The following speeches and addresses were delivered from speakers in the 1st Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom which was held in the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium in November 2010.


Keynote Address of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America

Primate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Of America
Exarch Of The Ecumenical Patriarchate

NOVEMBER 15, 2010

I thank God for this honor of being with you this evening at the beginning of our historic conference on religious freedom.  I am thankful, first of all, for the mere fact that we are able to assemble peacefully for such a discussion; that we may all take part and speak our minds without hindrance or fear; that we who are clergy may be dressed in the garments of our vocation; and that we may enjoy dinner together, sharing the bounties of God's blessings without hunger or want.  In other times, and even now in other places, this meal and this conference could not take place.  What we do here is not merely a discussion of freedom: it is an expression of freedom, a celebration of the freedom God gives and God wills for all people of the earth!

I am thankful, moreover, for the outstanding work of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in organizing this conference, both of the Order of Saint Andrew in America and of the Brotherhood of Pammakaristos in Europe.  The word "Archon" means "leader," and it is a true act of leadership that the Archons demonstrate today.

I am thankful as well for the willingness of the representatives of the European Union to engage this most serious and timely issue of the freedom of religious minorities in Turkey. We have been blessed to enjoy the fullness of religious freedom in America. Our 540 Greek Orthodox communities in America, which constitute a vital eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, prosper spiritually and otherwise because of the precious gift of religious freedom they have. I convey to you their greetings and their brotherly regards together with their thanks for your efforts on behalf of our beloved and venerable Patriarchate. As I thought of preparing the present opening remarks on religious freedom, I considered using a very telling example. It has to do with the ecological catastrophe that recently happened in the Gulf of Mexico.

As you surely know, for three months a well on the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico was gushing crude oil into the water, ruining coastlines and ravaging marine life.  Earlier this month scientists reported on the enormity of this spill.  The damage is unspeakable.  A massive ecosystem has been destroyed in terms of geological time. It will be thousands of years before the coral reefs and the marine life of the Gulf of Mexico can be restored to their former condition.

As expected the reaction to this catastrophe was strong and led to immediate action. I am using this ecological catastrophe as a fitting symbol for the serious damage caused by any kind of limitation of religious freedom in any place of the world. Is it not natural to expect a strong and immediate reaction in confronting violations of religious freedom? Should not the global community care when the basic freedom to worship and practice one's religious tradition is violated? In that case, it is obvious that a danger is created to wipe away communities and cultures that flourished for thousands of years?

In 2001, when religious fervor destroyed two 1500-year old statutes of the Buddha in Afghanistan, the world reacted strongly to the loss of these religious and cultural treasures. International opinion condemned the action, and some governments in Europe and Asia have pledged to help restore the statues.  But dynamite is not the only way to destroy religious and cultural treasures!  With the unexpected and unacceptable use of long-term planning and cunning, one can achieve the same results by means of legal restrictions, economic privations, bureaucratic roadblocks, and acts of intimidation.

Let me illustrate with the example that is best known to us and to our spiritual flock.  In Istanbul, Turkey there lives a community for whom the city has been home for two millennia, from the days before it was even the City of Constantine—Constantinople—when it was still simply Byzantium. Within that community developed a tremendous cultural and religious achievement. Such an amazing achievement was definitely the result of the existence of full religious freedom.  In the center of this remarkable progress has been the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Whether you speak of architecture or music or literature or poetry or painting or mosaics or drama or scholarship, or theology or the tremendous production and preservation of invaluable manuscripts no survey is complete without a discussion of the Byzantine, strongly ecclesiastical contributions in these areas.

But the brilliance of the Byzantine Orthodox Culture and Tradition goes far beyond Istanbul and the boarders of contemporary Turkey. As we know with the rise of the Ottoman Empire came the emigration of Byzantine scholars into the West in the fifteenth century—and with them the wealth of classical learning and medieval science. Today we call this "the Renaissance."  But the Renaissance is clearly a reflection of the Byzantine splendor.

Culturally, intellectually, artistically, religiously, all of Europe has ties to Byzantium. We should also not forget that the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which constitute a uniquely authoritative expression of the united Christianity, took place in Byzantium.

Here in Western Europe, the seeds of Byzantine culture, with its strong ecclesiastical character, have taken root and flourished. But back in its home city, the two-thousand-year legacy is terribly suffering! Choked off by decades of governmental obstructionism, this precious Orthodox Christian culture is seriously injured. This, unfortunately, is the result of the limitation of religious freedom imposed upon our Ecumenical Patriarchate. More specifically, the Patriarchate is confronted by the obstinate rejection of its Ecumenical character and title, of a significant part of its property, of a refusal for the recognition of its legal status, and of a continuing closure of its only institution for the training of its clergy.

In 2001 when two statues were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world protested vehemently. In 2010 when coral reefs were poisoned to death in the Gulf of Mexico, the global community mourned.  But over the past seventy years, as the entire cultural bequest of a great civilization spanning two millennia is systematically reduced in its very place of birth, its mother city, what is the local, and even more, the global response?

It took an international engineering effort to stop the flow of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Our task in this conference is to engineer a solution to establish and guarantee the fullness of religious freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the rest of the religious minorities of Turkey. We already have some recent encouraging signs coming from the Turkish government that there are open perspectives for positive action. We could mention the Divine Liturgy in the ancient Monastery of Soumela, the Pringipos orphanage, and the kind participation of representatives from Turkey in the present conference. Thus, on the basis of expected progress on the issue of religious freedom, we can see the building of a bridge connecting Turkey with the European Union. This, by the help of God, should be the ultimate goal of the present conference.

I began this address with expressions of thankfulness for those who make this conference possible. I would end by expressing the gratitude, not only of myself, but of the entire Greek Orthodox community of America, for the heroic leadership and service of our Ecumenical Patriarchate, and above all to our first Hierarch, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  His voice has been a voice of peace for all and blessing upon all. His wise and compassionate response has been an example for all.  May his intercessions before the Lord enlighten our discussions in the days ahead, and may God grant him many years of continued service and leadership for all people.

Again, thank you, and God bless your deliberations at this truly historic and revelatory conference.