Anthony J. Limberakis, M.D.: "Closing Conference Address"



Second International Archon Religious Freedom Conference


Hotel Adlon, Kempinski
Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany
December 5, 2013

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Your Eminences and Excellencies,

Distinguished Professors, Scholars, and Journalists,

Beloved Brother Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,

Dear Friends,

It is with a real sense of accomplishment and gratefulness that I present my closing remarks to these two past remarkable days. Many thanks are due to many individuals, but I will reserve that expression of gratitude for our fellowship later this evening. For the moment, please allow me some reflection and observation.

This is our Second International Archon Religious Freedom Conference, following our inaugural conference in Brussels three years ago. At that time, we had high hopes that the energy and synergy emerging from an event such as this would bring forth positive results. Three years hence, we realize that it is not only the results that matter, but also the process by which we strive to attain them.

Conferences such as these are much more than a setting for academic and diplomatic reflection. They are seedbeds into which ideas are cast and in which they germinate and grow. They are also crucibles of thoughtful exploration, into which diametrically opposing views can experience the alchemy of the human encounter, because we all come here respectful of the other's position and perspective. In fact, it is this very "otherness" –the face-to-face and person-to-person connection that brings forth mutuality and understanding, which is our ultimate goal. For if in this setting we can find paths to the peaceful coexistence that respects the fundamental human rights of every person, then we will have discovered the signposts that can point whole societies and nations to such a blessed condition.

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The Order of Saint Andrew is an American branch of the Vine of True Orthodoxy that is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. And yet, it is in Europe that we have exercised our status of freedom on behalf of the freedom of others. Why? Because we know that it is through its ties to Europe and its shared democratic values that Turkey will discover its fullness as a democratic republic, and in fulfilling this destiny, the very best interests of our cause will be accomplished.

We do not seek the full exercise of religious liberty for our Mother Church – the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, as an end in itself. We are committed to the rights and privileges of all peoples around the globe, knowing that if only one person is deprived of freedom, then in a sense, all people are so deprived. It has not gone unnoticed that each of the minority communities represented here cried out for more time to give voice to the voiceless. We recognize that our efforts must amplify these voices and help them echo around the globe.

Moreover, as Archons of the Great Church of Christ, we have borne witness first hand to the monumental ministry of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He brings to the whole world, via the very ecumenicity that some in Turkey would deny him, the principle of religious freedom for all people. His martyric presence in Turkey, in the shadow of the ancient Theodosian walls that surrounded New Rome, is a reminder to us all. Physical walls of the past cannot protect our common future. The mental walls of prejudice and ignorance are the real barriers to a better life for humanity, and such walls pose a truly dangerous set of conditions for the future.

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Here in Berlin, a wall of division grew to proportions far in excess of its physical dimensions. For the better part of the Twentieth Century, these walls of stone, iron, bamboo and barbed wire kept nations apart and populations in isolation. And on either side of these walls there grew anxiety, fear and dread – distrust, suspicion, and even panic. Behind these walls we built caches of weapons of destruction that threaten the world to this day. We still see their legacy in North Korea, a society as shuttered from itself, as much as it is from the rest of the world, in a prison of its own making.

Such walls are built on the foundation of the objectification of the "other" – such that instead of the neighbor, we see the alien. Instead of a brother or sister, we see a stranger. Instead of a friend, we see an enemy.

And after the wall goes up, it becomes invested with a narrative, much like the graffiti that inevitably marks barriers of division and divisiveness around the globe. The story becomes one of "us versus them." The chronicle that tells the journey of another people is suppressed, and sometimes even denied by the dominant majority. Finally, history becomes fiction and the truth can no longer be found.

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This is what happening right now in Turkey. The stories of its religious and ethnic minorities are being painted over. Even as small tokens are distributed like crumbs to starving children, the vast sweep of history is ignored and is in danger of being swept permanently away.

In Turkey, the religious and ethnic minorities have been too often seen as holdovers from another era – as not belonging to the greater whole. Their civic and religious rights are seen as onerous to the state. Their minority quality never seems to fully attain participatory status as complete citizens. Thus their liberties and rights can be at best ignored, and at worst trampled.

Unwelcome in the greater whole, these minorities dwell insecurely in isolated strongholds not of their own making. Their contribution to the vitality and dynamism of Turkish society is ignored by the dominant culture. But this diminishes everyone's shared cultural heritage. This hurts the democratic prospects of the Republic as much as any domestic or foreign threat.

