Magazine 'Orthodoxia' (English)
INTERVIEW OF HIS BEATITUDE PETROS VII, POPE & PATRIARCH OF ALEXANDRIA & ALL AFRICA
TO 'ORTHODOXIA' THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION
OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF POLAND
Q. Currently, the Patriarchate of Alexandria counts about 350 thousand faithful, 20 thousand of whom live in Egypt with 3 thousand of them being Greek. The majority of faithful does not come from historical dioceses but from sub-Saharan Africa. Could Your Holiness present us with an overview of the missionary work and its effects in Africa?
A. The Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa today has approximately 2 million faithful. 25 thousand of them live in Egypt. 300 thousand are of Greek origin. One of the duties of the Church is Mission work, following the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20). As the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa our main concern is Missionary work. The pure souls of our African brothers and sisters are ready to receive the Word of Truth. It has fallen to us to spread it all over Africa. The Liturgical books of our Patriarchate are printed either through the various Metropolitanates (Dioceses) of Africa or through the Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece in Greek, English, French, Arabic and the local African dialects. However the aim of our Missionary work is not only the spread of the Word of God to our African brothers and sisters. It is also aimed at supporting them overall and giving them the chance to meet contemporary civilization. We build and establish schools, hospitals, orphanages; we distribute food and meals. We teach them how to progress in cattle-breeding, how to cultivate their land in order that they may slowly become financially independent.
Q. Was not establishment of new Orthodox dioceses in Africa opposed by representatives of other Christian confessions or other religions?
A. No, never. The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the various other Christian denominations and religions in Africa has always been a relationship of love, co-operation and mutual respect.
Q. How would Your Holiness describe relations between black believers and vast majority white (only two native African bishops and more than one hundred native clergymen) hierarchy?
A. Our African Orthodox faithful represent the largest part of our flock. They are our children and they feel like they are our children. They have organized communities, Churches and more than 400 African clergy. I never hesitated, nor will I ever hesitate, to ordain local clergy. There is not reason for hesitation. Whenever they went to preach, the Disciples of Jesus always chose the most capable people, ordained them and appointed them as Presbyters (Elders) in every city (Titus 1:5). By doing this, they ensured that the work of evangelization was done by the natives who had more influence on their compatriots. The color or origin of the faithful does not matter. The only thing that matters is to be a good Orthodox Christian and to defend the Orthodox faith. Ecclesiastical history teaches us that the Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians became Orthodox through contact with foreign missionaries who were once students of the Great Missionary Fathers such as Ss. Cyril and Methodios. If you are afraid to expand you will be damned in isolation and ruination. Although it is always aware, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa does not fear. We go forward with speed, attention and wisdom.
Q. Missionary work requires deep faith, love, great tact, respect to local cultures but also material support. What are main sources of material support of the Patriarchate?
A. From the Church of Greece, the Church of Cyprus, the Archbishopric of Finland, the Archbishopric of America, the Archbishopric of Australia, the Governments of Greece and Cyprus and various individuals. There are many ways to support the Mission work of our Patriarchate. We have adoptions of children where one can financially support a child from a poor family on a monthly basis; one can become the Godfather or Godmother of a child, donate medicines, etc. For example, in Europe the vaccine for Malaria does not cost anything, however for the children of Africa it is the passport of life, as without it survival is not possible. We appeal to the clergy, monastics, doctors, nurses and to all Orthodox faithful who feel that they are able to support this Mission work by contributing to the relief of our African brothers and sisters, to come to us and to participate in this wonderful and difficult effort. We always pray for those who support our Mission work. Anyone who is able to feel the pain of his fellow man can assist with the Mission effort of our Patriarchate. There is a place for everybody. Each can contribute in his own way, either financially or morally. They can spend their summers volunteering for work at the Mission centers. Anyway, one need not to be a Missionary or to come to Africa. You can support Mission work from home.
Q. Before elected Patriarch, Your Holiness served as Bishop, Patriarchal Vicar and Exarch in several African dioceses. Could Your Holiness share with us some of the rich missionary experience? What are requirements of good missionary work? What are characteristics of a good missionary? Who trains them, where and how are they prepared to this important work?
