Syria, the Pope, China: A Conversation w/Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
RUSSIA - VATICAN
the Pope, China: A Conversation with Orthodox Metropolitan
by Marta Allevato
Fears for fate of Christians in the Middle East. The memory of
the two kidnapped Orthodox bishops. Esteem for Pope Francis, who " knows "
orthodoxy. The anti-gay law and close cooperation with the Kremlin
Moscow (AsiaNews) - The concern for the fate of Christians in Syria ,
where " extremist forces aim to completely destroy Christianity ", the signs of
a possible "normalization of worship for Orthodox believers in China " ;
dissatisfaction in the field of theological dialogue with Catholics, but the
"amazing results " in the common work on moral and the social values . In an
interview with AsiaNews , Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk , Head of the
Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Relations, tackles the main
"foreign policy" themes of the Russian Orthodox Church and also focuses on the
internal situation in Russia, where - he says - the much- criticized law against
homosexual propaganda should be taken as a model by Western countries , which
instead by favouring homosexual unions are heading towards "certain death
The situation is dramatic is Syria, what is the Russian Orthodox
Churches' view of this conflict ?
The situation in Syria
deeply troubles us. This armed conflict has been going on for some time now. I
would not term it a civil war, because I believe that it is a case of a struggle
between diverse states in the territory of a third State, and very often the
armed groups , which some call the opposition , are actually composed of
foreigners, fighting with foreign money .
What concerns the
Moscow Patriarchate most?
What worries the Russian Orthodox
Church most of all is the fate of the civilian population and that of the
Christians. It is clear that the extremist forces seeking power have set
themselves the goal of the complete and total destruction of Christianity in
Syria. And if they take power, even temporarily, the Christian population will
be eliminated or driven out from their lands and their churches will be
destroyed. We have repeatedly expressed concern about and with the Church of
Antioch, present in Syria and Lebanon, we have studied and put into practice
various humanitarian programs. These involve the Imperial Orthodox Palestine
Society , the Russian Orthodox organization that plays an active role in the
Middle East and is responsible for the delivery of medicines and meeting the
needs of the population.
There are still two Orthodox Bishops in the hands of their
kidnappers in Syria.
Yes, Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi ( of
the Orthodox Church of Antioch ) and Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim
(of the Syrian Orthodox Church ) , whose situation troubles us . I have
personally known both for many years, they are influential spiritual leaders .
We are very concerned by their abduction and why in all this time that has
passed (they were kidnapped on April 22 last) , we have had no news of their
whereabouts or conditions . We have heard many rumors, but nothing that has ever
been officially confirmed .
Egypt has also experienced an
escalation of violence and Christians were targeted.
Egypt, we are concerned about the escalation of violence that has arisen because
of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist movement banned in many countries, but
that some time ago took power in Egypt, and lost it again. They are the root
cause of this escalation of violence in the country, with the destruction of
churches of different Christian denominations. We really hope that Egypt returns
to peace, that a force for peace takes power, capable of respecting the
inter-faith balance that has distinguished the nation over the course of many
What point is the work of the Joint Commission for Theological
Dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics at. When is the next meeting
The next meeting of the Commission , most likely, will be
in 2014. It 's still early to talk about the results of the work of the
Commission , very difficult issues are being considered, such as the primacy and
the role of the bishop of Rome, which is being discussed for the first time in a
thousand years. During the working sessions , some very delicate issues were
also raised, not only regarding relations between Catholics and Orthodox, but
also among the Orthodox Churches themselves. Unfortunately , the document that
the Commission is now preparing is under embargo and, therefore , it is not
possible to comment or criticize , if not within the Commission
It seems to me, however, that this document does not comply with
the mandate that the Commission received from the Churches and does not explain
clearly what the differences and similarities between Catholics and Orthodox
So it seems that dialogue on ethics with Catholics is more
The Joint Theological Commission is only one
aspect of the ongoing dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics today. Personally
I am convinced that at the moment our joint work in the field of promoting moral
and social values is much more effective. I believe that the elaboration of a
common position on various social and moral issues has helped us to move ahead.
In particular I want to mention the work of the Catholic-Orthodox Forum, which
was established some years ago and has held several meetings in different
countries, dealing with issues such as family ethics. We have obtained
surprising results, which are reflected in the common desire to work together
for the defense of traditional Christian values .
Your impressions of the new Pope ?
attended his inaugural Mass and the next day I had a meeting with him , during
which we identified some important points of interaction between the Catholic
Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. I had the impression that the Pope
fully understood the importance of our common action . In addition, it was clear
that these issues are not new to him, but that he knows and understands them
well. This knowledge in the field of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue , as well as his
previous experience in Argentina (where he repeatedly visited our Russian
Orthodox parishes in Buenos Aires and was present at liturgical services ,
meeting the parishioners ) , augur well for a positive development of our
relations during his pontificate .
