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Full interview with Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis in Hurriyet newspaper, entitled ‘The Pope’s Visit to Istanbul was for Patriarch Bartholomew’

Istanbul, Turkey – Hürriyet, one of Turkey’s flagship newspapers, recently interviewed the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, who served as Director of the Press Office during the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Journalist Cansu Çamlibel, an articulate advocate for free speech and a well-known columnist, who features regular interviews with leading personalities in Turkey, sat down with Fr. John Chryssavgis after the papal visit for a comprehensive and candid conversation, which appeared in Turkish on the front page and an entire spread inside the paper (December 8, 2014). Excerpts of the interview also appeared in the Hürriyet Daily News (December 7, 2014), the oldest English-language review in Turkey. (Photo courtesy of Hürriyet / Selçuk Şamiloğlu)



Hürriyet Daily News (English Section), Front page and p. 3

Hürriyet, Front page and p. 20 (full spread)

December 8, 2014

ISTANBUL – John Chryssavgis is an author and theologian born in Australia. He received his degree in Theology from the University of Athens. He also received a diploma in Byzantine music from the Greek Conservatory of Music during those years. He completed his doctoral studies in Patristics at the University of Oxford. He has lived in the United States for 20 years now, has worked in several universities and written a number of books. But he is also an active clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He received the title of Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne from Patriarch Bartholomew in 2012. Over the last years, he has been a close aide of Patriarch and served as his advisor on issues related to theology and environment. Chryssavgis shuttles between Boston and Istanbul at least once a month. The unique quality of Chryssavgis reflects the transnational and universal nature of the Patriarchate, which is neither well understood nor recognized in Turkey. This breadth of the jurisdiction is indeed what the Church calls ‘ecumenical’ and what Turkey does not accept.

I met Chryssavgis just after the historic visit of Pope Francis in Turkey. He was actually one of the key actors who organized the program at Fener as director of the press office.  Chryssavgis is one of the few clergymen authorized to speak on behalf of the Patriarchate. He gave this interview upon consent from Patriarch Bartholomew.  He deciphered the background of Pope-Patriarch rendezvous and also analyzed the state of religious freedoms in today’s Turkey.


1. What did Pope’s visit to Turkey mean for the Christians of the world? 

The Pope’s visit to Turkey was of immense importance on several levels: First, it was a visit to a worldwide leader of another Christian church, namely Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose church Pope Francis regards as indispensable for Christian unity. Previous Popes have referred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (or church of the East) and the Church of Rome (or church of the West) as “two lungs” of the same body. For our part, we often refer to the Roman Catholic Church as our “sister church.” Neither the Catholics nor the Orthodox would describe other churches or religions in such an intimate way.

Second, the fact that Turkey neighbors sensitive regions, where Christians constitute a nervous minority and are persecuted, slaughtered or exiled, made the Pope’s visit all the more meaningful for refugees and victims in the Middle East.

2. Can you remind us the roots of adversary between different churches of Christianity?

For an entire millennium, there was a single, united Christian church, with five centers of authority, which related on equal and friendly terms. These included the churches of Rome, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), Alexandria (in today’s Egypt), Antioch (in today’s Syria) and Jerusalem. Among these churches, Rome and Constantinople (also known as New Rome) enjoyed the highest privileges, with priority over the others because both served as imperial capitals. So during the first 1000 years, there were no divisions between the East (Roman Catholic) and West (Orthodox Churches).

The first major split occurred in the 11th century, with the separation of Rome and Constantinople resulting from a gradual estrangement between West and East generally. The differences range in focus from religious matters to cultural issues and even political reasons. Another major split occurred in the 16th century within the Western church, which resulted in the emergence of the Protestant churches.

3. Is there really a rivalry between the Pope and the Patriarch?

I am not sure that rivalry is an accurate or appropriate term. However, following the 1000 years of unity, there followed another 900 years of division. During this time, each church developed in a distinct and even divorced manner, which led to an ignorance of one another’s traditions as well as a sense of suspicion and hostility between the two. There were two attempts at reconciling the two churches and restoring unity. These occurred in the 13th and 15th centuries. But the rift between the two had grown too wide and the mistrust, especially after the crusades, was too extreme.

