Magazine 'Selides' (English)
Cyprus, Sunday, December 21, 2003
INTERVIEW BY ANTIGONI SOLOMONIDOU DROUSIOTOU
“We are all children of the same God”
During these holy days, an interview with Petros VII, the Cypriot Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, cannot but stop at the meaning of Christmas, as also at all that troubles the Churches of Greece and Cyprus. His task is huge, as are his experiences in Africa and in Cyprus, where he found himself in the Presidential Palace, on the morning of the coup with Archbishop Makarios.
QUESTION: You have come at difficult times for the Church. On the one hand there is the danger of the creation of a schism between the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding the candidates for the Archbishoprics of “Neon Choron” and on the other the arrests taking place here in Cyprus because of the mismanagement of the Archbishopric’s finances. Where is the Orthodox Church heading?
ANSWER: We are truly saddened, when certain difficulties and problems trouble the Church, because it is a fact that the people of God are scandalized. It would be desirable that the Church is conciliatory, full of love and not to have these fluctuations which scandalize the faithful. Of course the Church has repeatedly endured similar situations throughout its history. However, after the storm comes calm and serenity. We wish and pray that the peace of God will reign in all three Churches.
QUESTION: I would say that there are two Churches with which the Patriarchate of Alexandria has close relations and financial dependence.
ANSWER: It is a fact that the Patriarchate of Alexandria, because of its position, at times has a large flock and at other times less. Today it has less of a flock in its seat. There are no longer the four hundred thousand Hellenes, only a few thousand which can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Therefore, you can understand the difficulties faced by an historic Patriarchate which has its beginnings in the Apostle and Evangelist Mark. It was from these Hellenes that the clergy for the Patriarchate came, not only for Egypt and the African continent, but on many occasions the Patriarchate sent clergy to Greece, to Cyprus and to other continents.
QUESTION: Were the finances of the Patriarchate also covered by these Hellenes?
ANSWER: Great and well-known names are benefactors not only of our Patriarchate and Communities, but also of Greece and the Hellenic Nation. The existence today of the Kallimarmaro (Marble) Stadium in Greece is owed to Egyptians; the existence of the Military Academy, the Institute of Technology, hospitals in Rhodes, Volos, Tripoli, Epirus and elsewhere are all owed to Egyptians.
QUESTION: Cavafy’s Alexandria was also the world of the intellectual Hellenes?
ANSWER: It is a fact that the Hellenes of Egypt are known for their education. Every Egyptian knows for or five languages. So, due to this shrinkage, the Patriarchate suddenly found itself with many needs and the Churches of Greece and Cyprus assist us greatly with manpower as well as financially. The Church of Cyprus assists our Missionary effort. It shoulders more than half of the expenses of the Patriarchal Seminary in Kenya, which was established by the late Archbishop Makarios, for the preparation of African clergy and catechists. We are also assisted by the Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
QUESTION: How do endure the problems of these Churches, knowing their Primates?
ANSWER: I do not hide my sadness, because the Church must always keep its position and we who are the rulers of the Church should not allow the people of God to be scandalized.
QUESTION: Do you believe it is a human issue?
ANSWER: It is definitely also a human issue. We do not criticize eith Patriarch Bartholomaios or Archbishop Christodoulos.
QUESTION: Sometimes there are also other situations which interfere, perhaps colleagues…?
ANSWER: They may be events that bear no relation to the persons, and maybe they have no knowledge of all that is a cause for the defamation of the Church.
QUESTION: Such as now that we in Cyprus the arrest of certain colleagues of the Archbishop?
ANSWER: We are saddened by this situation and especially by those people who were close to the Archbishop. We are not judges and we do not interfere as Primate of a sister Church, even though I am Cypriot, in the internal affairs of the Church of Cyprus. We pray that the truth will reign and, if all that is heard is true, the Church and the persons will have to be vindicated.
QUESTION: You visited the Archbishop and declared that the Church of Cyprus is acephalous (leaderless).