What needs to be done to
achieve the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch ?
has to be very carefully prepared. Concretely, we must reach agreement on those
issues on which we differ today. Do you know how bilateral meetings between
heads of state are arranged? Before the heads of two states meet, several groups
of their closest advisors must work hard on many issues of bilateral relations.
In this way, the meeting between the two leaders is not just protocol, but the
fruit of a long process of preparation. We too have to prepare well for this
meeting, so that it is not just protocol, but allows us to elevate our
relationship to a new level of interaction, trust and
What is the biggest obstacle in this
To date, the biggest problem in this regard is the
situation in western Ukraine , where in the 1980s and 1990s very sad events took
place, which deprived the Orthodox communities in some towns and villages of
their churches . It persists still today .
Do you think we
are getting any closer to such a meeting?
I think every day
we get exactly one day closer! I can not say exactly when this meeting will take
How would the Moscow Patriarchate view a visit by
the Pope to Jerusalem, at the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew I
I guess that's a matter for bilateral relations between
the Churches of Rome and Constantinople . These relations have a long history
and unfortunately are marked by tragic events. I believe that the meetings
between the heads of the churches of Rome and Constantinople are very important
and useful in the healing of these wounds inflicted on the unity of the Church
in the past.
What was the outcome of Patriarch Kirill's visit to China in May,
did it help open any spaces for religious freedom in the
The whole history of Orthodoxy in China coincides
with that of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Chinese Orthodox Church has always
been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow. In the 1950s, not long before the
beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church had
been established, within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow. But,
with the Cultural Revolution, his whole infrastructure was destroyed. Over the
past 20 years we have been trying to restore this structure and to conduct a
dialogue with the Chinese authorities for the normalization of the situation of
the Orthodox believers in China. For many years, the dialogue was conducted by
Metropolitan Kirill. After he became Patriarch , I took over .
Patriarch's visit to China was made possible thanks to this dialogue, over more
than twenty years , with the local authorities . For now it is too early to say
if there are any concrete results, but the very fact of the visit is a very
significant event for the normalization of life for Orthodox believers in
The Orthodox community is growing in Italy. Are you going to
create a diocese ?
I think that in Italy there is no less than a million faithful from the
various Orthodox Churches, maybe even more. The Russian Orthodox Church in Italy
has already registered more than 50 parishes, which constitute a diocese. This
diocese for the moment is administered by Moscow, but I think in the near
future, maybe in three or four years, the bishop will reside in
There is a law in vigor in Russia that prohibits "the
promotion of non-traditional sexual relations", a law which has raised a lot of
criticism. Do you believe that the country really needs this
I think that this law is not only necessary,
but also that such laws should be adopted by other countries , in place of the
rules which are launched today in the European Union on homosexual unions, which
even give them the right to adopt children . I believe that this policy of
Western governments is a suicidal policy, because under the conditions of the
demographic crisis and destruction of the institution of the family, giving
these privileges to homosexual unions means to signing the death sentence of a
State, as well as a people.
We are under the influence of secular ideology of
consumerism in interpersonal relations, advertising, an educational system
designed not to teach children to aspire to high moral values, but to free their
basic instincts. Under the influence of all these circumstances, many European
countries are going through a severe demographic crisis and the population is in
sharp decline . This, from my point of view, it is a sign of deep spiritual
sickness . If this disease is not cured, as for all diseases untreated, it will
lead to death.
In this sense, I see Russia today as an example. The laws
we are introducing, are directed precisely to the preservation of what we call
'the genetic background ' of the nation, its ' human potential ' , so that there
are strong families , with many children to inhabit the vastness of the Russian
Many accuse the Patriarchate of being too close to
the Kremlin including many faithful. What is the church and state relationship
in Russia today?
I do not think many of our faithful are
unhappy about our relationship with the State. Its just the newspapers that
sometimes write about this. The last time I was in England, the BBC asked in an
interview if I thought that relations between our Church with the Kremlin were
too close. I replied that in Russia, relations between the State and the Church
are a lot closer than in Britain, where the head of the Church and the bishops
are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Then
they asked me, do you think that the same person should not be in power for too
long? And I said that we have not yet had somebody is in power for 60 years in a
row, like the Queen of England. But in spite of the British democratic
traditions , my answers were censored and the interview was broadcast after they
had been cut off.
Today the relations between church and state in Russia
are based on two principles . The first is the principle of non- interference .
The Russian Orthodox Church does not endorse any political party or none in
particular. As it participates in society, the Church can make its own
evaluation of a political program , or certain specific problems. But the Church
does not participate in the management of the State nor politics. So neither
does the State participate in the management of the Church, or interfere in the
choice of bishops , the Patriarch, or any internal decision .
principle is that of collaboration between Church and State in matters of common
interest . This are primarily ethical issues , such as population policies ,
family ethics , the problem of abandoned children and so many other issues on
which there is ample space for our cooperation.
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