Weekly Ahram (English)

His Beatitude Theodoros II: A Greek primer

More than a lesson in modern Greek
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption

His Beatitude Theodoros II, whose office extends his ecclesiastical jurisdiction across continental Africa, is a man out of time, a man for whom the past nurtures a deep commitment to a better future. He is the Orthodox See's second most senior cleric, deferring only to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Agios Georgios, the Church of Saint George, stands on the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon, the Byzantine garrison around which clustered the earliest beginnings of Cairo. The circular church with its towering dome dominates its site in Coptic Cairo. It is here, and not at his official residence adjacent to Alexandria's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, that Theodoros II receives me. He is very much at home in the heart of Coptic Cairo. Extrapolating on the theological differences between the Greek Orthodox and Coptic churches, he notes that the Greek Orthodox Church is Chalcedonian and Melkite in the Byzantine tradition.

The two churches, Greek and Coptic, have survived the ravages of time and gory disagreement. "There are very minor theological differences between the Greek and the Coptic creeds. Differences centre around the nature of Jesus Christ," Theodoros II explains.

The First Ecumenical Synod, convened in Nicaea on the Black Sea by Constantine the Great in 325 was a turning point for the Greek Orthodox Church. More than 300 bishops attended, and amid much bickering the Nicene creed was passed. Yet arguments about the precise nature of Christ continue to this day. "It is lamentable but true," says Theodoros II, laughing.

The Archbishop of Alexandria and all Africa clearly has a sense of humour. He is also conscious of the immense potential of his ministry in this vast continent. He may prefer to dwell on more vital contemporary issues but first we hark back to the past.

The Byzantines were oppressive rulers, the Egyptians their rebellious subjects. The prospect loomed of a drawn-out conflict between the two churches, a conflict that was only averted with the Arab conquest of Egypt.

Arius, presbyter at the church of St Mark, built on the site where the Evangelist was said to have been martyred, began the dispute. While he did not deny the Godhead of Christ, he was of like substance, not the same substance, as the Father, he dragged in rather too many Gnostic elements for the comfort of his contemporary Athanasius. And thus was set in motion the disputes that would, over the course of a century, lead to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and the irrevocable split between the Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches.

"The Copts adhere to the monophysite doctrine, that is they believe in one nature in the person of Christ and that nature is divine," the Greek Orthodox Patriarch elaborates. "We believe that Christ is both human and divine."

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch nods and cocks his head at the doctrinal issues that a millennia and a half ago fragmented the church.

Theordoros II, who shares with Coptic Pope Shenouda III the official designation Pope of Alexandria, prefers to play down doctrinal differences and concentrate on what the two churches have in common. He is reconciliatory by nature and proud of his Egyptian citizenship -- the Egyptian government automatically grants nationality to Greek Orthodox popes. His warm smile is infectious, his clear blue eyes arresting. But there is more to the Patriarch than first meets the eye.

On a beautiful spring day, in the first week of Lent, the Patriarch meets his people -- Arabic- and Greek-speakers, Egyptian and foreign. It is his parishioners who are the true focus of his attention.

The press of the throng was inspiring. An elderly woman, stooped and bow-legged, kisses his hand. A dashing Greek diplomat follows suit. Youngsters skip around and jump about. They climb up and down the stairs leading to the main entrance of the church. In the Greek tradition, as in the Coptic, it is customary to kiss the hand of priests and bishops.

Theodoros II believes the Coptic and the Greek Orthodox churches are like two peas from the same ecumenical pod. Their theological underpinnings are historically intertwined.

The ecclesiastical year, according to Byzantine tradition, begins on 1 September. The Coptic New Year, or Nawruz, on the other hand, is celebrated on 10 September. The Greek Orthodox religious calendar, like its Coptic counterpart, features both mutable and fixed holy days and feasts. The greatest of these is the Easter -- marking the Ascension of Christ. Easter is the holiest of moveable holy days.

The determination of the date of Easter in the Greek Orthodox tradition was regulated by the First Ecumenical Synod, held in Nicaea. The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Coptic, celebrates 12 great feasts -- eight devoted to Jesus Christ and four to his mother, the Virgin Mary. Next in importance to Easter is Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, which Coptic Christians celebrate on 7 January and the Greek Orthodox Church on 25 December, the same day as Roman Catholics and other Western churches. Whatever the discrepancies of dates, though, both Orthodox churches have a soft spot for St George.

Legend purports that he was a Roman soldier who first persecuted Christians but then had a change of heart and became a devout Christian himself. He was tortured for his beliefs in the dungeon beneath Agios Georgios, though according to tradition he was not actually martyred at the site of the church in the heart of Christian Cairo.

Theodoros II takes my hand as we descend into the darkness of the onetime torture chamber.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch is keen on history and culture but it is people -- his flock and their welfare -- that really engage him. As we emerge from the dingy world of the underground grotto where St George was supposedly jailed by his tormentors into brilliant sunshine more parishioners seek his blessing.

In sharp contrast to Western churches, the Greek Orthodox Church does not suffer from dwindling attendance. The faithful flock to the churches, and not just on feast days.

Orthodoxy has long been synonymous with icons. The iconoclasm that raged between 726 and 843 was finally laid to rest on the first Sunday of Lent 843 and the sanctity of icons was restored, and the veneration of icons came into vogue. Icons once again became central to worship.

Yet men of religion are often an iconoclastic bunch, and Theodoros II is no exception. His missionary work is rich in the lore of religion but steeped in the everyday experience of the people he meets. And from what I hear from some of the African priests he has ordained he inspires extraordinary levels of devotion.