ANSWER: Yes, but the Church of Cyprus has another head. This is the qualified body for Church issues, the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus. This body must assume its responsibilities and, as we can see, it is doing so.
QUESTION: Do you consider the immediate carrying out of elections for An Archbishop necessary?
ANSWER: This will be decided by the Ecclesiastical body known as the “Holy Synod” and definitely not by us.
QUESTION: I was surprised by the question which they put to you on whether you are interested in contesting the throne of the Archbishop?
ANSWER: We too were surprised on reading in some newspaper of our personal contest for the throne of the Archbishop, and even that we are supported in this by politicians, Primates of other Churches, Archpriests of Cyprus, agents, party leaders. We have never considered such a possibility.
QUESTION: But you are more senior as Patriarch than the Archbishop of Cyprus?
ANSWER: Of course, a Primate of any Church can be elected to another. For example, Meletios Metaxakis, who was the Ecumenical Patriarch, began as Archbishop of Kition in Cyprus and later became Patriarch of Alexandria. We have examples such as this, but we have never thought of anything like this. We were entrusted by the Church, through the electorate, clergy and laity, with the Patriarchate of Alexandria. We have a responsibility to do our duty to the Church which we lead.
QUESTION: You have close relationships with certain hierarchs in Cyprus?
ANSWER: With all of them, without exception.
QUESTION: Is there no special friendship?
ANSWER: We do not single out anyone. Naturally, we are friendly with all, with the Archbishop of Paphos and Kition, and with the Auxiliary Bishops of Trimythous and Kykko with whom we were fellow-students and sojourners at the Theological Faculty in Athens, even from the years that we were novices at our Monasteries – we were at Mahaira, the Archbishop of Kykko at Kykko and the Archbishop of Trimythous at the Monastery of the Apostle Barnabas.
QUESTION: You presided over a Special Synod of another Ecclesiastical crisis?
ANSWER: Everything that disturbs the Church is distressing. However, Glory to God, after that suffering of the Church of Cyprus, God’s peace reigned.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the issue is over? In an interview, the Archbishop of Cyprus told me that “the issue regarding the administrating Church is an accomplished fact, but for me it is not over because there has been a cover-up”.
ANSWER: We have no knowledge of what the archbishop of Paphos said. For us the issue is over, as the decisions taken at the Special Synod are final.
QUESTION: Is the relation of the financial activity and spiritual role of the Church the basis from which most tribulations start?
ANSWER: We hear this question often. In order to accomplish spiritual work, financial means are needed; for philanthropic works, for education of the clergy, for the Church to open schools, financial means are needed. These means must come from somewhere, the Church must create resources, and therefore we should not misinterpret the Church. When the Church does good works it does not go out and broadcast them. Many times we wonder that the Church has hotels and factories, we wonder how it buys and sells; but, how else would all the spiritual and philanthropic works be accomplished.
QUESTION: Are problems perhaps created when the private sector comes to assist the professional objective?
QUESTION: Individuals, who many times have no relations with Church mentality and life, interfere and it is they who harm the Church.
QUESTION: You were born in what is today the occupied Syhari in 1949?
ANSWER: We are the grandson of the village Priest, Father Petros, as also of the Chairman of Pano Dikomos. We were born and lived as a child in Syhari. On completion of Primary School we were enrolled as a novice monk at the Monastery of Mahaira, while prior to that, in the village, and from a very young age, our grandfather would lead us to the village Church and to the Psaltery and from then, so to speak, we were “initiated” into matters of the Church. However, it was not only our grandfather. Our parents were pious and this contributed decisively. Our parents were poor, our father worked at the airport in Nicosia and then at Larnaca. We were eight children.
QUESTION: You were in rags and barefoot in your childhood years, like the children of Africa?
ANSWER: That is why we feel greatly the pain and suffering of Africa. They were difficult years, but pleasant ones. Our mother prepared food and in the evening we all ate together whatever we had: rice, potatoes, eggs, olives which we produced ourselves, salads from our garden. Despite the poverty, we lived and grew up with joy, even though we walked around barefoot.
QUESTION: Were you a lively child?
