Magazine 'Nemesis' (English)

INTERVIEW WITH H.B. PETROS VII,

POPE & PATRIARCH OF ALEXANDRIA & ALL AFRICA

PUBLISHED BY THE MAGAZINE ‘NEMESIS’

 

 Q. As Prelate of the Orthodox Church in Africa, could You characterize the presence of Orthodoxy in this immense and populous continent today, given that the Greek presence here is constantly shrinking?

 A. By the Grace of God, I have been honored to take up the position of Head of the ancient Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa; the Patriarchate which was founded by the Apostle and Evangelist Mark, witness of both the life and glorious Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. Since the Patriarchate was founded in 40 A.D., Orthodox Christianity has spread throughout the Dark Continent, from Egypt to South Africa, from Ethiopia to West Africa. I have often characterized the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria as the Patriarchate of the Poor Nations of the Earth. She ministers to the nations of the Dark Continent with tremendous love and sincerity, with no thought of ulterior motives or material exploitation. She proclaims the Word of God to our fellow man, regardless of color, language or race. As for the presence of Orthodoxy in Africa today, I would say it is lively, but in great need of support and work. We require able personnel, endowed with outstanding faith in God and love for their fellow man. Also, we must realize that Orthodoxy as a Church cannot be static; it must change with the times. We cannot live in sweet dreams of an illustrious past, but rather we must be aware of our obligations towards our fellow man, and progress towards the future. The Greek presence may be shrinking in the countries of Africa - because of political change, increasing crime rates, repatriation, etc. - but this does not mean that Orthodoxy is shrinking with it. The nations of Africa are welcoming the message of our Church with great joy and appreciation of the sincerity of our intentions. The basic problem facing the Orthodox Church today is that of finding suitable clergy; people with ardent zeal, who are willing to sacrifice all for the Mission. As for the dwindling Greek communities, while we respect their decision to leave  Africa, we are sorry to see them abandon this continent, which has given them so much. Personally, I encourage Greeks to stay in Africa whenever possible. Orthodoxy, however, is not just for the Greeks. All people have the right to Orthodoxy and the wisdom, truth and fullness of the Christian faith, should they choose it. We will not coerce or attempt to brainwash anyone, but rather we apply the words of our Lord who said: "He who wants to follow Me", and based upon this concept the Church proceeds, slowly but surely.

 

Q. It has been written, that following the inertia of Your predecessors, Orthodoxy will flourish in the 21st century. Does this mean that native Africans are turning to Orthodoxy, and if so, why?

A. It is not for me to judge the effectiveness or otherwise of my predecessors. That conclusion will be drawn by God in the final judgment, when the actions of all men will be judged. The works of each successive Patriarch bear witness to his labors. I will not Myself judge anyone, but will limit Myself to asking what I can offer to the Church of Christ. In this way, I look to the future and proceed accordingly. I examine our future as a Church in Africa, and depending upon each individual situation, I make the necessary decisions. At this moment, however, I cannot, and would not wish to say whether I perform My task well, because it is not for Me to judge My own efforts. God will be My judge. As Patriarch, I am responsible for overseeing the Orthodox Church in Africa, and for as long as it is the will of our most merciful Lord, I will work as His humble servant in the Vineyard, for the good of our fellow man, as deacon of the Holy Sacrament of Christ. In time, history will assess the fruits of our labor. So let us be patient. With regard to the second part of your question, I believe that all people must have hopes, dreams and ideologies. That is neither wrong nor negative - it is only human. We all have dreams and believe in certain tenets which we would wish to see fulfilled. Everyone should have such aspirations - it would be unnatural if we did not. It is obviously wrong to drift into Orthodoxy because it offers a safe harbor. Orthodoxy involves struggle not complacency. The Orthodox Christian is literally a "soldier of Christ", a fighter, constantly championing the cause. He struggles throughout his life, in a daily and unremitting battle. For in Orthodoxy, we do not        experience religious ‘moments’, but rather our whole lives are sanctified; we are truly blessed by our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, through, which we receive the Divine Grace of the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy is not about having a good time, an easy ride - rather it involves a spiritual struggle against transgression, passion and sinful desires. The Orthodox Christian must fight constantly with his old self searching, through God’s Grace, for the new self, reborn in Christ. Those who are spiritually idle or indifferent have no place in such an environment; not because they are inadequate, or that the Church is indifferent to them; but because, of their own accord, they isolate themselves from the Church; they do not want to belong. Even though God wishes that all men be saved, when a person does         not want to be saved, then God will respect his freedom of choice. This is why it is the religiously complacent, the deluded, and those who seek material reward, who forsake Orthodoxy. They have never truly lived in the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian life, and so they abandon it, betray it, turn their backs without ever truly understanding. It follows, therefore, that Orthodoxy is available to all mankind, and it is up to each of us to decide how Orthodoxy will live within our own life.