Theodoros II has the easy warmth of a man born to minister. His life rarely follows the straight and narrow of hard religious certainty. A graduate of the Rizarios Ecclesiastic School in Athens, he holds a degree from the theological faculty of the Aristotelian University of Thessalonica and also studied the history of art in the former Soviet Union.

Between 1985 and 1990 he served as Patriarchal Exarch in Russia -- based in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, the city with the largest Greek Orthodox community in the former Soviet Union. It was in Odessa that he established the Institute of Hellenic Culture and the Philiki Eterea Museum.

His recollections of Ukraine sound nostalgic, sometimes striking an elegiac note. "In Odessa," he tells me, "I discovered documents that showed that Greek sailors arriving in the city helped foment the uprising that led eventually to the liberation of Greeks from Ottoman rule in 1830." His excitement at the discovery is palpable.

But Theodoros II is not just a voracious digger of historical facts. He preserves and erects churches, schools and clinics throughout Africa, the continent that is now his primary focus of interest.

Theodoros II is a thinker with a vision, a man of God with a subtle political brain. Religion and politics, history and culture, mingle in his thinking. He may not be a politician, or a diplomat, but he is acutely conscious that his work is political. He deals with governments, interacts with diplomats and officials and moves in the corridors of power. He works in tandem with the leaders of Greek communities scattered all over Africa. Some, like the South African Greek community, are large and relatively wealthy, contributing financially to the work of the Greek Orthodox Church in less prosperous parts of the continent.

Theodoros II sees himself as the spiritual guardian of the Greek Orthodox community. He was unanimously elected by the Synod of the Alexandrian Throne as Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa on 9 October 2004. His enthronement ceremony was held at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Alexandria on 24 October. It was a sumptuous affair. In Greece, Athens's daily Kathimerini heralded the event as a "momentous occasion" and the Greek media gave a great deal of coverage to the ceremony.

Born Nicholas Choreftakis in Crete in 1954, Theodoros II is a quintessential moderate, a pragmatist who knows that he has to deal with people of different religious, ideological and cultural persuasions.

His father was a policeman and his mother a devoutly- religious homemaker. He entered monastic life at 17, joining the Monastery of Agarathos in Crete, the island on which he was born and, as he tells me, the closest Greek island to Egypt. Tellingly, it is the same monastery that has produced four other popes of Alexandria and all Africa.

He is clearly proud of the Hellenic heritage, and his work entails collaborating closely with the Greek government and diplomatic missions in Africa and elsewhere. Following his time in Crete he worked in Cameroon, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Black African priests chat away in fluent Greek in Agios Georgios. Yes, he has trained many African priests, he says, "but they deliver their sermons in local African languages".

The black African congregation in countries like Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe are composed in the main of converts to Greek Orthodox Christianity. "We insist that mass is in local African languages. Every people's language is very dear to them."

He moves effortlessly across the cultural barriers. "The first Bishop of the Orthodox Church in Africa was Saint Mark the Evangelist," Theodoros II explains. "It is because of him that the Orthodox Church is recognised as Apostolic."

In 1990 he was ordained as bishop of the diocese of Kyrene and was appointed a representative of Patriarch Parthenios in Athens (1990-97).

"Parthenios was one of the few Greek Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria who was born in Egypt," Theodoros II says. "He was born in Port Said."

In 1997 Theodoros II was appointed Patriarchal Vicar of Alexandria by Patriarch Petros VII, and 10 months later he was elected Metropolitan of Cameroon. In 2002 he was transferred to the Holy Metropolitan of Zimbabwe, where he established four missionary centres and a Hellenic Cultural Centre. From his base in Zimbabwe he spread the word in neighbouring countries. He founded two missionary centres in Malawi, together with a hospital, vocational training schools and a paramedical school. He also founded churches in Angola, Botswana and Mozambique.

Today it is the forces of globalisation and social and generational change that are testing the church to the limit. But, the Patriarch reassures me, the potential is great. "Yes, there is a fearsome pandemic of HIV/AIDS; there is grinding poverty, there is hunger and malnutrition," Theordoros II concedes. "But there is also the opportunity to do a tremendous amount of good."

"There are some 500 black African Greek Orthodox priests throughout Africa, and they train in English at our seminary in Nairobi, Kenya."

Theodoros II carefully considers what it means to have a ministry in this day and age. He gnaws pensively at the question of what it is to be good in this day and age. He spent five years in Cameroon, his foretaste of Africa south of the Sahara and his work entailed many nitty-gritty issues of a practical rather than spiritual nature, making sure people had access to clean potable water in rural areas, and such like. "Feed the hungry, heal the sick," he explains. His church made sure that children were fed and clothed. Then there was schooling and vocational training for youngsters. "We made sure that young people had an employable trade, we trained seamstresses, carpenters and electricians."

Healthcare is a cause that the Greek Orthodox Church champions across Africa, he added. Doctors volunteer to treat all sorts of tropical diseases as part of the church's missionary work in Africa. In keeping with this mission the Greek Orthodox Church is focussing on a host of social welfare issues. Fund-raising is, therefore, an essential part of ministry.

In Africa he meets regularly with politicians and civil society organisations. In the former Soviet Union, too, he met Soviet era leaders such as Andrei Gromyko and Gorbachev. He also met current Russian President Vladimir Putin. The collapse of the Soviet Union was, he remembers, a very difficult time for the people of Ukraine, many of whom were reduced to destitution.

In the former Soviet Union he witnessed how bombast often goes hand in hand with nationalism, and how ordinary people, seeking to escape the brutishness of their daily lives, turned to God in ever increasing numbers.

In regions where social and political upheaval is the norm people search for refuge and find it in religion. In this, he believes, Africa is no different to the disintegrating Soviet Union. His ministry continues.