NEWS STORY: Patriarch warns against”sheep stealing”in former Soviet Union

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ American missionaries seeking converts in the former Soviet Union are”wolves in sheep’s clothing,”an unwelcome presence, and an impediment to Christian unity, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew told a meeting Friday (Oct. 24) at the National Council of Churches.

The Orthodox Church, recovering from more than 70 years of Soviet persecution, welcomes aid from other denominations, but seeking converts is deeply offensive, said Bartholomew, the patriarch of the 13 million-member Greek Orthodox Church and a leader of some 250,000,000 Orthodox Christians worldwide.”Many Protestant missionaries from the West whose voices were not heard during the decades of oppression have come not to lend support but to convert Orthodox believers,”he said.”Orthodox who had suffered for generations had expected the prayers, the support and the encouragement of ecumenical partners. Sadly, they have been treated like the servant who is tortured by another servant who was himself treated with mercy by his masters.”The good which has been done by some of our partners has been overshadowed by the evil of others. These so-called `missionaries’ claim to be Christians, but they behave as wolves in sheep’s clothing,”he continued.”Orthodox Christians seek the very guarantees of love and freedom that our sister churches have enjoyed. We ask for your love and understanding as we seek to rebuild the house that was shattered by active governmental persecution.” Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek who is based in Istanbul, visited New York as part of a month-long American tour. Though he did not identify any specific individuals or denominations, many evangelical Christian groups and high-profile televangelists such as Pat Robertson and the Rev. Robert Schuller have been actively seeking converts in the former Soviet Union.

Last month, Russia passed a strict law designed to protect the Orthodox Church by curtailing the activities of other groups, both Christian and non-Christian, that have succeeded in gaining converts there since the breakup of the Soviet Union opened the nation to outside religious influences.

The law has been sharply criticized by the Vatican and others as undemocratic and counter to the ideal of religious pluralism. American evangelical groups who have sent missionaries to Russia have been particularly vociferious in their denunciation of the law.

Bartholomew’s defense of Russian Orthodoxy’s efforts to stave off conversions came despite tensions between him and the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexii II over which of them should oversee the 60,000-member Estonian Orthodox Church “I was glad he said it. The dialogue will deepen because of his honesty,”said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the NCC, the nation’s leading ecumenical agency. The NCC includes 33 Christian bodies, among them several Orthodox churches, and represents the interests of 52 million Christians in the United States, the majority of them mainstream Protestants.”We are sometimes criticized by our member churches that we don’t do enough missionary work in the former Soviet Union,”Campbell said.”What people need to realize is that a Christian tradition has been established there for centuries. We need to respect that.” The Protestant hymn,”In Christ there is no East or West,”echoed in the chapel of NCC headquarters during the ecumenical service honoring the visiting patriarch. But the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western churches were starkly apparent, particularly in the participation of Campbell and other female ministers. Bartholomew’s Greek Orthodox Church does not ordain women.”Your church has been faithful to the ecumenical calling. It has not always been easy or smooth. But your witness to the eternal fundamental of the faith have helped keep us on the straight path,”Campbell told Bartholomew.

She was referring to a 1992 incident in which the Greek Orthodox Church withdrew from the NCC, protesting the position of more liberal member churches on homosexuality and abortion. After a brief absence, the Greek church rejoined the NCC, agreeing to continue talks on church unity, while disagreeing with other members on sensitive moral issues.”The ecumenical movement needs the Orthodox Church,”she continued,”and with both humility and in fear and trembling, I dare to suggest that the Orthodox Church needs the ecumenical movement. Only together, even with all our strain and struggle, can we be responsive to Jesus’ prayer that we might be one so that all the world might believe.” Bartholomew’s comments on ecumenism were more moderate than those he delivered earlier this week at Washington’s Georgetown University. There, in what was billed as a response to Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclicals and statements calling for Christian unity, Bartholomew seemed to retreat, stressing the uniqueness of Orthodoxy more than the common bonds that unite all Christians.

In New York, Bartholomew recalled a different encyclical _ one written in 1920 by a synod of Orthodox patriarchs _ as the paradigm of Christian unity.”Christian disunity is a sin against the icon of God’s love. Restoration of a visible unity among the communions must be centered upon Jesus Christ and rooted in the truth of the Apostolic faith,”he said.”We will not find unity in falsehood. We must not ignore the doctrinal and ethical issues that divide us.” Bartholomew’s American journey, which began Sunday (Oct. 19), has included visits to the White House and the U.S. Capitol, where he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In Baltimore, he met with Roman Catholic Cardinal William Keeler, before journeying to New York for a series of honors and banquets.

In Washington, Bartholomew also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum, describing the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews as an”icon of evil”and participated in the first-ever Muslim-Orthodox dialogue in the United States.

On Sunday, Orthodox Christians led by Bartholomew will gather for worship in New York’s famed Madison Square Garden. Other stops on the patriarch’s tour include Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Santa Barbara, Calif., Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. He returns to Istanbul on Nov. 17.

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