Berlin Conference Opens: Segregation, Walls, Hope

Today is the beginning of a two-day intensive look into the issue of Religious Freedom for all minorities in Turkey. As I review the list of speakers, I must say I am more impressed than ever with the effort of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and thankful that OCN has been invited here to cover this second conference.

You will soon be able to read or watch full-length coverage of the remarkable conference speakers on the Archons website. Here on the OCN site, I will be offering impressions and reflections on the conference as it is happening. In addition, I will be interviewing various speakers and attendants at the conference, and these videos will soon be available here on our site. Interview guests will include William J. Antholis, Mine Yildirim, Emre Oktem who will be moderating a Panel Discussion, Dilek Kurban, and Jay and Jordan Sekulow. In addition, we will interview long-time friend and frequent guest of OCN, Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou.

Translation booths at the conference

There were several striking moments during this first day of the conference. I will share a few of them with you here.

The conference chairman, George Rockas, brought the issue of religious freedom immediately into focus in his powerful opening remarks. He noted that what we are witnessing today is a religion-based apartheid in Turkey. In South Africa, we know people were coded as “colored” and “white” people. One can now clearly state that a similar system exists in the country of Turkey, where the government codes people according to their ethnic and/or religious background, as  Greek Orthodox, Syriac, etc.

Mr. Rockas reported that although the Turkish government claims to be a model of freedom and democracy in the Islamic world, nothing could be further from the truth. No world society should allow or accept a religious apartheid, he said. Many walls have been constructed throughout history to protect the people in a society from outside forces, but many barriers also have been created to keep those inside the walls from learning of the good things and freedoms that exist outside the walls. Both types of existence are unacceptable.

Archon Commander Dr. Anthony Limberakis then addressed the conference with a spirited and heart-felt opening, which I encourage you to read on the Archon website. Drawing our attention to the historic city outside our windows, he reminded us that this is a time for the walls of separation and division to be torn down. Hope triumphed over hatred in Berlin. Walls of religious intolerance can and should be brought down. Further, he stated that tolerance and mutual respect for all minorities is in the best interests of a solid and growing Turkish state. Speaking for all of us, he noted that the spirit of the conference is a constructive one: we have not come here to criticize, but to critique what is happening and work out what is right to do.

Reminding us again of the stark lessons of history, Dr. Limberakis proclaimed that walls are not a permanent solution. They always separate people into ghettos. People who are different from us or who worship differently are not a threat to us unless we let them be. A religion that teaches the annihilation of another is no religion at all. This type of wall only works for time. A state-sponsored segration has never really worked. Our constructive criticism is not offered in a vacuum, but rather in the shadows of the reality of the context in which the Ecumenical Patarichate finds itself existing in ancient Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Limberakis stated that the walls of religious persecution need to come down and new bridges of understanding and tolerance need to be built. He then introduced a video message from His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. While His All Holiness was addressing the group, we could hear the call to prayer from the local mosque in the background, reminding us all just where the Patriarchate is located and under what shadow it exists.

Patriarch Bartholomew speaking via video from the Phanar

His Eminence Metropolitan Augoustinos of Germany gave a heartfelt welcome as the host hierarch and encouraged all to listen carefully and fully participate. His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel, Director of The Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union, then addressed the conference, reminding us of what was accomplished at the last Religious Freedom Conference in Belgium and what more we need to do. He stated clearly freedom of religion is a fundamental right of every living person.

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America was the next speaker. His address was very powerful to all present. His Eminence always has a way of framing subjects which allows the listener to better comprehend difficult and complex issues. Be sure to read his message.

Andrew A. Manatos, Washington Regional Commander, Order of St. Andrew, Coordinator of Washington Religious Freedom Initiatives was then introduced to speak. He and members of his family have been serving in various positions and offering expertise to the church for decades.

He attempted to frame for us just how difficult it is to make an impact in Washington, DC.  Andrew stated that 25,000 written communications are received each week by each Senator. It is not an easy task to bring issues to light, but none the less, we are here to do this and have made great strides in the later years and especially now with Archbishop Demetrios and the friendships and respect he has received from Presidents Bush and Obama.

The subject of the Freedom of the Ecumenical is something that is taken very seriously in Washington today. It was not always this way. Through the efforts of many, it is now more of an issue than ever before.

Hillary Clinton's speaking at the conference via video

He then introduced Hon. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State, United States Senator from New York and First Lady of the United States, and a true friend to the Phanar. She has played a very important role in having then President Bill Clinton the first sitting President visit the Ecumenical Patriarch and the efforts to open the Theological School of Halki.

Another wonderful speaker was Dr. William J. Antholis, Managing Director, Senior Fellow, Goverance Studies, Brookings Institute, Washington, DC. His address cannot be summarized with justice, but perhaps the most powerful point he made was that hope is not a strategy in the real world. This is a call to action.

At the end of this amazing day, my mind and heart are full of the things I have heard and seen. The entire day was tremendous, the speeches and interchanges I heard were enlightening. If I were to express it all in a single sentence, it would be this: We all have the right to live in a free society that allows us to worship God, the One who created freedom in us.

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