like to express a warm welcome to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, our beloved brother in Christ, Justin, for his presence. We appreciate his ecumenical spirit, his sensitivity to the signs of the times and his sense of solidarity. We also take this opportunity to express our gratitude for his warm interest in the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that convened in Crete this past June and for sending an official observer on that occasion.

An encounter and face-to-face interaction, as well as the warmth of being together for personal exchange, are all of great value, inasmuch as they are the foundation of strong relationships and bonds. We are relational beings; we really need one another. Truth is communion, life is sharing, existence is coexistence, logos is dia-logos, freedom is common freedom. Our God is a communion of Persons, and for us Christians “to be a person means to exist in the way God exists,” as the Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas states. He also adds to this an important question: “Can there be a higher view of the human being than this?” (“The Meaning of Being Human – A Theological Approach,” Science, Technology and Human Values, International Symposium Proceedings, The Academy of Athens, May 2-4, 2007, 302).

We live in a world full of contradictions. Prosperity grows amidst poverty and famine; the struggle for peace and reconciliation is confronted with terrorism and the spread of hatred and religious fundamentalism; ecological movements coexist with technocracy and the deification of economic growth; the protection of human rights is confronted with the lack of respect for human dignity, with social injustice, as well as the phenomenon of modern slavery.

This is precisely why we are convinced that responding to the problem of modern slavery is directly and inseparably linked to creation care, which has been at the very center of our patriarchal ministry over the last quarter of a century. The entire world is the body of Christ; just as human beings are the very body of Christ. The whole planet bears the traces of God, just as every person is created in the image of God. The way we respect creation reflects the way that we respond to our fellow human beings. The scars that we inflict on our environment reveal our willingness to exploit our brother and sister.

How then can we face this crisis? How can we attempt to heal the wounds of our divided world? It is obvious that such a problem demands from us all immense mobilization, common action, common goals, strength and responsibility. Nobody – no state, no church, no religion, neither science nor technology – can face the current challenges alone. We regard the worldwide crisis as an opportunity for building bridges, for openness and mutual trust. Our future is common and the way towards it is a common journey.

In our Forum today, we will discuss the challenging issue of modern slavery, an evil that destroys communion, solidarity, and dignity. Our approach is a reflection on the contribution of the common struggle of both the human rights movements and the Christian churches against slavery.

Speaking about human rights today means referring to human dignity, the protection of freedom and justice, open society and international peace. Indeed, human rights are the core values of humanism in the modern world. From their two classical Declarations in the second half of the 18th century, up until today, human rights movements have proved capable of responding to new challenges, unknown threats to human dignity, as well as new forms of oppression and exploitation. They are surely not a panacea for the treatment of all problems and injustices in our societies, but they are an essential and effective tool for the foundation and protection of freedom and justice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948) was a “manifesto of humanism” and emerged from the most terrible explosion of inhumanity in the history of mankind, claiming 55 million lives during the Second World War and the Holocaust.

If invoking human rights is the normative response to various challenges in the modern world, they must also be used to confront modern slavery, one of the most extreme violations of human dignity. Countless children, women and men around the world are currently suffering through a form of human trafficking: forced labor for children and adults, sex trafficking of men, women and children, forced prostitution, forced and early marriage, recruitment of child soldiers, exploitation of migrants and refugees, organ trafficking, and so on. The endless caravans of people forced by open violence to leave their homes, seeking protection and security, as well as the victims of structural violence, poverty and famine, are vulnerable groups, from which organized criminals easily find their victims.

A strong point against the power of human rights and “one of the biggest scandals, which from the beginning has overshadowed the idea of human rights,” was, according to Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt, an esteemed specialist on this issue, the continuation of slavery after the classical Declarations of human rights (Philosophie der Menschenrechte. Grundlagen eines weltweiten Freiheitsethos, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1998, 181). In truth, the abolition of slavery was potentially included, both in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). The development of the idea of human rights and social struggles in the 19th and the 20th centuries led to an extension of their radius, revealing their original orientation. Consequently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in its 4th article: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

In our view, the future of human rights and their effective realization is to a large extent connected to the attitude of religions towards them, to the common struggle of both the human rights movements and religions for human dignity, freedom, justice and peace.

