ROME, JAN. 24, 2002 (ZENIT.org–Avvenire).- Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was one of the first to respond enthusiastically to the papal invitation to participate in a Day of Prayer at Assisi.
The 62-year-old, considered “first among equals” among the various patriarchs, has been the spiritual leader of 270 million Orthodox for the past 11 years.
Bartholomew I never loses an opportunity to dialogue with other Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church. “The Pope and I are good friends,” he often says.
Q: Holiness, what were the reasons that impelled you to come to Assisi?
Bartholomew I: As first bishop of the Orthodox Church, primate of the ecumenical throne, I joyfully responded to the fraternal invitation of John Paul II, the Pope of Rome, in harmony with the most urgent imperative of our era: All those who respect God and love man must be ready to give their own testimony in favor of peace and to struggle together to obtain it.
On our part, we started on this path a long time ago. We regard it as our duty and carry it out with pleasure also here, in Assisi, where we wish to witness to the faith and hope of the Orthodox Church.
Q: Following Sept. 11, there is a risk of a clash of civilizations in which religion becomes a reason for conflict. How can such a scenario be avoided?
Bartholomew I: If you look carefully, there is nothing new. The debate on the clash of civilizations has lasted for years. Sept. 11 has tragically highlighted it, with the horrible claim of linking terrorism to a religious faith.
In order to struggle against such aberrations, we must journey together on the path of fraternal coexistence, love and peace. However this, in turn, calls for a real change in mentality, breaking with concepts and practices of the past. Above all it calls for repentance and forgiveness.
Q: Dialogue with Islam is being discussed. How can it begin?
Bartholomew I: Today the interreligious dialogue is more necessary than ever. The situation created after Sept. 11 should urge us to a dialogue with Islam that is founded on responsibility, sincerity and reciprocal respect. These are essential conditions for dialogue.
Q: The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is on Islamic soil today. From this experience, what suggestions do you think you can give Christians of the West who are faced with the presence of Muslim faithful?
Bartholomew I: You Westerners give the impression of having been taken by surprise by the Muslim presence, and you often react in a confused and spasmodic way. We in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on the contrary, and more generally we Christians of the East, have a long experience.
We have coexisted with Islam, uninterruptedly, since its birth. Coexistence has not always and everywhere been peaceful — not even today. Despite all this we can say that it was and is coexistence.
Since the times of the Byzantine Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has sought a theological dialogue with Islam. However, there is also the existential dialogue that is exercised in daily coexistence among men of different beliefs. I think the West could learn something on the topic of dialogue and interreligious coexistence by looking at the experience of the East.
Q: What is your judgment on the war against terrorism launched after the attacks on the United States?
Bartholomew I: Terrorism and war, in any form and for any reason, are always a tragedy. The evil that was unleashed on Sept. 11 can cause an infinite sequence of other evils. However, we Christians know that evil is not defeated by evil.
Q: What are you referring to?
Bartholomew I: I refer above all to the inability to prevent the tragedy. Perhaps not everything possible was done. Also, the diagnosis and therapy adopted do not address the roots of the evil, the causes that have favored terrorism. Such omissions will not be forgiven in the future.
Q: Can the Assisi meeting relaunch the interreligious dialogue, especially between Christianity, Judaism and Islam?
Bartholomew I: This is the great hope. We hope that the Day of Prayer for Peace will renew the will to cooperate among all those who participate.
Q: What point has the ecumenical dialogue reached? Have John Paul II´s visits to Greece and Ukraine marked a step forward?
Bartholomew I: The ecumenical path, which has borne much fruit, has not yet been able to manifest the unity of Christians in a strong and visible way, so that it is also recognized by the world. This is also true of the dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
There is need to renew the ecumenical thrust. From this perspective, John Paul II´s trips are certainly a great testimony to the desire for unity.