Dialogika

Orthodox Churches

"The Necessity and Goals of Interreligious Dialogue"

 

From the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

Address to the Plenary of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - Strasbourg, France

 

 

Your Excellency, Mr. René Van der Linden, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,

Your Excellencies, Honorable and Distinguished members of this Assembly of the Council,

Dear friends,

We convey to you greetings of love and honor from the Church of Constantinople, based for centuries in Istanbul of today. We extend to all of you with sincere joy the blessings and warmest wishes for both personal and collective happiness and longevity.

Furthermore, we would like to express our gratitude for this honoring invitation to us to demonstrate in your presence our concerns and thoughts on this very timely and extremely interesting topic, namely “The necessity and goals of Interreligious Dialogue”.

We are well aware of and we commend your zeal for human rights, for the rapproach and the mutual acceptance of cultures, and for the peaceful cooperation of the peoples, and we are fully aware that you know more than what we are about to tell you. We take courage to address you in order to state as loud and clear as we can, that as the first Bishop of the Orthodox Church we congratulate your work and your principles. We work with our limited powers for the predomination of the respect of human rights on a universal level, especially where religious traditions oppose one another on this issue.

It is indeed a great honor to address the continent’s oldest political organization, here in the historical city of Strasbourg. Among the aims of this Council, according to its Regulations, is to achieve a greater unity between its members, defend human rights as well as the rule of law, to promote awareness of a European identity based on shared values while cutting across different cultures. It is in this light that we are addressing this Plenary, for our mission has many common goals. We stand in front of you as an ancient European institution that has been present for almost 17 centuries, which may be even the second oldest institution in Europe. Those of us who serve this institution would be indeed very unhappy if our service would consist only of a role equivalent to that of a museum guard. We strongly believe that the value of your welcome of us here today, as representative of the aforementioned Institution, has its roots not only in the recognition and appreciation of the historicity of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and New Rome, but mostly in your interest for the living tradition of the ecumenicity of its message.

In other words, the value of your welcome has its roots in your interest for the active witness and proposition of life that this Institution exclaims even in our times. The range of this proposition is ecumenical, in other words international and universal.

As you know, the Eastern Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine, in which the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate developed, was a political system that was totally different from the modern national, or civic state. It was a political pattern that was multinational and multiracial, that aspired to ensure the peaceful coexistence of the peoples and traditions, the so-called pax romana, that later developed into pax Christiana, after the predominance of Christianity.

The deeply experienced Christian faith, the Roman Law that was under constant development due to the Christian influence, and the widespread Greek Education constituted the basic agents of the Byzantine Civilization. The aforementioned unifying elements did not in any way nullify the particularities and individuality of the partial cultural traditions. A characteristic example of the respect of these particularities and individuality is the fact that there was no attempt to nationally assimilate, or Hellenize the Christianized peoples. On the contrary, they were given the opportunity to develop their particularities, as it is indicated by the very offering of a special alphabet to the Slavic world, and from many other similar examples.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople and New Rome, which was given the title Ecumenical in the 6th century, by a decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council in 451 was given the right to have under its authority all territory outside the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire that were not under the jurisdiction of any other Patriarchate. This fact expanded and increased the communication of the Patriarchate with the multitude of peoples and traditions, both within and outside the legal boundaries of the Empire, in such a way that the dialogue with both the peoples of a different religion and with the heterodox Christians became an integral part of its existence.

Therefore, for the Ecumenical Patriarchate dialogue is neither something unprecedented, nor a modern effort, but an experience and a practice of millennia.

After the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in the year 1054 was official, the Ecumenical Patriarchate became the expression and mouthpiece of the unity of all Orthodox universally. It is under this virtue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate holds discussions with the Churches that came about after the schism and the reformation, with a sense of responsibility for the service of the truth and the restoration of the first unity of all Christians.

Since 1453, after the succession of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate became the representative to the Sultan of all Orthodox Christians that lived within the boundaries of the new Empire. We can see that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was in a constant dialogue with the Muslim world, but not always on an equal basis. During these nearly 6 centuries the Ecumenical Patriarchate has lived together with Muslims and discusses with them on various levels and with various goals. As we use to say in Turkey, we have with our Muslim brothers not only an Academic Dialogue, but that of living together side by side.

