Speech by His Eminence Metropolitan Cleopas of Sweden
At the Rome International Conference
on the Responsibility of States,
Institutions and Individuals in the Fight against Anti-Semitism in the OSCE
Organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy
Rome, Monday, January 29, 2018
Honorable Rabbis and Imams,
Panel Speakers and Moderators,
Allow me to begin by conveying the blessings and greetings of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians – to all those in attendance here today, and to congratulate the organizers of this worthy event for their commendable initiative to convene an international conference on the responsibility of states, institutions and individuals in the fight against anti-Semitism.
The timing for today’s conference is fitting, since it nearly coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is commemorated on January 27th. For the victims of unspeakable acts of atrocity against the human race, like the Shoah, or genocides – many of which marred the twentieth century, directed against various people or religious groups – the unspeakable suffering, unfathomable degree of destruction, and painful memories have accompanied entire generations, shaping their worldviews, perspectives, and sense of identity.
However, as has been so accurately noted during the commemorations and tributes dedicated to the memories of the countless victims of these heinous acts, “Denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonize victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide. It is what Elie Wiesel has called a ‘double killing.’ Denial murders the dignity of survivors and seeks to destroy remembrance of the crime.”
This is why it is just and most appropriate to continually seek to reaffirm the historical truth depicted in these darkest pages in the common history of humanity and maintain ongoing discourse regarding it. In doing so, we ensure that the lives of the victims were not lost in vain, but that, out of these most infamous and inhuman of actions, today’s citizens of the world – whether direct descendants of those unjustly slain victims or not – may authentically identify with them and develop the reflexes, mindset, mechanisms, and alliances necessary to ensure that the barbaric acts of the past are never again repeated.
Human history has repeatedly proven that along with all the effort, cooperation, and intelligence, needed to discover and institute some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and legacies, just as much – if not more – of the aforementioned qualities are needed to maintain the genuineness of our spiritual, social, and cultural inheritance.
As an example, I will point to our prized polity – democracy. The rights and freedoms it guarantees have, in some instances, been manipulated and turned into means to advance competing, and certainly hostile forms of government, such as fascism. Nonetheless, just because the means provided by democracy happened to have been misused, this in no way diminishes the importance of our treasured system of government or our commitment to it. The same could be said of religion.
Historically, there have been individuals who have misused religious rhetoric to promote hate and intolerance, instead of love, peace, acceptance, and unity. As stewards of the treasures of religion and faith, it is, then, our duty and obligation to work together to educate society on how to discern whether this treasure is being used appropriately.
As people of faith, we pray for the innocent victims of the Nazi atrocities during World War II, and especially the children of Israel, who endured all the horrors of racism and prejudice directed against an entire people and an entire religion.
We pray for the repose of the souls of all those who perished in concentration camps, because we believe that, as is stated in the Old Testament book of the Wisdom of Solomon, “the souls of the just are in the hand of God and the righteous shall live unto the ages.”
Sometimes, I ask myself whether the despondence and pity we feel over the Holocaust, genocides, or continuing acts of racism, such as anti-Semitic violence that exists even up until today, should be directed towards the victims or the perpetrators of these acts, who betrayed their humanity and chose to demonstrate the full force of their power against people who led peaceful lives and did not harm anyone.
I believe that we should pity and weep for the latter as well, because they are deserving of the global condemnation they are receiving, having proven that when a person holds no values and believes in nothing, that person can become fiercer than the most savage of beasts, and when given the opportunity, can display this savageness against those who he believes to be weak.
While the faiths to which each of us may ascribe possess their own distinct doctrinal differences, manners of worship, rites and traditions, we are all united by the shared roots of our Abrahamic religions, because we can all trace our path back centuries ago to the common inspiration we received to believe in the One, True God.
Speaking as an Orthodox Christian, it is plainly evident from our services, traditions, and teachings, that the Jewish religion serves as the basis and root of our faith. And for all the believers of the Abrahamic religions, I would say that it is our faiths that have always distinguished us and served as our foundation, helping us to get back on our feet in the wake of catastrophes and to deal with the challenges set before us. And so, as in the case of our Jewish brethren, religion may have been the cause of their persecution at the hands of the Nazis, but it was also the cause of their rebirth and remarkable rise to a modern nation state, which today plays a leading role in the international community.
And as I mentioned earlier, religion – and its appropriate application – is a matter of discernment. For example, Hitler ranks among those individuals who sought to reform Christianity in accordance with his political beliefs. It is widely known that he had sought – in accordance with the official ideology of national socialism at that time – the complete rejection of the Old Testament. But like all those who would attempt to adulterate the timeless truths of religious wisdom – and its offspring, faith, hope, and love – these attempts, no matter how diabolical, are rejected and their mendacity revealed when tested against the touchstone of the genuine expression of the truth which is inscribed in our consciences.
As an example, I humbly cite the paradigm of the Orthodox Church in Greece during World War II, where prelates, public officials, and everyday laypersons worked together and laid their lives on the line to save thousands of their Jewish neighbors. I would like to take this opportunity to share a few sterling examples of Christian love, heroism, and fraternity exhibited by an impoverished people who were themselves under Nazi occupation and dying of starvation.