In this field, tensions are inevitable, even in the cooperation of Christian Churches with human rights movements. Although human rights bear the stamp of Christianity, it would be incorrect to assume that these rights also have a Christian origin. Christian freedom is accused of being “internal” and “incomplete,” without any interest for the social dimension, and even “a rejection of the significance of external freedom” (Herbert Marcuse, Ideen zu einer kritischen Theorie der Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1976, 60). The Apostle Paul attributes Christian freedom to Christian slaves, without questioning the institution of external slavery. It is a fact that Saint Paul urged Christianized slaves to remain in their position (1 Cor 7.20-24) and that he sent back the slave Onesimus, who ran away from his master, urging the latter to accept the former in the spirit of Christian brotherhood and not to punish him. For the Apostle Paul, the decisive issue is not social status, though, but the reality of being released by Christ into real freedom (Gal 5.1). Before God, social differences lose their importance and all faithful are allowed to participate in the Holy Eucharist. There are “no slaves or free people … you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3.28). “The Church does not accept a difference between master (δεσπότης) and servant (οἰκέτης)” (John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Letter to Philemon, PG 62, 705). In overcoming slavery on the level of Christian life, the Church made slavery visible as a social problem. The tension between this equality before God and the inequality in the social sphere affected important changes in the treatment of slaves, but Christianity did not directly support a violent overthrow of slavery as an institution.

The Church Fathers paid great attention to individual behavior, without separating it from institutions and society. Their criticism addressed to those in power caused changes to the institutions and strengthened the struggle for social justice against social evil. Christian faith does not transform its faithful into passive, inactive beings, but mobilizes inexhaustible powers of love and solidarity. The history of social movements cannot be written without reference to Christianity, as the Holy and Great Council affirmed in its Encyclical last June: “At no time was the Church’s philanthropic work limited merely to circumstantial good deeds toward the needy and suffering, but rather it sought to eradicate the causes which create social problems. The Church’s ‘work of service’ (ἔργον διακονίας) (Eph 4.12) is recognized by everyone” (§19, June 2016).

Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church is often accused of neglecting the world for the sake of liturgical worship and spiritual life, turning primarily toward the Kingdom of God to come, disregarding challenges of the present. In fact, however, whatever the Church says, whatever the Church does, is done in the Name of God and for the sake of human dignity and the eternal destiny of the human being. It is impossible for the Church to close its eyes to evil, to be indifferent to the cry of the needy, oppressed and exploited. True Faith is a source of permanent struggle against the powers of inhumanity. As the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church stated, the Church offers to the world “the hope and assurance that evil, no matter its form, does not have the last word in history and must not be allowed to dictate its course” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, Introduction).

A key notion of Orthodoxy is the conception of the human person, which is directly related to the patristic tradition, for which the notion of personhood (πρόσωπον) properly expresses the meaning of the creation of the human being in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1.26). The foundation of human dignity provides the human being with the highest value.

In this spirit, and in the face of the contemporary multifaceted crisis, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared 2013 as “a year of global solidarity.” The aim of our Patriarchal Encyclical (Christmas 2012) was to sensitize people to the lack of solidarity, to the poverty and great inequalities in our world. We underscored the necessity of common initiatives to relieve needy people and to ensure the right of every human being to enjoy essential goods of life. We asked “for the support of all persons and governments of good will in order that we may realize the Lord’s peace on Earth.”