Fortunately, fifty years ago, two other visionary leaders, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras established a pattern of contact and communication, which they labeled as “the dialogue of love.” Pope Paul’s visit here in 1967 was the first such visit since the split of 1054 and the first ever visit of a Pope to Turkey. In many ways, I think that Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reflect and echo the prophetic openness of those leaders.


4. Why is İznik very important for Vatican and Fener? Will there be a grand re-union in İznik in 2025?

İznik was the site of the very first ecumenical council, the venue for the first assembly of all the Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire in order to reach consensus on matters of controversy. The outcome of that council, which was held in the year 325, was the first uniform text of Christian teaching, which came to be known as the “creed.” In attendance were about 250 or 300 bishops (out of a total of about 1,800 in the Christian world), who also decided on a common date for Easter.

So you will appreciate how important the 1,700th anniversary since the İznik (Nicaea) council will be for the entire Christian world of today. Therefore, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in whose jurisdiction İznik lies, suggested to the Pope that a common celebration might be possible for 2025. However, there has not been too much further discussion – and certainly no final decision – about this event. In any case, it is still a long way off to determine or arrange with any degree of certainty.


5. What did you think of the Turkish media coverage of the Pope visit?

In general, the Turkish media covered the Pope’s visit fairly well. Of course, each of the media has its own angle and perspective, perhaps even its own interests and objectives. Let’s say there were no surprises. In this regard, I need to compliment your own approach in this interface and interview, which was professional from the very beginning; and I am very grateful for this fairness and openness.

6. Were you surprised to see that the visit was presented as if it was primarily a state visit for President Erdoğan?

The invitation by President Erdogan was not a surprise; it was expected that the state leader in Turkey would extend an invitation to the Pope, who is himself also a state leader as the head of the Vatican. However, the invitation for the Pope to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul was originally suggested to Pope Francis by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on March 18, 2013, at the Inaugural Mass of the Pope, which the Patriarch personally attended. This was the principal reason why the Pope came to Turkey, especially at this particular time, on November 30, which marks the official, annual feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This was repeatedly confirmed by Fr. Lombardi as the “reason” and “heart” of the Pope’s trip during press conferences in Istanbul.

7. How do you rate the AK Party government’s attitude towards the Patriarchate?

I think that attitudes toward the Ecumenical Patriarchate have overall improved in recent years. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself has undoubtedly played a major role in this change through his charismatic and cordial personality. Moreover, there has been significant progress achieved through such bodies as the General Assembly of the General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) in Ankara, representing all non-Muslim Minority Foundations of Turkey, which was so led by Mr. Lakis Vingas over two consecutive terms; but also the Rumvader (the Association for the Support of the Greek Community’s Foundations), which coordinates the activities of all foundations of the Greek minority in Turkey. Finally, the Turkish government has also responded to these initiatives by returning numerous properties to their rightful owners among the minorities in this country, granting Turkish citizenship to bishops with formal positions in our church, while also allowing services in such places as Sumela Monastery in Trabzon.

All of these are positive, concrete steps and it is only fair and proper to acknowledge them. Nevertheless, we must also be truthful to reality. And the fact is that these steps were the right thing to do. The rights and privileges requested and expected by the minorities in Turkey – whether Greek, Armenian, Jewish or other – are their rightful prerogatives and lawful entitlements as citizens of this land. So, while these developments are welcome and promising, they are what every sovereign state should extend to all of its citizens irrespective of religious or ethnic background.


8. After these developments does the Patriarch still feel crucified like he said in his CBS interview back in 2009? What is your feeling about his current thoughts on the matter? I’m asking this because I know you work very closely.

I’m not so sure that I am in a position to express the personal sentiments of His All-Holiness. But I was standing just a few feet away when he spoke those words to the “60 Minutes” program. What I recall very clearly is that he connected that statement to his conviction that resurrection follows crucifixion. So I can certainly attest to his unrelenting optimism. It must be this hopefulness that gives him the strength to speak of peace in times of terror, to emphasize dialogue in the face of conflict, as well as to advocate for the natural environment before the crisis of global warming.

9. So we misunderstood what the Patriarch actually meant by taking it as a totally negative statement, right?

It’s not so much a negative statement as it is an acknowledgment of pain. It certainly doesn’t justify those who inflict the pain. But the Christian experience of crucifixion is definitely positive. Because the Christian concept of crucifixion (of being nailed to a cross) is followed by the concept of resurrection  (which implies new life, restoration of life, reinvigoration). That’s why I say that the Patriarch, even beyond any sense of being misunderstood and crucified, still has a sense of optimism and hope.


