A visit to Lesbos by Pope Francis and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church is a further sign of the readiness of the churches to work together, says theologian Apostolos Nikolaidis.
Deutsche Welle: What does the Orthodox Church and you personally hope will happen on the symbolically significant visit of Pope Francis to Lesbos on Saturday?
Apostolos Nikolaidis: At a time of the pope's ever increasing visibility and the extraordinary character of Francis, who has been called the "pope of the poor," a visit by him to the island of Lesbos together with the ecumenical patriarchs and the Archbishop of Athens [the head of the Orthodox Church in Greece, ed.], is seen as a sign of the Orthodox Church's interest in humanitarian needs. Something of this sort may appear to some people to be foreign to the nature and mission of the Orthodox Church, but in reality, humanitarian concerns that are not limited to the spirituality of believers, but reach out to real life, are tightly connected to Orthodox spirituality.
A visit by the pope is of course a sign for the refugees.
Of course, the main concern is to sensitize the global public in order to force those "peacebreakers" both locally and globally to feel the destruction that they have caused which is the real cause of this refugee problem, to force them to stop it and to contribute to healing the open wounds. Further, the motivation is to give the refugees the feeling that they have not been left alone to deal with their painful experiences.
These experiences can be traced to the stance of the European policy makers who have taken on an "enemy" posture. The refugees should know that they at least have the understanding and support of the Christian church at their side.
The appearance of three high dignitaries of the Christian Church on Lesbos gives the visit an ecumenical significance. Is the voice of the Christian Church clearer to hear in this way?
Clearly that is one of the reasons for the meeting. The voices would be even louder, if the Protestant Church were also present. The presence of these three men can be interpreted in two ways, in my opinion: the one way to view the visit of the three top church officials would be see it as symbolic of the split in the Christian world, which weakens the Word of God's call for unity and peace. The other interpretation would see the visit as a chance to look past the dogmatic divisions to see the readiness of the men to work together within the framework of "ecumenical social morals" on important topics that plague the world community. Such topics are, for example, the return of human dignity, the refugee crisis, economic migration, the gap between the haves and have nots, religious freedom, world peace, the protection of the environment and so on.
Somehow one is missing the voice of Islamic spirituality in the refugee debate.
It would be desirable to have other religions take part in this cooperation, especially those who sit within the hotbed of the global threat. And here is exactly where the importance of an inter-religious dialogue comes into play. I'd also like to point out here, though, that the meeting of the three church officials is to be understood as a show of solidarity with the Christian minorities in the Middle East who are suffering. These minorities are victims of fanaticism, intolerance and religious cleansing every day.
In contrast to the Greek Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, for example, has referred to the refugee wave as an "invasion." Which is the stance of the Orthodoxy regarding the refugees, who are, for the most part, Muslim?
Over the course of history, there have been times in which the Orthodox Church, in tight cooperation with the political powers that have taken up armed resistance against the "invasion" of another religion. For example, during the Avar occupation of Constantinople in the Early Middle Ages. The church, however, has never been afraid of so-called "heretics."
Today, we are not dealing with such an "invasion," but rather with the forced migration of people on the basis of a weaponized conflict that has made it impossible to remain in their homeland. That is not an "invasion" that calls for resistance, but is instead a humanitarian crisis that deserves our immediate attention. The Orthodox Church has no other choice but to support the refugees with love and solidarity. And that is what the church is doing as an institution that not only organizes soup kitchens and other charitable activities but also through the engagement of our church members, such as those seniors and other citizens on the island of Lesbos who are caring for the refugees.
From a religious perspective, the refugee independent of his religion or ethnic background is a symbol of Jesus. Whoever, therefore, ignores or disregards the refugee, ignores as a result Jesus himself. Any other behavior goes against the church, Christian beliefs, and lastly, against Orthodoxy. Racism, intolerance and exclusion are absolutely foreign to Orthodox Christian ethics.
Apostolos Nikolaidis is Dean of the Theology Department at the University of Athens
The interview was conducted by Spiros Moskovou