Furthermore, during the last few decades, there has been a particular effort for the development of interreligious dialogues, especially among the three great monotheistic religions. Many academic consultations of leading representatives of the three monotheistic religions have taken place, either on our initiative, or with our participation; many important and interesting decisions have been made, and many important declarations have been signed. Moreover, with the purpose of promoting the mutual opportunity to know each other better and to cultivate friendship we, having been officially invited, have personally visited many countries with Muslim population.

The necessity and the usefulness of interreligious dialogues has become a property of humanity.

It is well known that the inhabitants of our planet confess many religions, and that on many occasions a variety of tendencies and denominations have developed within each religion, many times with even contradictory beliefs. It is also known from history that many times in the past, and on certain occasions even in our times, religious reasons were put forth to edge individuals, or even entire peoples to warfare, or to vivify the militancy of those involved. There are even some analysts of the future of humanity who consider a bloody clash of religions and of religious populations as inevitable. There are even some who believe that God is in need for their power to enforce His will on the world.

We, however, the people of the so-called Western Civilization have been convinced that pure religious faith in itself does not find any pleasure in engaging its followers in warfare and conflicts with the faithful of other religions, for the truth does not walk along either with militant power, or with numerical, or any other superiority for that matter. The conviction that the divine Truth and gratification is witnessed by the event of victory in war has been abandoned today as inaccurate. The truth is known through the word and the personal experience of it in a pure and selfless heart. According to the Prophet Elijah, the Lord revealed Himself in a light murmuring sound, and not in earthquakes and fire.

Therefore, if we desire to move toward the knowledge of truth, which liberates the person from the chains of prejudices and of every kind of deception, we ought to use the God-given present of the word with a pure and selfless intention. The word, as an expression and as a justification of our convictions, when exchanged with those we speak with, becomes a Dialogue. And it is absolutely necessary, for it marks the very existence of a human being as a personal being. There are many creatures in nature that have been endowed with the ability to receive messages from their environment, and to react to these messages, but it is only the human being from all the earthly creatures that can converse with words with his or her fellow human beings.

Dialogue is not necessary first and foremost because of all the benefits and advantages that can possibly derive from it, but because of the fact that it is inherent in the nature of the human person. The truth of this is such, that the person, who denies participating in a dialogue, denies indirectly this very human quality. Indeed, not only does one deny this human quality to those whom he or she does not accept in dialogue, but one also abolishes self-evidently one’s very own human quality, for by not showing any respect to the person and the dignity of the other, one acts as if he or she lacks the most principal human trait, which is the respect of a human person, both in one’s self, as well as in any other being. In Christian teaching, as it has been expressed by a contemporary experienced person, God engraved the human being with His mark, namely the deep, embossed and unchangeable creative seal, and He does not revoke it. The seal of God is the freedom of the human being.

The fact that those culturally more advanced than the ancient peoples established the dialogue of the judges, and of those who were judged, or those who were in litigation, as a necessary precondition of the validity and legitimacy of the judicial verdict, is very relevant. These fundamental principles of a fair trial continue to apply even for our contemporary world. The person, who will judge a trial, must listen to both sides who are involved in the litigation, as well as to the plea of the defendant, all of which are based on the principle of dialogue. They constitute, together with the resultant supreme rule of dialogue, the sublime expression of respect for the human person. Pope Benedict XVI in his message for the First of January of this year referred to this very point. It is this respect that constitutes the fundamental criterion of the level of spiritual growth of everyone, and comprises simultaneously the fundamental rule and unshakable pedestal of all human rights.

According to our predecessor St. John Chrysostom, the Sublime of all personal beings, God, is in a constant dialogue with us, a token of the utmost honor with which humanity is engulfed. God does not refuse dialogue, not even to those who honestly deny His existence. But He cannot enter into dialogue with those who are furtive, surreptitious, perverse, and not pure in their hearts. For dialogue presupposes honesty, and becomes objectively impossible when there is deceitfulness, secrecy, or any other kind of reckoning.

It is well-known that nowadays the dynamics of our world are a mixture of contests of power and every kind of dialogue. Many try to enforce their opinions and convictions onto others through various types of power, whether cultural, moral, economic, terrorist, or even martial. At the same time, many other people discuss innumerable issues, trying to convince their counterparts of the validity and accuracy of their positions. Out of these two ways, the one that is as a matter of fact in harmony with the respect of the human person, and with the human rights, is the way of the dialogue, for it rejects the inhumane violent enforcement.