 

Q. How do the native Africans perceive Orthodoxy?

A. Africans perceive Orthodoxy with the simple sincerity of their gentle souls. They are such simple people - but yet so rich in sincere feelings of love and goodness. So when they are approached by the Orthodox clergy, provided that they themselves are ready for Orthodoxy, they accept the Faith of the Apostles without hesitation. For them Orthodoxy is the pure religion which not only reaches out to them, but embraces them; not out of self-interest, but simply because it offers the Truth of God.

 

Q. How does the work of the Mission help Africans in their daily life?

A. The aim of the Orthodox Mission of the Patriarchate of Alexandria is not only to spread the Word of God to our African brothers, but to assist in raising their living standards to modern levels schools and hospitals are being established; native Africans are being taught how to develop animal and agricultural farming systematically, so that, in time, they can become economically independent. Also, the Patriarchate has arranged for several students to be provided with scholarships to study not only Theology, but other branches and sciences such as Medicine, Law and Literature. We must not forget that these efforts are being made by volunteers from Greece, Finland and other countries, in the name of the Orthodox Church. At this point, I would like to extend an appeal to members of the clergy, followers of the monastic life, doctors, nurses and all who have the ability and desire to contribute their efforts to this sacred endeavor to bring Christianity to our poor African brothers and sisters, to come forward and join us in this arduous, but remarkable and sacred task.

 

Q. The nations of the Dark Continent are often presented by the media as being unable to respond to the needs of their people. Would you support the premise that the Orthodox Church is an institution with the strength to relieve human suffering in Africa, and if so, in what way?

A. It is true that the majority of African states face severe economic difficulties. Many of our dear brothers and sisters face hunger and even starvation. All too often, basic and staple food-stuffs are unavailable, and the political situation frequently accentuates this problem. The Orthodox Church cannot completely solve this fundamental problem, it can, however, confront it: rather than ignore these issues we make every effort to educate native Africans to take advantage of their own country, their own soil, their own land; so that they are able to achieve some degree of independence; to stand on their own feet. Quietly, without fuss, without fanfare, we of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, do whatever we can to stand by the side of our hapless and afflicted fellow-man. This is not to say that we must expect the Church to solve all of our problems; however, the Church will continue in her efforts, because she will always be at the side of all those in need.  Another basic role of the Church is to cultivate politicians in the spirit of Christian thinking. The powerful, those who wish to take control of the world, must wake up and approach the human-being in each and every citizen. It is their duty to act as God wishes, because they also are members of His Church. Instead of constructing weapons of mass destruction, they should apply their power to solving the problem of world hunger; and instead of wasting millions and millions on space programmes of no benefit at all to the common man, they should apply their knowledge to areas such as medical research; areas which offer the possibility of relieving human suffering. In the same way, major corporations must abandon their immense material interests and extend the hand of friendship and filial support.  The Orthodox Church in Africa, wherever possible, helps in this field too, although it must be said that it is no easy task. It is one which requires the assistance of all, and especially of those directly involved. Man helping man. There is no other way. We are all good at the theory, now let’s see how we fare in practice.

 

Q. Your concern for the children of Africa is well known. Following Your postgraduate studies in Dublin, You lived for 8 years among African natives. What was it that kept You close to them for so long?

A. Love of God, of mankind - His creation - and love of His Church. As for the children of Africa, I cannot say that my concern and love is limited to the children of the African continent - my love is for each and every child the world over, whether he be Greek or African, Asian or from any other place on God’s earth. We can make no distinctions. Christian love, and particularly that of a Prelate, can have no boundaries, and cannot be limited to any particular race, creed or color. The children of the world are all God’s children - God’s precious treasure for which we must account at the final judgment. Let those who misuse, maltreat and exploit children for their own unlawful and illogical desires take heed. Our Lord has shown us how much He Himself loves children, and whosoever should abuse or corrupt a small child should know that : "It is better to hang a mill-stone about his neck and jump into the sea rather than to face the wrath of God's justice" (Math. 18:6).

 

Q. How would You describe the aspirations of the children of Africa?

A. What aspirations and dreams do we all have? What dreams would one expect the children of Africa to have? Children the world over have much the same dream; that of a better future. They are not concerned with transitory honors, or fame and fortune. They dream only of a future without war and civil strife; without upheaval and revolution. A future full of love, peace and harmony between the nations of the world. They crave a hopeful future - a future which will carry them not to empty clouds of fantasy, but one which will bring them closer to their fellow man. This is the dream of the African Orthodox child.