I begin by citing the example of Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, whom Divine Providence ordained to shepherd the people of Greece’s capital city during those difficult years. Archbishop Damaskinos was afforded the title of Yad Vashem or “Righteous among the Nations” by the Jewish State. According to his biography in The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, upon hearing news of the deportation of Jews from occupied Greece to concentration camps in Germany, Archbishop Damaskinos summoned an urgent meeting of all the leaders of prominent associations and organizations in Athens, and dramatically reported to them about the severe situation and tragedy of ‘Our Jewish Brothers.’” He openly intervened with government leaders and Nazi occupying forces to protest this action and “with his position of high rank, he was able to influence the clergy on all levels of the church hierarchy to extend help to the persecuted Jews.
Through his secretary, Yiannis Yiorgakis, Damaskinos suggested that all the priests should extend aid to the Jews and that the convents should be opened to all those who would wish to hide there. Archbishop Damaskinos met with Panos Haldezos, the director general of the Athens municipality. He informed him: «I have made my cross, have spoken with God, and decided to save as many Jewish souls as I can. Even if I were to endanger myself, I will ‘baptize’ the Jews, and you will issue municipal documents, so that they obtain identity cards, as Christian Greeks.» With the cooperation of Angelos Evert, the chief of the Athens police, thousands of identity cards in Greek names were issued to protect all those in hiding and help others escape.”
Let me point out that Archishop Damaskinos’ heroism can simply be attributed to him faithfully carrying out his duty as a Christian and a prelate. He did precisely what our religion prescribes, demonstrating that love is the greatest of all virtues, as Jesus Christ teaches in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and as St. Paul the Apostle eloquently states in the 13th chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. His example was emulated by other hierarchs in Greece, such as Gregory of Halkida, Joachim of Demetrias, and Gennadios of Thessaloniki.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece estimates that hundreds of Jews in Athens were saved through the false identity cards and non-existent baptisms attested to by the Archbishop. Altogether, according to Yitzchak Kerem, of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, over 10,000 Greek Jews were rescued in the Holocaust, while Estimates of potential Righteous Gentiles from Greece number as high as 40,000. Many Jews in Greece fleeing Nazi persecution were saved by several different people and often had to switch hiding places.
The Archbishop’s work on behalf of his fellow men and women and the underground resistance being waged by the Greek people was so great that it caused the wrath and hatred of the occupying forces and the SS to be directed against him, placing his life at risk. When friends and confidants suggested that he flee abroad, Damaskinos replied “I place myself at the service of the Nation and I shall never abandon my people.” When he was placed under house arrest by the Nazis and arrangements for his transport to a concentration camp were being made, high ranking public officials tried to engineer his escape. He replied “when the heart of the Greek resistance is being taken to concentration camps, how can I, an Archpastor, agree to flee and not share in their fate?” When the Nazi overseer of the Greek puppet government Altenburg threatened to have Damaskinos shot if he would undertake the role of leader of the Greek resistance, the Archbishop calmly but bravely replied “Greek Prelates don’t get shot. They get hung.”
Allow me to share one more brief anecdote with you from the same time period, which is an equally fitting and characteristic representation of the Christian view of man as the image of God and as a child of God, regardless of race or creed. Instead of Athens, the setting will be the island of Zakynthos, in the Ionian Sea.
It was there that the head of the Gestapo summoned the Metropolitan of the island, Chrysostomos Demetriou, to his office, giving him an ultimatum to compile and hand over a list with the names of all the Jews living on the island in two days’ time. There were 275 Jewish soles living on the island at that time. When the ultimatum had expired, two men walked up the stairs of the German headquarters. One was the Metropolitan and the other was the Mayor of Zakynthos, Lucas Karer. As the Nazi commander opened the envelope they handed him, expecting to find the list he had ordered compiled, he was shocked to find only two names written: Metropolitan Chrysostomos and Mayor Lucas Karer! As far as I know, this unique form of resistance is the lone documented instance of its kind in occupied Europe.
And I don’t say these things to you in order to boast or in search of a pat on the back. I say them because they are true. Just as it is true that in today’s day and age, if we are still using the word “tolerance” towards people who are different than us, whether in terms of nationality, religion, or any other demographic category, we are missing the mark.
It is an affront to human dignity to speak of tolerance. Instead, we should be speaking of love, acceptance, and solidarity. Unfortunately, hate, intolerance, and selfishness are deeply rooted in our world and the struggle needed to overcome and uproot them from our society is a long and tedious one, and requires synergy, a united front, collective action, and a shared commitment. That is why conferences like these and initiative undertaken by religious, political, and social leaders towards this end are so necessary in helping transform our society and build a brighter future.
Even though the specter of the Holocaust continues to cast an ominous shadow over our world, even up until the present day, communities all over the world are still experiencing persecution. Christianity is experiencing a new wave of martyrdom. The threat of terrorism strikes fear into the citizens of every city in the world and there are other totalitarian assaults being unleashed against people – maybe not in the form of gas chambers and concentration camps, but through other means, like economic occupation and forced impoverishment of entire people.