The Interreligious Dialogue in the context of religion is one of the most difficult dialogues, for the so-called religions of revelation accept the fact that they express the divine truth through the revelation of God Himself. Nevertheless, the existing dispersion of the religious groups and the opposing convictions that they confess prove that some of them are wrong by default, for one rules out the other, and of course it is neither possible nor thinkable that God can be controversial to Himself. Therefore, it must be unquestionably accepted that one of the self-excluded teachings does not derive from God, but from people, and from their misinterpretation of the Divine Revelation.

Thereby, there is a broad area for questioning among people on what the truth can be whenever something which is offered as the truth excludes itself. Calm and dispassionate discussion and sincere dialogue can detect the differences and can trace down the human interventions that alter the divine truth and lead to the support of teachings, which while claiming to express the divine truth, refute one another, something that is impossible.

Of course we do not consider the relinquishment of the religious convictions of each person as the goal of Interreligious Dialogue; neither do we consider it an easy task, especially in times such as ours when our planet is facing many warfronts all over the world. And that is because nowadays on many occasions people use their religious differences, or of their religious convictions as an element of their particularity and individuality, and this particularity they consider as the cornerstone of their national hypostasis, or of what constitutes them as different.

So, to the extent to which the national consciousness and hypostasis is an inevitable element of the particularity and individuality of peoples and of nations, people will legitimately defend their indefeasible right to define by themselves their religion, although in our mind subjecting religion to the service of national purposes is not a correct thing to do.

In any case, we will have for many centuries to come many religions and even more religious convictions that will deviate among those on our planet. This fact, in view of the economic and informational globalization, brings the faithful of the various religions into frequent communication and renders their unofficial dialogue an everyday phenomenon. Even the official dialogue among religious leadership is being promoted in a sense, since religious leaders cannot ignore reality, nor can they confine themselves in a selfish isolation.

Anyhow, the religions that consider themselves possessors and carriers of the divine truth feel as their obligation to spread their faith, and by definition they cannot isolate themselves.

The existing predicaments for the realization of the Interreligious Dialogue on a theological level do not hinder, but on the contrary promote the opportunity for the mutual acquaintance of persons and ideas, the cultivation of religious tolerance, and coexistence, the elimination of fanaticism and of other fixed prejudices. These goals are of great importance, for they serve peace, which is the cornerstone of every cultural progress.

In particular, it has been observed that there exists a shortage of religious education, especially as far as the religions that are not predominant in a given country are concerned. This shortage has been observed even among the holders of higher education. This results in the easy circulation of a variety of deceptive perceptions and prejudices, which obstruct the peaceful cooperation of the people. Through systematic dialogues it is possible to gradually improve the level of mutual understanding and awareness of the religious parameters of all peoples and civilizations in such a away that long-lasting prejudices will be put aside.

We must not overlook the fact that for many peoples and civilizations religious faith and the religious element at large plays an important role in private, social and national life; a role much more important than the role it plays in the societies of the contemporary Western Civilization.

Of course we do not expect only a single-sided improvement of the perceptions of the Christian world for the non-Christian world, but also a proportionate improvement of the perceptions of the non-Christian world for Christianity. Unfortunately, numerous unchristian actions and behaviors of the Christian peoples have created the widespread impression that these actions and behaviors are sanctioned by Christianity. Respectively, the actions of followers of other religions are credited many times to their religions that remain unconcerned. It is therefore necessary to clarify the context of each religion, cleared from selfish targets of the faithful, and to charge with the responsibilities the faithful in question and not their religion itself. This separation of responsibilities, which is one of the goals of Interreligious Dialogue, protects from phobias that reach out from the past and obstruct today’s peaceful and well-meant cooperation.

Another important goal of Interreligious Dialogue is the approach of the views on the extremely important issue of human rights. It is a known fact that Western Civilization, under the influence of the evangelical principles of the equality of human beings, of freedom of consciousness and existence, of the protection of the weak, of justice and of love, and of many more, but also under the influence of the ideas of humanism, has, especially since the Enlightenment on, raised gradually the institution of human rights to a high level. This is contrary to other civilizations, some of which either occupy themselves very little with human rights, or have even legislation that discriminates certain categories of people, such as minorities, women, children, slaves, etc.