 

Q. Do You have any reservations about ordaining African natives into the clergy?

A. No. I have never hesitated and will never hesitate to ordain worthy and devout native Africans into the clergy. And why should I hesitate? Indeed the Holy Apostles chose the most competent of their followers and ordained them, installing them as bishops and presbyters in each city. It was in this way that the work of evangelism was carried on by the locals, who had more influence upon their compatriots and were popular amongst them. We should not have unreasonable fears, but we should embrace this ‘spring’ of Orthodoxy. This is what is important: that those who represent us be true Orthodox Christians and guardians of the Orthodox Faith. The history of our Church teaches us that Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians, became Orthodox through the work of native missionaries who had been disciples of the        great Greek Missionary Fathers, such as Cyril and Methodius, and so many others. Whoever is afraid to open up is condemned to isolation and ruination. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria is not afraid - but it is careful. Our steps, though taken promptly, are taken with care, discretion and prudence.

 

Q. In the 14 months since Your election to the Throne of the second-ranking Orthodox Patriarchate in the world, the Press has reported that a "wind of change" has begun to replace the apathy of previous years. Would You elaborate upon the initiatives You have taken which have altered this picture?

A. My primary concern following My election, was the staffing of the Patriarchate itself, and of the Holy Dioceses, with worthy clergy; the election and ordination of new Metropolitans and their placement in the relevant Dioceses. Secondly, I visited each of the Dioceses in order to grasp both the progress they are making and the problems that they face - a personal experience which was of great significance. Thirdly, I carried out official visits to some of the other Orthodox Churches, with the aim of ensuring closer relations between them and the ancient Patriarchate of        Alexandria. And finally, I was concerned to reinforce the Mission work in the so called Missionary Dioceses.

 

Q. What are Your future plans for the Patriarchate?

A. I have many dreams and plans for the Patriarchate of the Apostle Mark. We have already begun work on the restoration of the buildings which house the Patriarchate and the Patriarchal Library, Museum, Offices etc. The Patriarchal Library and Museum contain significant and ancient artefacts which are in dire need of restoration and preservation. In this, we require the advice and assistance of specialists if we are to preserve the treasures of the Patriarchate. A basic problem which we face is that of filling pastoral positions within the various Greek communities throughout Africa. The ideal would be that Greeks living in these communities themselves join the priesthood. We cannot always expect for the Church of Greece to provide us with clergy. This situation cannot go on forever. It is up to the local clergy to instill the love of God and awaken religious zeal in the youngsters of their flock, so that, as they grow up, young Greeks of the region will choose to join the priesthood, as is the case in the Archdiocese of America. I only hope that God will grant Me the years to bring this dream to reality.

 

Q. What will be Your relationship with the other Orthodox Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches?

A. Our relationship will be one of unity, love and co-operation in all matters concerning Orthodoxy.

 

Q. We are fast approaching the dawn of the twenty-first century. The years ahead will see great celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of Christ. How do You plan for the Patriarchate to take part in these pan-Christian celebrations?

A. The Orthodox Church will celebrate the 2000 years of its existence in   Jerusalem, and the Patriarchate of Alexandria will take an active part. As  Patriarch, I Myself will attend events, as will the Metropolitans and clergy of the Patriarchate. A Patriarchal encyclical has been distributed inviting artists from the region to contribute their work to an exhibition of modern art which will take place during Christmas 1999, in Bethlehem. We have also asked pupils of Greek schools throughout Africa to take part in an essay competition, which involves submitting poetry and prose on the subject of the Birth of the Savior. The Patriarchate is actively involved, not only in the Co-ordination Committee of events, but with various other committees concerned with the celebrations.

 

Q. What position do You take on the existing disagreement between the  Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem on the subject of being the shepherd of the Arabic speaking flock?

A. We hope satisfactory solutions will be found to the various problems, which have arisen within the Church. The Church is concerned with human beings, and will therefore always have to face problems, which come about as a result of human nature. The Patriarchate of Alexandria will stand by the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem in a spirit of love and understanding; with profound respect for the age-old autonomy of these institutions Their concerns are our concerns, their worries are ours. The guidance of the Arabic speaking flock must be based upon the highest authority. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, for example, has recently, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, elected Arabic-speaking Metropolitan, Georgios of         Hermopolis.

 

Q. Will You continue Theological dialogue with the Coptic Church in Egypt, and how do You see the future relationship between the two Churches?

