Answering questions from a correspondent of the “Izvestia” newspaper Sofia Devyatova, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem spoke, in particular, about the threats to the Christian presence in the Holy Land, about his vision of ways to overcome problems in the inter-Orthodox relations, and about vaccination and pilgrimage during the pandemic.
– Earlier, you voiced a reminder to the entire Christian world about dangerous associations that want to expel Christians from Jerusalem and from the Holy Land in general. How alarming is the situation regarding the change in the status of ownership? Is it possible to find a compromise that will suit all parties?
– Today we face a clear and present danger. Christians everywhere should be alarmed on behalf of their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. The threat of our exclusion is real. Over decades, we have sadly become all too accustomed to Israeli extremist groups who seize properties from Christian families and church institutions, by nefarious means. Now their incursion threatens to extend further. If these radical groups grasp hold of strategic properties on the Christian pilgrim route at the Jaffa Gate, yet more Christians will move out of Jerusalem and millions of pilgrims from around the world will have the spiritual journey of a lifetime damaged beyond belief. Furthermore, the loss of the Christian community, a community that provides education, healthcare, humanitarian support to people of all faiths in the region, would have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable and tragically tarnish the city of Jerusalem as the religious capital of the world.
Despite this, Christians everywhere are part of the community of the resurrection. Those of us who worship at the site of Christ’s death and resurrection, bear particular testimony to that sure and certain hope. In this spirit, we seek to work with our neighbours to discover a solution that protects the multi-religious and multicultural tapestry of the Holy City.
–The Russian Orthodox Church often warns about the inadmissibility of manifestations of radicalism and fanaticism in interreligious relations. Are we really entering a new era of confrontation and what is it connected with in your opinion?
– Sadly, with every passing year, we see an increase in the number of people around the world who suffer because of their religious beliefs. More than 80% of those who are persecuted around the globe are Christians. Counter to this, Jerusalem is a testimony to the possibility of religious harmony. We have coexisted alongside our Jewish and Muslim neighbours for centuries. Our existence in the old city is neither questioned by the State, religious institutions nor the vast majority of citizens who live well and peaceably together. Rather, our future is threatened by small groups of well-funded Israeli extremists who are waging a war of attrition against a defenseless community who seek only to love and serve their neighbours. We currently represent less than 1% of the population and our numbers are dropping further still. The world must act before it is too late.
– In 2019, you met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First of all, the President spoke about defending the interest of Christians who have found themselves in a very difficult situation due to the events in the Middle East. Then the Russian leader noted that it was important to build close relations with Muslim denominations. What can you say about cooperation with the representatives of Islam in this direction?
– You are correct to credit President Putin for his efforts to support the Christian community around the world. We are deeply encouraged and grateful for his support. You are also right to speak of the need for stronger relationships between Christians and Muslims. On our part, Christians are called by Jesus Christ to extend the hands of fellowship to all and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. In Jerusalem the churches have enjoyed positive relationships with our Muslim brothers and sisters for over one thousand years. I regularly meet with Muslim Leaders in the Holy Land and from around the world. I am particularly grateful for my friendship with His Majesty, King Abdullah of Jordan, who as Hashemite Custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Holy Land, is tireless in his efforts to protect Christians here and throughout the Middle East. Without wishing to be conceited, I believe that we can teach the world how to build richer relationships between Muslims and Christians.
– The Covid era divided society into two parts on the issue of vaccination. From the point of view of the church, how would you assess the actions of opponents of vaccination, who have formed a movement of followers and persistently mass agitation?
– Firstly, it is my job to love others and not to judge them. Secondly, given your last questions, it is vital that we take people’s personal freedoms seriously. Thirdly, I, like many other Christian leaders around the world, gladly received the Covid vaccination. The vaccine is an answer to prayer, and I thank God for this life-saving technology. It protects people from dying or becoming seriously ill and it reduces the chances that we might infect others. In short, taking the vaccine is a very practical way in which we can love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
– Three years ago, you proposed to hold a meeting of the leaders of the Orthodox churches on the issue of overcoming the schism caused by the provision of the tomos on autocephaly to Ukraine. Is this way of solving the problem still possible? How do you assess the extent of the split now? Are you trying to reconcile the opposing sides?
– There are few issues as important as the unity of the Church. In the hours before his arrest here in Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ prayed. In those precious moments he prayed for his disciples, the Church and all that would follow him. First and foremost, he prayed that they would be one. In 2019, I was honoured to receive an award from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch Alexy II Prize, for my own efforts to strengthen the unity of Orthodox nations. As I shared then, the closest families experience times of challenge and conflict. As with the Early Church, our Orthodox Churches are blessed with Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops who are passionate about the Church and determined to live and lead as faithful disciples in different communities and in difficult times. It is unsurprising then that conflicts arise. I have long held that fellowship provides the best solution to our biggest problems. Within the Orthodox churches, it is vital that we continue to meet with one another in a spirit of Christian love and brotherhood and discuss the issues that all too easily divide us. By living hospitably and sharing honestly, we invite the Holy Spirit to make us one. I have been greatly encouraged by the willingness of leaders to do this and look forward to more opportunities to share together in months to come.
– About the upcoming meeting of Patriarch Kirill and the Pope: what issues, in your opinion should be raised at it?
– I am delighted that Patriarch Kirill is meeting with the Pope. In my experience, it is always a joy to meet with Pope Francis. He is an inspirational leader and a faithful friend to many of us around the world. He is also a shining example of the impact of authentic Christian leadership in a diverse and divided world. I will be praying that their meeting is blessed and that their discussions are fruitful and we are encouraged by the Christmas message of Patriarch Kirill which will resonate in his various meetings, standing by us in the Holy Land for the challenges that we face.
– Is pilgrimage in the context of a pandemic and what, in your opinion,will it be this year? How will the Christian world celebrate Easter this year?
– The Covid pandemic has clearly changed much in our world. In the Holy Land we grieve the lack of pilgrims. It is our sacred duty to welcome the world to these holy sites. This year, we hope to share hospitality with more pilgrims, but we recognise the overall number of visitors is likely to remain relatively small. I would encourage everyone to remember that pilgrimage is possible anywhere. There are so many journeys we can undertake, both physically and spiritually, abroad and in our own communities. There are many places we can go and experiences that we can share which bring us closer to Christ. At Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and at Pentecost we recognise that he is present everywhere in the community of the Church through the power of his Holy Spirit. To this end, I would encourage all my brothers and sisters around the world to seek out holy places in their own communities; to make their own towns and churches a place of pilgrimage, and once again experience the unlimited, never-ending love of God that becomes ours in the Easter story. If we can achieve this, I believe the Holy Spirit will make Jesus Christ present in our lives and communities today and in new ways.
– How do you assess the situation of Christians in Kazakhstan against the background of mass protests, riots and the growth of radical sentiments.
– The situation in Kazakhstan is of great concern to all of us. Jesus Christ instructed his followers to pray and work towards the peace of Jerusalem. To this end, we exhort Christians around the world to pray for the peace of Kazakhstan and we exhort our brothers and sisters in Kazakhstan to do all that they can to seek peace and reconciliation in their own land.