It was the African playwright, Wole Soyinka, who said that “what politics demonizes, culture humanizes”. In regions like the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe; which, with no doubt, have complicated sociopolitical particularities, politics are often overrun by cultural forces; and Religion always falls within the realm of culture. Since the dawn of human civilization, religion and politics are inextricably interwoven; with the religious leaders having often the last saying, due to the fact that they are holding an inter-temporal sociocultural power. Or, as prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic remarkably concludes on causalities in his ‘Quantum Buddhism’ manifesto: “reality must result from some elaborate interaction of consciousness with its environment”.
This is often so, especially in the Middle East, Euro-Mediterranean, South-Eastern Europe and of course in Greece – where religious politics were always playing a cardinal role in intra and inter-state affairs. A special case that deserves attention is the diplomatic role of the Greek Orthodox Church (GOC) as an interfaith mediator in the region through the course of history and in contemporary times.
Before getting to the merits, let me to clarify that when I refer to the GOC Christianity, I aim at the Greek Orthodoxy (GO) as a spiritual and cultural manifestation, which is channeled through Her various Institutions across Europe, the US, North Africa and the Middle East.
Among the most important and most influential of those institutions are the three Eastern Patriarchates (Jerusalem, Alexandria and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) and the Monastic communities of Mount Athos, of St. Aikaterini in Sinai and of Jerusalem.
Those institutions have been highly influential throughout the centuries and shaped the face of today’s GO. They survived and upheld the Greek Orthodox traditions and values for centuries, in places seemingly alien or even hostile to religious pluralism. Despite all odds, and despite the ever shifting geo political circumstances, the GO managed to secure the respect and the acceptance of different faith traditions, and was therefore able to broker numerous political deals employing interfaith dialogue as a diplomatic tool.
The GOC was forced to develop and perfect interfaith dialogue as means of communication with Her friends and enemies. It was necessary for Her survival.
The skills and channels established through centuries remain useful until this day and can be used to shape and transform the political landscape in Middle East and Europe.
During my research, I came to the conclusion that the GO bares several characteristics of a successful international mediator. I identified five of those characteristics that I would like to share with you.
The first characteristic is legitimacy. Legitimacy is crucial for a mediator, because it helps him to be accepted as such by the conflicting parties. The GOC derives Her legitimacy from her familiarity with the respective cultures and from her knowledge of the political and social dynamics of the countries where she resides. Let me explain.
Every political negotiation is necessarily a cultural event, and as such it always bears the self-evident, commonsense perceptions that people have about their world and about themselves. Therefore a conflict situation or a negotiation is driven and defined by the by sociocultural identities; which, those who participate in the conflict or a negation, construct. The Understanding of how these identities are formed is essential for conducting a conflict transformation process.
The GOC has a broad understanding of the national and regional history and culture and more importantly of the negotiating language of the respective societies. This is only possible because the GO is in an underlying relationship with the different faith traditions and sociocultural identities, especially due to Her longstanding, respectful and discrete presence in the societies in which She is imbedded. Hence, She is considered as a legitimate intermediary, when she acts within the realm of interfaith diplomacy.
The element of legitimacy consequently, functions as the source of trust building, which is another essential feature of the GOC as an interfaith mediator. Without trust the GOC could never be accepted by the conflicting parties as mediator, and trust is not established over months, it needs centuries to grow and manifest. Trust is the key to the GOC diplomatic power.
Furthermore the GOC presents itself and is perceived as neutral and impartial; that is because the Orthodoxy’s survival largely depended and depends in the maintenance of a certain status quo; hence, the GCO has developed as a neutral observer and impartial interlocutor.
Another aspect of the diplomatic power of the GOC is Her ability to advance the political standing of others (a good example for that is the use of Athonite Monks in the last election campaign of V. Putin, who utilized them, in order to appeal to the religious and ethno-nationalistic sentiment of the voters.)
Furthermore the GO also possesses a wide network of contacts: mainly through the Diaspora and the respected Metropolises. That is why She can easily serve as a “back channel” for state officials, especially when the political relations are burdened with problems.
In order to understand the GOC’s role as an interfaith mediator, I believe it is necessary to see the history of the GOC’s engagement in interfaith diplomacy. There are many countries in which the GOC played an influencing mediating role. I would like to illustrate some of the most prominent examples.
In recent modern history the GOC played an essential role during the Cold War. To begin with, She was promoted by the Western states as a cultural and spiritual counterweight to the Soviet Union and the Russian Orthodoxy. Indicative of the GO’s influential position, is the fact that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox post-Soviet states chose to submit to the spiritual leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; not the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was important, for those states and for their western interlocutors, that they cut the cord from the ROC and the Soviet politics.