A. Theological dialogue is available to all who wish it and who seek the Truth. Orthodoxy, however, is not searching for the Truth, but proclaims the Truth, which it has known since Apostolic times. The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria throughout the ages, has undergone difficult and trying times, persecution and victimization, but has always upheld Orthodoxy. And we today, in theological dialogue with the Coptic Church, or indeed with any other Christian sect, will declare the correctness of the Teachings of our Faith. We will not sacrifice the Truth for the sake of some superficial alliance or false sense of unity. The fruit of dialogue is the revelation of the whole Truth of the Christian spirit. This will always be our aim, ever in the spirit of true love and respect.

 

Q. You plan to visit the Patriarchate of Moscow after Easter. May we expect some joint initiative on the part of Yourself and the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Alexis, on the subject of Orthodoxy today?

A. The Patriarchates of Alexandria and Moscow have always enjoyed the best of relations. Naturally, matters, which concern Orthodoxy in the modern world, not only those of concern to the two Patriarchates, but to all the Orthodox Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches and modern civilization in general, will be discussed during this visit. We cannot turn a blind eye to the problems facing Orthodoxy. My meeting with His Beatitude Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, is not just a courteous visit, but, we hope, a constructive and productive meeting for the good of Orthodoxy in general.

 

Q. As second -ranking Orthodox Patriarch, do You aim to take a leading role in theological, social and reconciliatory matters within the framework of ecumenical Orthodoxy?

A. It is not only My position as Patriarch of the Orthodox Patriarchate of  Alexandria and all Africa, but also as My own character, which demands that I be directly involved in all areas of concern to our Orthodox Church; not only theological, but social, cultural - whatever touches on human life and existence. My heart is filled with sadness and pain whenever I hear of war, civil strife and political unrest, all of which do so much harm to mankind. The voice of the Orthodox Church, the voice of the Patriarch of Alexandria, will always loudly proclaim "Peace and Love". The nations of the world, and particularly the Orthodox nations, have many challenges to meet. We must look to the future, plan for the future, and impose the          Christian message and way of life upon the future. The unity of Faith, solutions to social problems, the achievement of world peace, all depend upon our position, behavior and ability to live in the Teachings of Christ.         If there is war; if nations are in revolt; if there is sorrow and pain in the world; then neither Christ nor Christianity are to blame, but man himself, who is unwilling to apply and live by Orthodoxy in his own everyday life.         Through Orthodox thought, we can find solutions to all our social problems, provided we wholeheartedly embrace and accept Orthodoxy into our everyday lives. Orthodoxy is not just a philosophy; it is a way of life. Theory and practice. When we can live in the spirit of Orthodoxy, all our problems will be solved.

 

Q. Recently, when President Clinton visited Africa, it was noted by the Press that he ‘handed out crumbs’. Were You to meet the President, what would you specifically request for the African nations? 

A. I would ask that President Clinton use his influence and power to help wipe out thirst and hunger, so that health and peace might rule, not only in Africa, but throughout the world.

 

Q. As a Cypriot from the occupied north of the island, would You be prepared to take on a ‘International Crusade’ aimed at informing all Heads of the Christian Churches and also political leaders, of the ongoing outrage of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, the fierce violation of human rights, the disregard of United Nations rulings by the Turkish authorities, and of the unacceptable threats by Turkey against the integrity of Greek borders?

A. As a Cypriot, and particularly as a refugee of the occupied territories, I am saddened that for 24 years now, 40% of the island has been in the hands of the Turkish occupiers. As Head of the Church of Alexandria, I do whatever I can for Cyprus, by constantly bringing her plight to the public eye. I invite the Heads of State around the world to contribute to finding a satisfactory solution to this terrible problem. It is the obligation of every one of us to support human rights and the sovereignty of our nations’ borders. We should live in peace with one another - it is Christ’s commandment, that we should "love one another".

 

Q. What message would You send to Greek Cypriots, and more generally to the world, through the pages of "Nemesis"?

 A. Our fellow Cypriots must always have faith in God, and the hope that soon, a solution will be found to this problem. This faith will give them the strength and courage they need, until the day comes when the bells of the Church of the Apostle Andreas in Karpasia, and of Saint Mamantos in Morfos, as well as those of the churches in all the occupied towns and villages in Cyprus, will ring out joyously. To the citizens of the world, I appeal for all men to fill themselves with the love of God, which gives us strength to persevere in our spiritual struggle and enables us to take an active part in the building of the Community of Christ, brimming with love for all mankind. We must not live only for ourselves, but for others; and once         we make an effort to do this, it will become an essential part of our lives.