10. Is there real freedom of religion in Turkey?

I have to speak here from the perspective of an outsider. I don’t experience what believers (and perhaps non-believers) feel in Turkey. But from a distance, the picture looks somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, we see clear signs of a willingness to address issues of religious freedom, especially in light of Turkey’s accession to the EU. But on the other hand, the signs are not as clear when it comes to converting pronouncements of good will into concrete legislation and practical application.


11. Why do you think the Turkish state is still hesitant to call it ‘Ecumenical Patriarchate? Do they share their concerns with you?

I have never understood why the Turkish government resists the title “Ecumenical Patriarchate,” which can only elevate the reputation of Turkey itself as a democratic nation. I believe exactly the same way about the reopening of Halki School. How can there be any negative effects for the Turkish government by opening a school?

The title “ecumenical” dates back to the sixth century and it has been used without interruption since that time, even after the city of Constantinople came under Ottoman rule in 1453. And there is no reasonable argument to suggest that this only implies jurisdiction in Turkey itself. In fact, it’s not even true to say that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has jurisdiction over Turkey; because some parts of south-east Turkey come under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

So why would a government even consider determining or defining religious jurisdictions? Let’s be honest here and remember that the Ecumenical Patriarchate isn’t even afforded any legal status in Turkey! It’s all quite sad and scandalous for a democratic nation in the twenty-first century.


12. What could be their fear?

I cannot imagine what they would be afraid of. It’s not like the Ecumenical Patriarch would run for President! The “ecumenical” status is a spiritual and religious jurisdiction; it is not legal or secular. The Ecumenical Patriarch has direct authority over churches in Australia, Asia and Western Europe, as well as in North and South America. Moreover, he has the responsibility of coordinating all of the fourteen independent Orthodox churches in the world, including the church of Moscow, Antioch (today’s Syria and Lebanon), and so on.

So the ecumenical nature of the Patriarchate is genuinely historical and real. This is why the Venice Commission declared in 2009 that this is a matter for the Orthodox Church to determine. Even President Erdogan has in the past proposed that this is an internal affair for our church. Once again, permit me to repeat that the Turkish government only stands to benefit from recognizing the “ecumenical” status of the Patriarchate and from supporting the global reputation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

In fact, this title has been recognized and adopted by some Turkish media and academic institutions, where it comes as no surprise that historical awareness and cultural sensitivity are cherished. I would say that choosing to ignore the title “ecumenical” is what the scriptures would call “having eyes, yet choosing not to see.”

If there was more communication, more dialogue on these issues between the government and our church, much of this would be easily clarified.

13. What you say implies that there is in fact not enough communication on these issues between the government and your church. How often do the Turkish authorities consult the Patriarchate and what is your expectation?

I cannot speak to what happens on a daily basis because, while I am here regularly, I am not here constantly. But from my understanding – and I may well be wrong – I would not be wrong in saying that there is always room for more conversation, more communication, more candidness. There have been occasions in the past when the people at the Phanar have learned about governmental decisions regarding the Patriarchate or Halki from the media.


14. Have you seen the latest article by President Erdoğan’s advisor İbrahim Kalın who admitted that the Patriarchate is the symbol of 300 million Christians?

I did indeed read the column by Dr. İbrahim Kalın about the visit by Pope Francis and its impact on people here and more broadly with regard to mutual respect and greater tolerance. Among other things, he did indeed mention that the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world. I actually enjoy reading Dr. Kalın’s work.

15. Is it possible to interpret his words as a signal of a new approach from the Turkish government, or is it too little too late?

It’s not a matter of too little too late. The Ecumenical Patriarch has frequently told me that he gladly welcomes every readiness and opportunity for dialogue. The problem I sometimes perceive is selectivity in the approach. For instance, Dr. Kalın’s column accepts the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch over 300 million faithful worldwide; but he cannot bring himself to accept the title that reflects that very breadth. Let me put it this way: The heading of Dr. Kalın’s article reads: “Pope Francis in Turkey opens a new page.” I would someday soon love to see heading: “The government in Turkey opens a new page” for religious freedom.