ANSWER: I must have been quiet.
QUESTION: You are a cousin of Dimitri Christofias?
ANSWER: He is a cousin of our mother’s. We always approached him with respect because he was older, but we also sought his advice; many times he assisted us financially so that we could buy chocolates, sweets, etc.
QUESTION: Do you continue to ask his advice?
ANSWER: We are friendly, we exchange opinions on many issues. One followed the creed of religion, the other of politics and, in two words, we are given, “soul and body” each to that which he chose. We are both affable, practical and not theoretical; we are people of actions and not of words.
QUESTION: How did you experience the EOKA period?
ANSWER: I remember the English coming from the village and many times, as small children, we would run after them so that they could give us sweets and chocolates. At other times, we pulled back in fear.
QUESTION: Why, at age 12, did you decide to go to the Monastery of Mahaira as a novice?
ANSWER: Our father was connected to the then Igoumen Elpidios, who was a spiritual man. It might have seemed more justified had we been enrolled in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem because near the village is the Moanstery of St Chrysostom, which is a property of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Our parents, and we personally, had a relationship with this monastery and with Igoumen Porphyrios, who influenced us towards Jerusalem, so that we could have the opportunity of completing High school and then a higher education.
QUESTION: Was this the motive?
ANSWER: No, our love for the Church. But our parents said that we should go to the Monastery of Mahaira, which was closer to us, in case difficulties arose. They were right; they came to the Monastery to visit and we would go to the village.
QUESTION: Were the years in the Monastery difficult ones?
ANSWER: Not at all, life was very happy, because personal choices are based on what we believe and live, so that they can always offer happiness and serenity.
QUESTION: What did you learn during your years at Mahaira?
ANSWER: The Monastery is another university which teaches, through experience and practically, obedience, which means obedience to the will of God and of the Church. A monk learns not to have his own “will”.
QUESTION: In 1970 you went to the Patriarchate of Alexandria as a deacon to offer your services to the late Patriarch Nicholas?
QUESTION: Yes, temporarily, but “nothing is more permanent than what is temporary”. When our studies were completed, and our late predecessor sent us to South Africa, it was so good that we believed that we would live there all our life. At that time we were essentially involved with the youth. We innovated, introducing English into the Divine Liturgy so that the children of the third generation could understand, introduced the choir, and so passed on all the messages we wished. The youth are the future of any society, but most especially of the Church.
QUESTION: Was your work in South Africa not difficult?
ANSWER: When we were in South Africa there were around one hundred and twenty thousand Greeks, and of these, half were Cypriot. We served the Divine Liturgy and the Church was full. Every Sunday at Sunday School we had around 250 children coming to the Church. The children used to tell us that many times it was they that had to drag their parents to Church. Of course, when we say that we were innovative, we mean that we did not teach the classic form of lesson; rather, together with the catechism we introduced games, created interests for the children, showed films, took them on excursions. In countries abroad, the Church gathers Hellenes together and forms an opportunity for children to meet.
QUESTION: How were you regarded by the Africans? Does the Patriarchate of Alexandria have a large Missionary effort?
ANSWER: The Africans accept us with great joy because we were never “colonizers” either as Greece or as Patriarchate. Other creeds, if they have imposed themselves in Africa, it has been through the political power and the authority which each country had, depending on which country’s colony they were. The Africans know that we are approach them only to help them, to pass on to them the message of the Gospel and to respond to the various social problems that they have. Wherever it is that we are going to create a parish, we will first build a Church, next to it a school, further on a hospital, a clinic, an orphanage and elsewhere we will even grant scholarships. Most of the scholarships come from Cyprus, from the “Society for the Fight Against the Curse of Hunger” which is presided over by the Archbishop of Kition. We especially thank him, and his colleagues, but most of all those who aid his efforts. Do you know how many children receive scholarships and an entire family’s burden is lightened? That is why we plead with the Cypriot nation to give of its surplus and not of its small savings.
QUESTION: At the age of 33 you were elected by the Synod as Bishop of Babylonos?