Earlier this month, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his concern over the reappearance of fascism and the spreading of neo-Nazi movements across today’s world. In a message delivered to an audience in Thessaloniki during the presentation of a book by Georgios Pilichos entitled Aushwitz: Greeks – Death Row Number, His All-Holiness noted that “Auschwitz is proof of the point of destruction and violence that man is capable of reaching when he succumbs to brainwashing and hate speech, when his emotions are deadened, and his creative energies drained. The image that we hold of man dictates our behavior towards him. Violence is first begotten in the mind and heart before it is expressed through action…It is disappointing that although the year 2018 marks 70 years from the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which expresses the disdain of the global community over the inhumanity of all-out war and the horror of the Holocaust, and proclaims the fundamental values and universal ideals which all the people and nations of the world ought to respect and promote, today, intentional misinterpretations, breaches of the Declaration, and abuse of human rights for political purposes are undercutting the respect for these ideals and their realization.”
Elsewhere, the senior-most Prelate of the Orthodox Church notes that “all of us as individuals, people, nations, international organizations, the citizens of the world, humanitarian movements, religions, and the Church must strive for peace and justice, for the respect of freedom and human dignity, so that humanity may never again witness a new Holocaust. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is striving for love to prevail over hatred. It is striving for peace and reconciliation, cooperation among religions, the preservation of mankind and creation. Our Christian faith is an embankment against the current of the objectification of man – “God’s beloved creation” – and the denial of the sanctity of the human person, for according to St. Nicholas Kavasilas, ‘nothing is as sacred as man, who shares in the nature of God.’”
As he concludes his message, Patriarch Bartholomew points out that “we reject the ideas and ideologies which feed and favor the self-deification of man and the securing of power through force, racism, and the transformation of man into a number, a faceless being, quantifiable sum, and exploitable object. We express our indignation and disappointment over the reappearance and spreading of neo-Nazi tendencies and movements in today’s world. We ceaselessly entreat the all-merciful God to protect humanity from witnessing and experiencing a new wave of inhumanity both now and in the future. We pray for the repose of the souls of the victims of this unprecedented savagery, the harmless children, the countless innocent men and women, the unblemished people with special needs, and all those who were wiped out based on their origin, religion, culture, political beliefs, or mental and physical condition. … In accordance with our faith, the final victory belongs to God, to the eschatological Kingdom of Truth and Light, where ‘the righteous will shine like the sun.’ (Matthew 13:43).”
I had the privilege and honor of accompanying His All-Holiness to Jerusalem last month, where he received an Honorary Doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in recognition of his contribution to promoting interreligious dialogue between the two monotheistic religions.
As I conclude my speech, I would like to share the following words by His All-Holiness during the conferral of this degree, which deeply moved the audience members and myself, and which I hold as a guiding principle in my ministry. “In the last decades, we have witnessed a re-evaluation of the role of religion in the public sphere and its contribution to face the major challenges of today. Religions have preserved high values, precious spiritual and moral heritage, as well as deep anthropological knowledge… Unfortunately, the ongoing outburst of religious fundamentalism and the terrible acts of violence in the name of religion provide additional arguments against faith to the modern critiques of religion, and support the identification of religion with its negative aspects. The truth is that violence is the negation of fundamental religious beliefs and doctrine.”
He concluded his address by saying: “Concerning the question of whether or not humanity is allowed to expect such an important contribution from the side of religion, we provide the following answer, with which we conclude our speech: Our biggest mistake is not the fact that we expect so much from religion, but rather, that we don’t expect even more from this great spiritual power— deeply rooted in the human soul— on matters concerning peace, solidarity, the meaning of life, and the eternal destination of the human being and creation.”
Dearly Beloved all of you, having gathered today to reaffirm our commitment to work together to face the challenges arising from the memories and experiences and testimonies of the victims of violence, the suffering, fear, and terror, the hardness of heart that has characterized members of the human race, and the countless humiliations, unbearable torture, and violent deaths resulting from it, we are reminded of just how low humanity can sink and how prone it is to barbarism. However, at the same time, the love, humanity, acceptance, and solidarity that have been demonstrated by people from all walks of life in support of these victims – those same qualities that we can cultivate and multiply through our collaborative effort – reveal that even in the sea and abyss of barbarism, fascism, and extremism, the grandeur of the soul and its dignity can remain intact, along with the spirit of love for our fellow men, mercy, self-sacrifice, the strength of resistance against evil, and the struggle for justice.
On our behalf, the feeling of the Orthodox Church is that based on its very nature and mission, as defined by its Founder Jesus Christ, it ought to serve as a haven for members and non-members alike, as well as a herald ringing forth the message of humanitarianism and love for all our brothers and sisters, regardless of nationality or religion.
We stand together with you in this common cause. The modern age has been marked by persecution, uprooting, wars, racial segregation, exploitation of one group of people by another, the commercialization of the human person, and pain. Let all join together, then, to fight for a society of love, justice, equality, freedom, respect for humanity – which was created in the image of God –, restoring the religious and cultural values of our inheritance and building a more caring world: a world worthy of the priceless treasure that is human life.
Metropolis Of Sweden