16. Two weeks ago I talked to former vice PM of Turkey Beşir Atalay. He admitted that the opening of Halki Seminary was in their democratization package last year, but they took it out last moment. What is happening behind the closed doors?

The Theological School of Halki arguably stands as the most powerful and painful reminder of religious restrictions on minorities in Turkey to this day. Forcibly and unjustifiably closed over forty years ago, an unopened Halki symbolizes an unresolved problem of religious exclusivism, which is unbefitting of a nation that aspires to democracy and religious freedom. The present abbot of Halki Monastery likes to emphasize that freedom of religion cannot be separated from the freedom to teach religion. And he is absolutely correct. What the Turkish government seems not to understand, as I have already mentioned to you, is how much it would gain from an opened Halki School, from a seminary that historically has trained the most open-minded and open-hearted clergy in the world, including the present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who welcomed Pope Francis to Istanbul these days.

Halki School would also attract numerous students and clergy from all over the world. All of them would benefit from living and studying in a multi-layered country, with such a diverse and long history, straddling two continents, engaging both East and West, extending over religious fault-lines, with seventeen centuries of Christian existence, over four hundred years of Ottoman dynasty, and over ninety years of a Turkish democratic republic. Istanbul is a colorful city with a legacy comparable to that of Rome and London. Who wouldn’t want to spend time immersing in the magnificent city and context of Istanbul?


17. How does the presence of ISIS and their sympathizers affect the psychology of the Greek minority in Turkey?

The presence of ISIS should affect every person of goodwill and civil decency in the world and especially in their neighboring country of Turkey. It is not just the Greek or Christian or other religious minorities that should feel alarmed. In his visit to Turkey, Pope Francis called the violence and brutality of ISIS “a grave sin against God.” And Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly stated that “every act of violence in the name of religion is an offence against religion itself.” And the Ecumenical Patriarchate has always been convinced of its wider role and ecumenical responsibility in the world with regard to interfaith tolerance and dialogue. He has been outspoken against any form of religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and extremism.

In fact, there is a powerful symbolical image of the stance of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in general) in the foyer at the entrance to the central offices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. It silently represents a decisive moment in the rich and complex story of a city where Orthodox Christians, Muslims and many other faiths have peacefully coexisted for the centuries. It is a magnificent mosaic depicting Gennadios Scholarios, first Ecumenical Patriarch of the period under Ottoman occupation. The Patriarch stands with hand outstretched, receiving from Sultan Mehmet II the “firman” (or legal document) guaranteeing the continuation and protection of the Orthodox Church throughout the period of Ottoman rule. It is a symbol of the beginnings of a long interfaith commitment, whose legacy is experienced to this day by Greeks, Turks and others in the region.

I am sure you will also have noticed the Joint Declaration signed by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew after the service at the Phanar. The statement affirmed that “Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war.”

18. What would be the kind of role and leadership that your Patriarchate would expect from Ankara in terms of dealing the new realities of the Middle East?

Our age demands sincere commitment and tangible collaboration for the sake of bridge-building and peace-making. The fact that there are increasing conflicts and hostilities in the Middle East – including Iraq and Syria, but also in Israel and Palestine – but even elsewhere in the world, such as Northern Africa as well as Ukraine, only obliges us to intensify our efforts for greater compassion and forgiveness. We have to recognize that one person’s adversity is also another person’s suffering. All of humanity shares the divine gift of this planet, where we are called to live together with peace and equality. Every individual and every institution, just as every political and civil authority, can become an instrument of peace. As mystics and poets have advocated through the centuries, all of us can respect and love another, whether we bow down in a mosque, kneel in a synagogue or worship in a church.

19. Turkish readers would probably be amazed to learn that one of the authorized spokes people of the Patriarchate actually lives in Boston. What does this tell us about your organization? 

I was born in Australia and have lived in the United States for the last 20 years. It has been my privilege to work closely with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from various positions in the last 30 years, even before he was elected patriarch. In the last 10 years, I have been honored to work exclusively for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a clergyman in America.

I think it is yet another indication of the ecumenical breadth of our Patriarchate. When the Pope visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate a few days ago, we had bishops serving on the Holy Synod – the highest administrative body of our church – from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland, Crete, Greece, and Turkey.

That’s the beauty and majesty of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that no one can ever diminish or delete.

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