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church courageously declared the central place of solidarity and philanthropic action in the life and witness of Orthodoxy, also addressing people “affected by human trafficking and modern forms of slavery.” I quote from the text on the Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World: “In fulfilling her salvific mission in the world, the Orthodox Church actively cares for all people in need, including the hungry, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the persecuted, those in captivity and prison, the homeless, the orphans, the victims of destruction and military conflict, those affected by human trafficking and modern forms of slavery. The Orthodox Church’s efforts to confront destitution and social injustice are an expression of her faith and service to the Lord, Who identifies Himself with every person and especially with those in need: “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Mt 25.40)” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, F,1). This echoes the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian: “While there is time, let us visit Christ, let us heal Christ, let us nourish Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us welcome Christ, let us honor Christ” (On Love of the Poor, PG 35, 909). In this spirit the Holy and Great Council especially highlights “the tragedy of the trade of humans” (§18 Encyclical), while condemning “the trafficking of refugees,” appealing for cooperation “so that peace and justice may prevail in the countries of origin of the refugees” (§4 Message).

Last but not least, in facing contemporary threats against children, in our 2016 Patriarchal Encyclical for Christmas, we declared 2017 as “the Year of the Protection of the Sacredness of Childhood.” In that Encyclical, we observed: “We appeal to all of you to respect the identity and sacredness of childhood. In light of the global refugee crisis that especially affects the rights of children; in light of the plague of child mortality, hunger and child labor, child abuse and psychological violence, as well as the dangers of altering children’s souls through their uncontrolled exposure to the influence of contemporary electronic means of communication and their subjection to consumerism, we declare 2017 as the Year of Protection of the Sacredness of Childhood, inviting everyone to recognize and respect the rights and integrity of children.”

The point of convergence of the Orthodox Church and the human rights movements is the concern for human dignity, freedom and justice. The existing tensions between Orthodoxy and modern human rights are not primarily rooted in “principle,” but rather in historical contexts. Surely Christian and autonomous modern freedom are different. Tensions between theonomous and autonomous-secular orientation are inevitable. It is not by chance that Christian Churches and the human rights movement initially saw each other as adversaries. It was only after many disasters, and mainly after the barbarism of the Second World War, that both the Catholic Church and Protestants changed their attitude towards human rights.

The main point here, we reiterate, is that Churches and human rights movements both struggle to protect human dignity even if they have a different theoretical foundation for this dignity. Accordingly, then, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church stated “that the Orthodox ideal in respect of man transcends the horizon of established human rights and that the ‘greatest of all is love’, as Christ revealed and as all of the faithful who follow him have experienced” (Message, §10). For Orthodox theology, human rights do not represent the “supreme ethos.” They can never reach the depth of Christian love. The highest form of freedom for Orthodoxy is not the claim of our individual rights but their free sacrifice for the sake of love. “Love radiates beyond legal constructs” as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania states (Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays in Global Concerns, WCC Publications, Geneva 2003, 71). Our world needs this precious gift of God’s grace, of freedom in Christ, which creates in us the immense power of diakonia, an endless spiritual strength.

We unite our efforts to eradicate modern slavery in all its forms, across the world and for all times. We affirm that which we signed in the Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery (2 December 2014), namely that slavery is “a crime against humanity.” We are committed “to do all in our power, within our faith communities and beyond, to work together for the freedom of all those who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored.” On the way to achieve this categorical imperative, our adversary is not simply modern slavery, but also the spirit that nourishes it, the deification of profit, consumerism, discrimination, racism, sexism, and egocentrism.

Against this spirit, we must work for the promotion of a culture of solidarity, respect for others, and dialogue. Together with the sensitization of consciences, we must participate in concrete initiatives and actions. We need a stronger mobilization on the level of action.  We pray that our Forum today will sow the seed for an ongoing commitment and common action of our churches and communities in this vital matter.

With these reflections, we warmly greet your presence at the Center of World Orthodoxy and we pray for the successful deliberations and results of this Forum in the sacred struggle against modern slavery. Finally, we express our gratitude to those responsible for the organization of this Forum. God bless you all!