The GOC was an actor of diplomacy that could achieve both pulling those nations towards Europe, and keeping the ROC from moves that could further regional tensions. That was in particular the case, because the GOC had close ties and positive history of cooperation with the Churches of Western Christianity (let s not forget that the GOC was founding member of the World Church Council and passionate advocate of the Ecumenical Movement); while, Mount Athos, on the other hand, had good communication channels with the Russian Religious and political leadership.
These same properties of GO interfaith diplomacy have the potential of playing a positive role towards the stabilization of the current overwrought diplomatic relations between Russia, Ukraine, EU and US.
Another example of GO interfaith diplomacy is Egypt. The monastic community of St. Aikaterini in Sinai, along with the Patriarchate of Alexandria, has been playing for centuries the role of mediator in intra-state conflicts between the Muslim and Coptic communities. That is because GO is considered as legitimate and trusted facilitator, due to the fact that the Egyptian people recognize the GO as part of their history and culture. For example, during periods of peace, the Greek community in Egypt was fasting along with the Muslims during Ramadan. At the same time, Mount Sinai is protected in times of turmoil by local nomads. The mediating legitimacy of the GOC remains strong in Egypt; even after the recent revolution and the continuous changes of regimes.
One of the biggest bearers of the GO interfaith diplomacy potential in the Middle East is the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Patriarchate has upheld the Greek Orthodox character for over 1700 years. It is one of the most accepted mediators in the Jew-Arab conflicts, not only because it bears moral legitimacy and neutrality; But because it is one of the biggest owners of land across Jerusalem. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians prefer the Patriarchate to own the land, than to fight over it between each other, allowing it to be an equalizing power in the region.
Besides any material leverage, it is of crucial importance to illustrate further reasons why the GO is considered as a legitimate, credible and impartial interfaith mediator in the Middle East in general. First, the GO has a positive place in the collective unconscious of the people in the Middle East, regardless of faith; because the GOC never participated in Crusades and because the Greek state was never a colonial power.
Furthermore, the Arab-Muslim world views the GO as part of their glorious Golden Age; She participated in and witnessed the development of the Arabic culture, especially through the preservation and advancement of the ancient Greek philosophy and science. As a matter of fact, the majority of the Church reconstruction works across Middle East and North Africa are largely funded by Arab Royal Families. And interestingly enough, in the beginning of the Greek financial crisis, the first move of the GOC was to travel in Qatar and negotiate Arab investments to the ravaged Greek economy. This shows how deep the understanding and mutual respect between the two cultures and faith traditions is and how good of a political network the GOC has in the Muslim world.
The Jewish people on the other hand have always been in a positive and productive cultural dialogue with the Greek civilization throughout centuries. Moreover, even when the global public opinion towards Israel was not favorable, the Greek state’s diplomatic approach towards the Jewish state never changed; thus, creating a sense of trust between Israel and the GO.
Last but not least, I would like to make a special reference to the case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and its role in the relations between Turkey, Europe and Greece. One would expect the Patriarchate to act as a major facilitator of communications between the Turks and the Greeks, for the purposes of constructive conflict management and reconciliation of the peoples; however, historically the Patriarchate has demonstrated neutrality and a position of passive observation!
Nonetheless, thanks to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the great diplomatic cooperation that had developed with the Turkish government throughout centuries, Turkey permitted the reopening of several GO monasteries in her territory. This facilitates the proliferation of GO pilgrims that besides the boosting of local Turkish economies, also contributes to the interaction with the local populations and enables the building cultural bridges and hopefully an even greater understanding of the two nations.
Moreover, the Ecumenical Patriarchate acts consistently as Diplomatic organ of the Turkish Foreign Policy. For instance, it is the main religious mediator in Brussels promoting the European future of Turkey; also, having in mind as well, the advancement of its own legal status within the EU. In conclusio it is legitimate to say that the Ec. Patriarchate promotes a positive view of Turkey and the Islam in Europe.
As illustrated throughout all the references of interreligious activities of the GO, it appears that there is huge potential of the GO in international diplomatic affairs. Unfortunately the Greek state is not being consistent regarding the strategic approach towards the GO outside its borders. That is because there were always more urgent political issues to devote her political attention. It is, however, shortsighted, as the GO, through her interfaith and interstate diplomatic network, can give Greece a strategic advantage in international diplomacy. It would be wise for the present and the upcoming governments to finally develop a consistent- long term policy regarding the GO, that it is not conceptualized only for the next years but at least the next decades to come.
*This text is based on a speech given at the conference organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), on the occasion of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, 06 February 2015, UN Vienna, Austria.