Recent Patriarchal Encyclicals on Religious Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence

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In recent times more and more is said about globalization, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and dialogue among the world religions. The Orthodox Church, through the patriarchal encyclicals, has voiced its concern and advocacy for the amelioration of the human condition and the role of religion in enabling people to reconcile and live in peace. This can be most effectively achieved through dialogue that engages religious people of good will, who are faithful to God's message of peace and love among all people.

Historically, Orthodox Christianity has promoted dialogue and religious tolerance among all peoples. Though dialogue between Judaism and Islam occasionally took place, often there were polemics and violence between Christianity and the other two religions. There is evidence of dialogue and peaceful coexistence among these religions. (1) Particularly interesting is the Orthodox tradition of religious tolerance. The case in point is Patriarch Metrophanes III of Constantinople, who issued a sharp condemnation of the maltreatment of the Jews in Crete in an encyclical written in 1568. In part it stated: "Injustice, therefore, and slander, regardless whomever acted upon or performed against, is still injustice. The unjust person is never relieved of responsibility for these acts under the pretext that the injustice is done against a heterodox and not to a believer." (2) This tradition has been continued by the Orthodox Church and especially by the present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

I will present several excerpts from the encyclicals of Patriarch Bartholomew to illustrate the concern of Orthodox for peaceful coexistence, especially among the monotheistic religions--that is, the "children of Abraham." Patriarch Bartholomew was one of the signers of "The Bosporus Declaration" in Istanbul, Turkey, February 9, 1994, at a conference on "Peace and Tolerance," sponsored by the Appeal of Conscience based in New York. Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic representatives also signed this declaration.

The declaration emphatically stated: "We stand firmly against those who violate the sanctity of human life and pursue policies in defiance of moral values. We reject the concept that it is possible to justify one's actions in any armed conflicts in the name of God." Further, "We totally condemn those who commit brutalities, killings, rapes, mutilations, forcible displacement, and inhuman beatings." In addition, the declaration called upon all people of goodwill to recognize and allow others the right to practice their religion. The participants at this conference "agreed unanimously to utterly condemn war and armed conflict ... to demand initiation of constructive dialogue to solve outstanding issues between those of different faiths; and to demand the right to practice one's religion in freedom and with dignity." This declaration is in perfect harmony with the Orthodox theological tradition. The Bosporus Declaration also condemned ethnic cleansing and violence in the name of religion--such as has taken place in Yugoslavia, Caucasus, and other areas of the world. (3)

In addition, Bartholomew addressed the Bosporus Conference to condemn ultra-ethnicism and ultra-nationalism:

The Holy Orthodox Church has searched long for a language with which to address nationalism, amid the strife and havoc this new ideology created in the Orthodox lands of the Eastern Empire for much of the nineteenth century. In 1872 a Great Synod, held in our Patriarchal Cathedral at the Phanar, in the name of the Prince of Peace, issued an unqualified condemnation of the sin of phyletism, saying, "We renounce, censure, and condemn racism, that is, social discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds, and dissensions within the Church of Christ." (4)

In the same address Bartholomew stated the most fundamental basis for universal human equality: "Man was created in the image and likeness of God--and there can be no different standard of treatment for those human beings who happen to be in Asia, another for Africans, and yet another for Europeans. …