ANSWER: Truly, we were entrusted with the responsibilities of Auxiliary Bishop, as Patriarchal Vicar in Cairo. We were in South Africa at the announcement of our election as Bishop and our mother was there at the time. At first we were upset; our mother understood on that day that something was going on, for we were seized by a kind of dejection. Our attempt at telephonic communication with Egypt, for an avoidance of the election was not fruitful, because telephonic communication was difficult. When we were able to finally communicate with the Patriarch, he replied: “Is this your thanks? You phoned me to ask that you do not come here?” My sadness was doubled then, but there was no other choice. My consecration as Bishop took place in Cyprus, at the Holy Monastery of Mahaira, there where I was also ordained as deacon, and on the dame day, August 15th.
QUESTION: You were also in Cyprus on the day of the coup, at the Presidential Palace with Archbishop Makarios?
ANSWER: Exactly, accompanying Sunday School children from Egypt, as guests of Archbishop Makarios. We were staying at the “Makedonitissa Old Age Home”. The moment that Archbishop Makarios was with us and greeting us, we heard the gunfire. One of his guards entered and told us that there had been a coup.
QUESTION: How did he react?
ANSWER: He was wondering whether we should all leave together. We told him to leave alone. We stayed at the Presidential Palace from 07h30 when we arrived to 16h00.
QUESTION: Were you afraid?
ANSWER: Personally, no. Due to my character, I am not overcome by fear. In South Africa there was crime; two or three times a night we would go to the hospitals and we went about alone at night to give communion to our Hellenes. Everyone knew that we traveled around with no hesitation. We do not have fear; it may be a character trait, but also faith in God, for if He does not permit, nothing happens.
QUESTION: Was Archbishop Makarios afraid?
ANSWER: Not at all; he was noble.
QUESTION: Were you in Cyprus during the invasion?
ANSWER: Now, we had left. Our family came to the refugee camp in Nicosia, to the area of the International Exhibition. We visited them and stayed with them. IN September of 1974, we went to Athens for studies, together with three of our brothers. Our youngest brother was in primary school at that time. Yes, we had the role of big brother. God always provided for us, we had a scholarship, and as a deacon we also had a parish position and so helped the family. Glory to God, we have not faced difficulties in life, and we hope this will continue in the future.
QUESTION: Now that the borders have been opened, have you thought of going to your village, Syhari?
ANSWER: Yes, but as a public figure, we would not like to sanction the deeds of the Turks by flaunting our passport. We have learnt however, that the Church which our grandfather led us to and where we were initiated into Orthodoxy has since been demolished.
ELECTION AS PATRIARCH
QUESTION: How did you feel when, at age 47, YOU BECAME THE 115th Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, on February 21st, 1997?
ANSWER: God allowed this, for strong shoulders were needed to bear the burden of the Alexandrian Church as there were many difficulties and much needed to be done. Truly, in seven years as Patriarch we have not stopped, neither we personally, nor our close colleagues, working for the reconstruction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. We have manned the dioceses, the Archbishoprics, the Parish posts with most worthy spiritual priests, we are rebuilding churches, monasteries, Patriarchates; we have tried, in all corners of Africa where there are Bishops, to ensure that they have decent housing, so that they may fulfill their duties without distraction.
QUESTION: How does the political instability in the area affect you work?
ANSWER: We do not have problems in Egypt, because the authorities protect us and treat us very correctly; we believe that they are an example to be emulated. Immediately, on the election of a new Patriarch, by Presidential decree, he receives Egyptian nationality, so that he may defend the rights of the Patriarchate. This is a big thing. No-one prevents us from ringing the bells three times a day, from performing pastoral tasks, from performing our activities as we wish to within the framework of our Ecclesiastical tasks.
QUESTION: Do you feel that you are guarding Themopylae?
ANSWER: We are guarding the Thermopylae of Orthodoxy, this is our duty! As we told you before, we are reconstructiong everything, for we live in a Muslim area and the Churches, the Moansteries, the Patriarchate should testify to that which we represent; in other words, Orthodoxy and Greece. This is the testimony of the history of 2000years.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the Church needs renewal?