They have even developed metaphysical teachings through which the existing situation is interpreted as in agreement to the heavenly mandated order on human issues! As it is realized, such perceptions that legalize the violation of the fundamental human rights with a moral investment of religious and metaphysical beliefs cannot be easily abandoned.

If however we desire the improvement of living standards for all people in our declarations, then we ought to include and appoint these issues as an object in the agenda of our interreligious dialogues.

We believe that the moral force of the respect of the human person, despite gender, age, race, religion, as well as the economic, educational and other status, is so great that it will overcome and overrule the long-lasting spiritual infirmities that allow those in power to ignore, or even worse to legally violate human rights.

A serious effort is needed in order to allow the discussion of these issues on behalf of those who have not respected Human Rights.

Nevertheless, it is very promising that in every society there are always progressing minds that realize the importance of human rights and work hard for the wider acceptance of their social usefulness, even in civilizations that are not familiar with these concepts.

At this point, we must mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the surrounding Greek-Orthodox minority in Turkey feel that they still do not enjoy full rights, such as the refusal to acknowledge and recognize a legal status to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the prohibition of the operation of the Theological School of Chalki, property issues and many more. We do recognize however, that many reforms have been made and some remarkable steps have been taken for the accession of the internal law toward the European standard. Therefore, we have always supported the European perspective of Turkey in anticipation of the remaining steps to be taken according to the standards of the European Union.

That however which is accomplished fluently through interreligious dialogues is the cultivation of a spirit of tolerance, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence of the faithful of the various religions, free from fanaticism and phobias. Contrary to political positions that many times foster the spirit of conflict and confrontation, catching thus within it both victims and victimizers, we try and pursue to sow the spirit of equal rights and responsibilities for all and for their peaceful cooperation, independently of their religion. For only through the opening of hearts and minds and the acceptance of one’s difference as an equal value to our own is it possible to build peace in this world.

There is one more accomplishment and goal of the interreligious dialogues that is not of any less importance. This is the enrichment of the mind and perception of each faithful by considering things through the religion of somebody else. This enrichment releases us from partiality; it allows us to have a higher and wider understanding of beliefs; it fortifies the intellect and very often it leads us to a deeper experience of the truth and to a very advanced level of our growth in the presence of the divine revelation.

For example, love as a selfless feeling and experience of sacrifice toward the loved one is an utmost challenge of conscience, but it was not required by all simultaneously, for the obduracy of many was not yet ready to accept such a high and self-sacrificial demand.

However this love, which in the beginning was achieved only by a few, has reached the point to be the motivation for actions and programs and institutions, such as the Council of Europe, of efforts for the relief of poverty, and of those who are afflicted by natural disasters, of the acknowledgement and protection of human rights at large and of religious freedom and of many more actions, which would be considered impossible and a utopia a few centuries, or even a few years ago.

We can find ground for doing good in many religions if we are indeed willing to do so. A common search of this ground in dialogue will prove to be very fruitful. The religious sources allow many interpretations and approaches. It is in our hands to choose every time the most appropriate, the most peaceful, those which respect the human being the most, and those which increase peace, solidarity, altruism, love. We are obliged to ascend the degrees of the scale of good and not to descend them. Let us work for the ascension to the next degree for the benefit of all.

As the first Bishop of the Orthodox Church we are obliged to serve the human caring and peaceful character of the Christian Gospel. It is with the courage of this service that we dare to address a heartfelt plea to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, namely to persons who are responsible to exert the decisive role of the European societies for world order and peace: Exert, dear friends your influence, your political art and science in order to restore the freedom of life and expression of the religious traditions in our world today. So that citizens of contemporary states will not be persecuted, will not be put aside and marginalized, will not forfeit their churches and their properties, just because of their different religious convictions.

We are certain that the Council of Europe is not only interested in various advantages of the European countries, but it is also interested in the preservation and promotion of the accomplishments of the civilization which constitute the very identity of Europe. Religious freedom and human rights in general are such accomplishments. Each and every confinement of religious freedom and human rights mutilates human civilization. It is a sign of regression and interception of human hope. We have the certain and undoubted hope that things will be improving through the contribution of all of you, our beloved and honorable Members of the Council of Europe. And “hope will not let us down”, as St. Paul states.

We thank you for your love and your patience to listen to the sounds of our heart, and we wish you health and every success in this new year, for the benefit of Europe and of all humanity.