Three years ago at our first conference in Brussels, I named these walls, which are still harming all of Turkey:

… walls of separation and cultural and religious misunderstanding, walls of historical grievances and tragedies, stubborn walls of… negativity and myopia.

         At that time, I had a certain hope that our clarion calls for religious freedom would resound and that some of these walls would come tumbling down. I had high hopes for the re-opening of the Halki Seminary. I had high hopes for the legal personality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be fully recognized. I had high hopes that the title "Ecumenical" would cease to be a "rock of offence" and enter beyond the journalistic sphere of Turkish society into the political heart of the Republic. My hopes are still just that – hopes, because the realities of progress are yet to actualized.

         Through the past three years, the stagnation for religious liberty in Turkey has given way to the backflow represented by the calls to take Christian churches, forcibly converted to mosques, and peaceably settled as civic monuments, back to mosques. To what end? Why open these old wounds?

         Simultaneously, this stale climate has been accompanied by momentous and tumultuous changes throughout the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. We all know very well that three of the world's most critical Islamic countries, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, countries with whom Turkey shares extensive borders, are in constant conditions of flux. Each of these countries poses different religious and political challenges for the region. We are witnessing the obliteration of Christianity in the Middle East, and for those who think this language too strong, I invite you to look at what is happening in Maaloula, one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world. Nuns have been kidnapped, churches looted and burned. Throughout Syria, bishops are kidnapped, clergy are murdered and the peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam is dissolving. Who is going to help?

         Turkey has a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate tangible leadership, but whether this leadership will be taken seriously remains a choice. And that choice is utterly connected to how Turkey finally chooses to treat its religious and ethnic minorities.

         I am yet hopeful that Turkey will choose to plow its own new course forward, rather than risk drowning in the wake of its floundering neighbors. A new course for Turkey could mean a new course for its neighbors. And this new course commences with the recognition that an embrace of diversity is not a surrender to decadence. The fear, that one surge in the direction of tolerance, will be followed by a society careening toward the maelstrom is as dangerous as it is unreasonable.

Fear only manages to pile high the walls of prejudice, isolation, and intolerance. Whether we are constructing ghettoes of isolation or prisons of degradation – the effects are the same. We are torn apart – emotionally, culturally, spiritually, humanly. Our relationships are ripped apart. Real opportunities for growth are wasted. Society is fragmented. In the end, hope for a peaceful and prosperous future is lost.

         If we tear these walls down, we can use the lessons learned from the process of gaining mutual respect and understanding like re-usable stone and material. And as I wished with all my heart at our first conference three years ago:

… from these walls of fear, mistrust, self-doubt and even hatred, we can build many bridges. With the greatest of stones and the smallest of pebbles, our bridges can become mosaics of diversity and complexity that only emerge from the admixture of all our characteristics, all our gifts, all our talents and all our contributions.

If you think I believe this is easy, my friends, let me assure you that I am under no illusions. Such a struggle as this, is commensurate to war. But not the warfare of violence and destruction that lurks behind every wall of hate, as our eloquent speaker Jay Sekulow stated earlier this afternoon in his allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. As Paul of Tarsus – which is the modern day Adana-Mersin Metropolitan Area – said in his second letter to the community in ancient Corinth (10:3-5a) nearly two thousand years ago:

For, although we may walk in the flesh, we do not wage war after the flesh! Indeed, the weapons of our warfare are made not of flesh, but they are powerfully enabled by God for tearing down strongholds. They are mighty for overthrowing devices intellectual and everything purported to be high and mighty that swell and exalt themselves against the knowledge of God.

In the original Greek, the word "stronghold" is ὀχύρωμα. The word can mean a fortress or a prison. Whether it is the fortress mentality that isolates, or the stockade of bigotry and indifference that marginalize the minorities of Turkey, all of these walls need to be torn down. As one of our brilliant speakers Cole Durham said earlier, we must "tear down the walls in the human heart."

May the God of peace Who know our hearts, give us the strength to work for the dismantling of our own walls, and may He bless us to build bridges in their place.

 On behalf of all the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I express our profound gratitude and thankfulness for your presence and participation at this Second International Archon Religious Freedom Conference. In peace, harmony and concord, may we find the way to a better world together.

Thank you!