Theophilus III: The Pope stands with us on the status quo

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilus III

Theophilus III: The Pope stands with us on the status quo

By Gianni Valente/ lastampa.it

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem explains the reasons for his meeting with the Bishop of Rome. And he also responds to attacks by groups accusing him of selling off the Patriarchate’s properties.

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The recent meeting between the Patriarch Theophilus and Pope Francis was a special stage in the “tour” that the Head of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is carrying out among political and religious leaders from all over the world, not on a personal basis but on behalf of all the leaders of the Churches present in the Holy Land. With the declared intention of raising everyone’s awareness of what is described as an attempt to break down the codified rules that for centuries have governed the life of Christian communities in the land where Jesus was born and lived. A “campaign” that, in the future, could even reach Putin and Trump.

You have recently asked and obtained a meeting with Pope Francis. What did you want to say to the Bishop of Rome?
“I met Pope Francis on behalf of all the leaders of the Churches and Christian communities in the Holy Land. I wanted to tell him that in the Holy Land the historical rights of Christian communities are at stake, because the Status Quo is under threat, that set of codified rules that for centuries have governed the life of Christian communities and safeguarded their access to the Holy Places and the management of their property. There are groups that want to change this set-up, breaching the Status Quo, and this is creating a risky situation.”

What are you actually referring to?
“Groups of settlers are using devious and twisted methods to seize the property of the Churches. In August, the Israeli Court rejected the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s legal initiatives to have them charged one of these right-wing groups of illegal ownership for having taken over of one of his properties located in the Ancient Town. The Patriarchate has now appealed to the Supreme Court. We believe that they will listen to our legal arguments. But the dangers do not concern one single Church. All the Churches are affected. This is demonstrated by a bill, signed by forty deputies in Israel, which, if approved, would jeopardize the rights of the Churches over many ecclesiastical property.”

How do you plan to deal with this situation?
“The leaders of the Churches of the Holy Land are dealing with this situation in full unity, and have signed a document to denounce all together that the recent attacks on the Status Quo represent a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City” and to “weaken the Christian presence in the Holy Land”. Now it’s a matter of raising awareness on this subject, even outside the Holy Land.
Pope Francis, in his speech, affirmed that the Status Quo must be defended and preserved.”

Is this statement sufficient for you?
“The Pope understands the situation. He knows it through the eyes of Christians in the Holy Land. His support is necessary. And if he says that the Status Quo must be preserved, this is enough. It means that it must be protected from further attempts to forcefully modify the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious profile of the Holy City. The Status Quo also ensures that Churches are free to manage their properties. It is the synthetic formula used to say that the Christian presence must remain as it is today, in places and areas where it is rooted today”.

What are the contents of the draft law that worry you?
“The proposed law concerns the property of all Churches, and provides that the State may expropriate ecclesiastical property if certain conditions are met. Even if the bill is not approved or amended, the very fact that one third of parliamentarians have signed it should sound like an alarm bell for everyone.
Before the Pope, you had other meetings with ecclesial political authorities to raise awareness. I have recently visited the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. King of Jordan, Abdallah, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. There will soon be a meeting with the Anglican Primate Justin Welby. Then we will decide together with the leaders of the other Churches how to proceed. We are planning to meet with the Greek and British authorities, as well as EU representatives in Brussels. Then we will have to assess the reactions, and eventually meet with the authorities of Russia and the United States as well.

In the Holy Land, there are groups who accuse the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem of mismanaging and selling off the Church’s properties.
“It is a blistering subject, that can be easily manipulated. For this reason, it represents an ideal platform for people who want to use this issue to pursue their own agenda, perhaps to gain media visibility or for their own interests of political affirmation. The organized groups that support these campaigns of accusations represent only themselves. No one has chosen them, no one has designated them.”

How do you respond to these allegations?
“We have inherited problems from previous eras, problems that cannot be ignored and that we are solving. We are doing our best. We have contacts with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governmental institutions. The official authorities confirm that they support the Patriarchate and understand what we are doing. Unfortunately, there are a few individual politicians who are supporting the groups that are attacking us. But when we ask for explanations, we are told that those politicians, in their speeches on this matter, act on a personal basis and do not represent the positions of the official authorities”.

