The Russian-language newspaper Izvestia published an interview of Sofia Devyatova with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilus III about the threats faced by Christians in the Holy Land, their attitude to vaccination and the prospects of Christian worship in Jerusalem this year.
– Your Beatitude, you recently spoke about the threats to the Christian presence in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land. How big is the danger of a change in property status? Can a compromise be found that satisfies all parties?
– Today we are facing a clear danger. Christians around the world need to be concerned about the situation of their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. The threat that we will be expelled is real. In recent decades, unfortunately, we have become accustomed to Israeli extremist groups seizing the property of Christian families and church institutions with dishonest methods. Today, their offensive threatens to go even further.
If these radical groups occupy the strategic sites of the Christian pilgrims at the Jaffa Gates, then even more Christians will leave Jerusalem, and millions of pilgrims around the world will not be able to make a full spiritual journey. In addition, the disappearance of the Christian community – a community that provides education, health care, humanitarian support for people of all faiths in the region – will have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable. It will also tragically tarnish Jerusalem’s reputation as the world’s religious capital.
Christians around the world are part of the Resurrection community. Those of us who worship at the site of Christ’s death and resurrection are bearers of this idea. That is why we strive to work together with our neighbors to find a solution that will protect the multi-religious and multicultural panel of the holy city.
– The Russian Orthodox Church often speaks out about the inadmissibility of manifestations of radicalism and bigotry in interreligious relations. Are we really entering a new era of confrontation and what do you think this has to do with?
– Unfortunately, we see how the number of people who suffer because of their religious beliefs increases with each passing year. More than 80% of those persecuted around the world are Christians. On the contrary, Jerusalem proves the possibility of religious harmony. We have lived with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors for many centuries. Our presence in the Old City does not raise questions either from the state, or from religious institutions, or from the vast majority of citizens who live in peace and prosperity.
Yet our future is threatened by small groups of well-funded Israeli extremists who are waging a grueling war against a defenseless community that seeks only to love and serve its neighbors. We are currently less than 1% of the population and our numbers are declining. The world must act until it is too late.
– In 2019, you met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He spoke on the topic of protecting Christians in a very difficult situation in connection with the events in the Middle East. The Russian leader then noted that it was extremely important to establish friendly relations with Muslim denominations. What can you say about working with the representatives of Islam in this direction?
– We must pay tribute to President Putin for his efforts to support the Christian community around the world. We are deeply enthusiastic and grateful for his support. You are also right to talk about the need for closer relations between Christians and Muslims. For our part, Christians are called by Jesus Christ to reach out to help everyone and to love their neighbors as themselves.
In Jerusalem, the churches have maintained good relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters for more than a thousand years. I meet regularly with Muslim leaders from the Holy Land and around the world. I am especially grateful for the friendship with His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan, who, as the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in the Holy Land, is tireless in his efforts to protect Christians here and throughout the Middle East. Without being conceited, I think we can teach the world how to build good relations between Muslims and Christians.
– How do you assess the situation of Christians in Kazakhstan against the background of mass protests, riots and the growth of radical sentiment in this country?
– The situation in Kazakhstan is of great concern to all of us. Jesus Christ taught His followers to pray and work for peace in Jerusalem. We call on Christians around the world to pray for peace in Kazakhstan and call on our brothers and sisters in Kazakhstan to do their utmost to achieve peace and reconciliation in that country.
– Three years ago, you proposed a meeting of the leaders of the Orthodox Churches on the issue of overcoming the schism caused by the issuance of the Tomos for Autocephaly of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine”. Is this way of solving the problem still possible? How do you assess the extent to which the schism has reached now?
– Few issues are comparable in importance to the issue of the unity of the Church. A few hours before His arrest, Jesus Christ was praying here in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. In these precious minutes, He prayed for His disciples, for the Church, and for all His followers. Above all, to be one.
In 2019, I was honored to receive from the hands of His Holiness Patriarch Cyril the Patriarch Alexy II Prize for my efforts to strengthen the unity of Orthodox peoples. Then I said that even the most cohesive families go through times of trials and conflicts. Like the early Church, our Orthodox Churches are blessed with the presence of patriarchs, archbishops and bishops, each of whom lives with the Church and is determined to lead a righteous life and guide others in different communities and in difficult times. No wonder conflicts arise.
I have long believed that communication provides the best solution to our biggest problems. In the Orthodox Churches, it is vital that we continue to meet with one another in the spirit of Christian love and brotherhood and to discuss issues that divide us all too easily. By living hospitably and sharing all we have, we invite the Holy Spirit to unite us. I was very excited about the leaders’ willingness to meet and I look forward to new opportunities to share my thoughts with them in the coming months.
– About the forthcoming meeting of Patriarch Cyril and Pope Francis: what issues do you think should be raised at it?
– I am glad that Patriarch Kirill is meeting with the Pope. From my own experience, I can say that meeting Pope Francis is always a great pleasure. He is an inspiring leader and faithful friend to many of us around the world. He is also a shining example of true Christian leadership in a diverse and divided world. I will pray that their meeting will be blessed and that its discussions will be fruitful. And we are also thrilled by the words of the Christmas message of Patriarch Cyril, which will certainly be heard again in his various meetings, that he supports us in the problems we face.
– The age of coronavirus has divided society into two parts on the issue of vaccination. From the point of view of the Church, how would you assess the actions of the opponents of vaccination, who have found followers and are persistently leading mass agitation?
– First, my job is to love people, not to judge them. Secondly, taking into account your previous questions, it is vital that we take people’s personal freedoms seriously. Third, I, like many other Christian leaders around the world, was happy to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. The vaccine is the answer to our prayers, and I thank God for this saving technology. It protects people from death and serious illness, it reduces the likelihood of infecting others. In short, vaccination is a very practical way to show love of neighbor.
– Can the worship be performed in a pandemic and what do you think it will be this year? How will Christendom celebrate Easter?
– The coronavirus pandemic has changed many things in our world. In the Holy Land, we mourn the lack of worshipers. It is our sacred duty to welcome people from all over the world to these holy places. This year we hope to welcome more pilgrims, but we still understand that the total number of guests will probably remain relatively modest.
I urge everyone to remember that worship can take place anywhere. There are so many journeys we can take: physically, spiritually, abroad, and within our own community. There are many places we can go and different kinds of experiences we can gain to get closer to Christ. On Easter we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, and on Pentecost we confess that He is present wherever there is a church community, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
That is why I call on all my brothers and sisters around the world to seek holy places in their own communities; to turn their cities and churches into a place of worship and once again to experience the boundless, infinite love of God, which becomes ours on Easter. If we can achieve this, I believe that the Holy Spirit will add Jesus Christ to our lives and our communities in a new way.
Translation: P. Gramatikov
Source: Izvestia newspaper