ANSWER: That depends on what one means with the term “renewal”. The word of God is the same from the institution of the Church to today.
QUESTION: We need to be approachable and realists. Are we?
ANSWER: We have to be. Each one knows for himself whether we are.
QUESTION: You are in Cyprus for the 8th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches?
ANSWER: Exactly. We, as Churches, support each other. We assist in the fight against hunger, in any problems which might arise in our areas; we assist in the co-existence or peoples and religions. This is our obligation.
QUESTION: Accepting all other religions?
ANSWER: Of course. Our children in Egypt, from the time when Muslims first came to the area, are born and grow up together. Muslims learn to respect Christians and Christians learn to respect Muslims. They go the same schools, the same universities, the same jobs, and so the one religion respects the other and knows its boundaries. We are all children of the same God.
QUESTION: Consequently, the co-existence of the two religions in Cyprus can also be peaceful?
ANSWER: Certainly it can. How did it exist through so many years? And it is certain that our brothers, the Turkish Cypriots, want this, as we do.
QUESTION: Are you optimistic that the solution to the Cyprus problem is near?
ANSWER: We are hopeful and we pray and we ask the entire Cypriot nation to pray.
THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS
QUESTION: On your journey to this point, what has touched you most?
ANSWER: The joy that we see in the eyes of the Africans, when through Baptism, after catechism, they are embodied into the embrace of Orthodoxy.
QUESTION: What does Africa represent for you?
ANSWER: It represents our entire life, for we have been in Africa for thirty-five years, full of joy and happiness, for we are able to do something for mankind.
QUESTION: What does Orthodoxy mean to you?
ANSWER: Right praise, right faith, right deeds.
QUESTION: One hymn which moves you?
ANSWER: “Today is hung upon the Cross He who hung the earth upon the waters”.
QUESTION: Do you have a hierarch that is your role model?
ANSWER: Jesus Christ
QUESTION: Greek poet?
ANSWER: Constantine Cavafy
QUESTION: What is the “Ithaca” of Patriarch Petros VII, to use a line from your beloved Alexandrian poet, Constantine Cavafy?
ANSWER: Definitely to return to the place where we were born and raised.
QUESTION: When you pray, what do you ask for?
ANSWER: The extinction of hunger and poverty and that man will understand that his life-span is short; that he will try to see what is truly personally advantageous and then advantageous for the people of God and that his objective will be his salvation.
QUESTION: Have you sinned?
ANSWER: “To say that I have no sin I will be lying, even if my life be but one day”.
QUESTION: What is sin for you?
ANSWER: Disobedience to God’s will. Everything that is opposed to God’s will is a sin.
ANSWER: Everyone must confess.
QUESTION: Are you a strict judge?
ANSWER: On the contrary. Confession unites man with God, it isn’t a matter of severity. As a spiritual father we were never strict in these matters. We are happy when someone repents, we congratulate him and fill him with courage and the will to live.
QUESTION: Are you strict with yourself?
ANSWER: As much as possible.
QUESTION: Are you tempted?
ANSWER: If I said the opposite I would be lying.
QUESTION: How do you confront temptation?
ANSWER: Through prayer and spiritual struggle
QUESTION: What would you like to leave as a testament?
ANSWER: We always ask of our colleagues to always have as their incentive the interest of the Church, then they will be full of happiness. Also, to always know what they want and to be realists in life, not to hind behind their fingers as we also do not hide.
QUESTION: What objective do you as Patriarch have?
ANSWER: That the Church of Alexandria operates correctly. The day will come when we will succeed.
QUESTION: What message does Christmas bear this year?
ANSWER: Christ brought love and peace. We must all pray for this love and peace. However, we must also contribute, with faith in God, so that we can also be filled with love for all people.
QUESTION: The year 2004 is a significant year for Cyprus and Greece. What do you wish?
ANSWER: I wish that 2004 will bear all the expectations, vindication within the framework of human rights for Cyprus and that we may all return to our homes.