A. Those experiences are unique. When you help your brother you feel in your heart the joy of Jesus. The wonder of Mission work needs prayer and caution. The Missionary has to give his soul for the evangelization of souls. The Churches of Greece and Cyprus, the Archbishoprics of Finland, America and Australia assist us in finding capable Missionaries. Why not the other sister Churches as well? We need capable people with Missionary zeal who shine for their faith in God and with their love for this service in order to assist their fellow man. The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. However, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ supports our effort and Mission work is expanding in order that the name of Almighty God be glorified in all nations.
Q. At the patriarchal enthronement ceremony Your Holiness stated that mission in Africa provides hope of the Patriarchate. How does Your Holiness perceive future of Orthodox Christianity on territory of the whole continent?
A. The presence of Orthodoxy is alive. Christianity has been spread in throughout all Africa, from Egypt to South Africa and from Ethiopia to West Africa. However we have to work hard. Our African brothers and sisters have suffered through the centuries. They suffered a great deal. However they have not lost their hope. They are not pessimists and they never give up. Although their present life is not an easy one, their dream is to have a better future. Our African brothers and sisters do not want our mercy - what they need is to be left alone to live in their own land, growing up in their own culture. The lack of food, the various diseases, the wars do not inflect them. They learn to live with all these problems. They have their own culture and their pure smile that fills you with hope. They find joy in simple, small and daily things that cannot be appreciated by contemporary and consuming man. They have different needs and priorities. They feel joy with the sun, the water and nature as a whole. Africans see Orthodoxy with their pure and gentle heart. They are simple, with rich and frank feelings. When they are approached by the Orthodox clergy they accept the faith of the Disciples without any doubts. Orthodoxy is the genuine faith for them, the faith that approaches them, embraces them, gives them the True God and not because it seeks something from them. This is very well understood by the Africans, that is why they respect and appreciate our efforts. Orthodoxy suits them. For example, a native can walk for two hours in order to go to the Church. Most of the time he has to walk under heavy rain. Before he enters the Church he waits to be dried. When he approaches his Bishop he offers him whatever he has - two eggs, some fruits. Although they lack food, they offer these to their Bishop with all their love and the tenderness.
Q. The Patriarchate of Alexandria has a very rich history, struggles with a very complex contemporary situation attempting to build its future. How would Your Holiness describe relations of the Patriarchate of Alexandria with a large (several million) group of Coptic Christians who were integral part of glorious past of the Patriarchate?
A. To this day, the relationship between our Patriarchate and the Coptic Church is very good. We are two Churches close to each other, we have much common ground and cohabit in the same place. The theological dialogue that started a few years ago is in progress and open to receive anybody that seeks to find the Truth. Orthodoxy does not search to find the Truth, it is the Truth and witnesses the Truth that it has possessed since the time of the Disciples. Our Patriarchate went through difficult times in the past. Although it suffered persecutions, it upheld the Orthodoxy unchanged. So today, through dialogue with the Coptic Church or the other denominations we witness the rightness of the teachings of our faith without sacrificing the Truth for the sake of conventional love or false union. The purpose of dialogue is to bring as a fruit the acceptance of the Truth and the Christian spirit. This is our goal when we go for dialogue with the spirit of honest love and respect.
Q. For centuries Muslims have underlined their tolerant attitude to Christian citizens of their countries. From Egypt and Sudan we hear more and more about persecutions of Copts, difficulties in their religious practices. What is relationship between the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Islam - religion of majority of population in Egypt?
A. Our Church survives peacefully in an Arab Islamic land. Dialogue is the most appropriate and productive means of communication. In Egypt we feel the protection of the authorities. Our Churches are open, the lamps are lit, the bells ring daily. We participate in the services with no bother. Our children are born and grow up together with the Muslim children. They are like brothers, respecting at all times each others religion and belief.
Q. Patriarchate of Alexandria has been famous as an intellectual power - its philosophical and catechetical schools, rich libraries have been widely known and recognized. Has it been possible to preserve them? What is the present situation?