The unity of Christians is not only a “common front” in relations with the civil authorities. What prevents Catholics and Orthodox from going towards full unity?
“There is nothing preventing it. I would say that this is a process. In Rome, together with Cardinal Kurt Koch and his collaborators of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, we recognized that full unity cannot occur overnight, but what matters is the process, to move forward on the way. We must do our part, and the rest is in the hands of the Lord. Already now, many things have changed from the past. There is now mutual understanding and mutual respect. There are no quarrels, prejudices, suspicions or bigotry between us”.

What specific contribution can the Patriarchate of Jerusalem make to the theological dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox?
“All denominations and Christian communities recognize that Jerusalem is the source of the primitive Church, the emerging Church. From there the Church has spread throughout the world. Even Christian groups who put the Bible at the center of their interest immediately recognize what unites Jerusalem with the Bible. The Church of Jerusalem can offer this. The words of the evangelists St. Matthew and St. Luke can be applied to the Church of Jerusalem when they speak of the hen that brings together the chicks under her wings.”

Pope Francis repeated that proselytism among different Churches is “sinful”. Could the way he exercises his ministry as Bishop of Rome encourage some progress on the path towards full unity among Christians?
“He enjoys great respect throughout the world. Perhaps also because he is trying to “break the circle”. And we know that the Prophets, even in the Old Testament, have been opposed and even persecuted... Precisely because they broke the “closed circles”, in order to have “the gifts” reach the people. For me, when you meet him, you realize that you can really communicate with him, because Pope Francis is a person who believes in what he says and what he preaches”.

In the past, Christians have often fought for the management of Holy Places in Jerusalem. Now, instead, the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre has taken place with the joint contribution of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate and the Custody of the Holy Land. What importance do you give to this?
“The shared restoration of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre represents a turning point in our context. I hope and pray that this will help us move forward. It’s a story that has cheered us and so many people around the world. But Saint John Damascene said that “man is a wound”, and I always keep that in mind. In the depths of our being, we all carry a wound, and this means that we are subject to corruption. We are men, and one should not expect us to become angels. Patriarch Benedict, when we were young, told us: I do not ask that you be angels, I desire that you be human. And sometimes being angels would be much easier than being men.”

How does the Patriarchate of Jerusalem stand in relation to the Orthodox Churches? Do you consider the Council of Crete to be a true Council? And how do you see the role of Russia and the Russian Church in the Middle East?
“The Patriarchate of Moscow has historically played an important role, even in the Holy Land. With respect to the event that took place in Crete, I think it was an important historical event, because it showed the unity of the Orthodox Churches, and now everyone is grasping the importance of it. Today, the Orthodox Churches must face an “existential” problem: they no longer enjoy guarantees and constitutional support from their respective nations. Greece is the only nation in which the Church is constitutionally guaranteed, but everywhere else the principle of separation between Church and State is affirmed. Of course, there are so many politicians who defend the Orthodox Church, but politicians come and go, and that will not last forever. The Orthodox Churches need to support each other, and for this reason the unity that manifested itself at the Great Synod of Crete was of paradigmatic importance. That Synod showed in a tangible way that the Churches are united, and walk together.”

Yet, some important Churches were absent...
The patriarchates who did not participate had his reasons. To be honest, I think each of them had internal problems. Then nobody refused the results of that Synod. Because even those who did not take part in that Synod remain in full communion with all the other Churches. There are those who say that the Council must be taken forward. And indeed, the Synod of Crete can pave the way for ever more intense collaboration between the Churches. It’s just a matter of time.

Therefore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was right to convene the great Orthodox Synod...
The problem, in the Orthodox Churches, is often the impasse on who should take the initiative. The Synod was also a positive experience in this regard, because we are now enjoying the fruits of that initiative. It hasn’t been easy for Patriarch Bartholomew to take full responsibility and face many cultural and political distinctions that had rooted in the different Churches. But in the end, after so many years, this goal has been achieved."

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 13:31
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