A. Our Patriarchate is a historic one. It was founded in 40 A.D. by St.Mark the Apostle and Evangelist. It has elevated great figures of Ecumenical Orthodoxy. Figures that have written today the concept and perception of the contemporary Christian world. This is a 2000 year old history. Monasticism originated in the deserts of Nitria and Thebais. The Church of Alexandria contributed to the expansion and enlightenment of Orthodoxy. This is a heavy and great inheritance. It is our duty to safeguard this historic mission and inheritance for the following generations. For the past four years we have focused on the restoration, preservation and renovation of the Patriarchates Palace, our Churches, the Museum and the Library. We have also tried to preserve the rare manuscripts and books of our Library. I am confident that all these will mark the history of the Orthodox Church not only in Egypt but in Africa as well.
Q. What are most valuable, both spiritually and artistically, items at the Patriarchal Residence's museum and library?
A. The famous Library of our Patriarchate exhibits more than 600 manuscripts (starting from the 10th century) and more than 3.500 rare edition books. The Museum of the Patriarchate and the Museum of the St.George Monastery in Old Cairo exhibits old icons, vestments, liturgical items and other ecclesiastical heirlooms. All of the exhibits are remarkable not only for their history but also for their contribution to the spiritual progress and the fruitfulness of the Orthodox Church in Africa through the centuries.
Q. In recent years we witnessed internal conflicts of the Orthodox world (Estonia, Ukraine). Its unity seems to be at stake. In what way local Orthodox Churches should deal with those problematic issues?
A. Each Orthodox Church is independent and autocephalous. There is no place for interference in its internal affairs by another Church. All of us respect this, that is why the relationship between the Orthodox Churches is one of unity, love and good co-operation. However, we sometimes face some minor problems. Everything can be solved through honest dialogue. The dialogue of the love of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church must remain united, especially today, in order to approach those in need with care and discretion. That is how the message of Jesus will be a fruitful message for those who seek to find the Truth, freedom, love and faith.
Q. How does Your Holiness, one of traditional leaders of Orthodoxy, perceive its place in the contemporary world.
A. I give praise to God for making me worthy to become the Head of the historic Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. Due to my position and my personality I have to take an initiative role in the Orthodox Church without reducing my duties in theological issues, but to expand them to include social ones, which touch human life and existence. My heart overflows with pain and sorrow when I hear about wars, revolutions, civil conflicts, political messes that hurt human beings. The voice of the Orthodox Church and the voice of the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa is a thunderous one that cries: Peace and Love. We have many things to do in this world, especially we Orthodox. We must see to the future, to target it and impose upon it Christian principals. The unity of faith, social issues and the peace of the world depend on our attitude, our behavior and how we meet the teachings of Jesus Christ. Wars, revolutions and grief in the world, are not the fault of Jesus or of Christianity. They are the fault of those who do not wish to practice Orthodoxy in their lives and to meet Jesus. In the Orthodox world and spirit man can find solutions to all social problems that bother him. Orthodoxy is not a philosophy, it is Life. It is action and theory. I have described the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa as the Patriarchate of the poor nations of the world. It serves the nations of the African continent with much love, honestly, without hidden purposes and material utilization. We witness the Divine Word to our fellow man no matter what their color, language or race. The presence of the Orthodox Church in Africa is alive; however, we have to work hard. We must realize that the Orthodox Christians must follow the demands of the times. Should not be static. We should not live in the sweet dream of the past. We must become aware of our responsibilities and conquer the future.
Q. Would Your Holiness like to pass a message to all Orthodox faithful in Poland?
A. Our brothers and sisters in Poland should live always with faith in God and with the hope that all the problems will be solved shortly. Their heart must be filled with this faith which gives them strength and courage. This hope will give them strength to carry on their spiritual effort. That is how they will contribute to the building of a society dedicated to Jesus, full of love for every man. We should not live for ourselves, but for others. I pray that the most merciful God will bless and protect the people of Poland and will grant them peace and prosperity always.