The interview with the Patriarch took place at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He was with a Jewish and an Arab friend.
What is your role of Patriarch?
The concept of Patriarch is associated with sacred history, the history of salvation that began in Mount Sinai and was crowned in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus and his crucifixion in Jerusalem. In other words the office of the Patriarch derives from sacred history, and the first Patriarch was Abraham. For the Jewish people the office of Patriarch does not sound strange.
Why do the Greek Orthodox have custody of the Holy Sites?
Because Christianity started from Jerusalem. It was under the Roman Imperial ruling. The Greeks and the Roman Empire were slowly Christianized by the Emperor Constantine the Great and the ‘lingua Franca’ became Greek. This is why when the Israelis dig in order to discover their roots they discover our roots, because all the inscriptions are in Greek. The whole landscape of the so called Byzantine Empire was originally Greco-Roman and not Byzantine. The whole landscape of the Middle East changed with the Arab presence. When the Arabs came to Jerusalem with Omar, the second successor of prophet Mohammed, in 638 AD the Byzantines lost the battle and only the church was left. Patriarch Sophronius, the spiritual and ethnic leader, signed an agreement with Omar.
And what about the Catholics?
The Catholics and the Protestants appeared here later, at the time of the separation in 1054.
All of a sudden the Latins emerge as a separate church and have claims on the Holy Land; and we have Crusaders and they took over the Church of Nativity. When they left the Pope wanted to keep a presence, but then there were Arab Mamalucks and Ottomans. Their first official presence came in the 14th century with the coming of the Franciscan Order. But the major Holy Places stayed under Orthodox control.
Today they are still under Orthodox control?
Yes, when the Ottoman conquest took place the Holy Places became of major diplomatic interest in international politics. The Ottomans were masters of diplomacy.
What happens today?
There is a great variety. The situation is complex because of Jerusalem and because of the Temple Mount.
But how are the relationships between the different religions?
They are excellent. There is full cooperation, but it is partnership not marriage.
What happened when Pope Benedict XVI came to Jerusalem?
We welcomed him as a brother, as a pilgrim. We made clear to the Pope that we want unity – but not in administrative terms. In terms of unity of faith. But I don’t think we have the same faith. We cannot accept the fact that someone is entitled to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth. It does not work for us.
Who is the Pope of the Orthodox?
Christ and the Patriarchs are autonomous.
What is your position in the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ difficult situation?
As everybody that lives here. We are a Church and therefore we are not involved in politics, but we are not indifferent. We do not discriminate against anyone. We are respected, and our mission for over 2,000 years is coexistence, reconciliation, peace. What is fundamental is that you have to love even your enemy. How can you love God who is invisible and don’t love your fellow that you have in front?
Do you think that there will be peace?
Of course we have to be optimistic. Every human being is a trauma and needs to be treated. In order to have a general peace you need first to have your inner peace.
How many Orthodox live in the Holy Land?
In the region more or less 200,000. We are more or less 200 priests and the Patriarch is the head of the Monastic Order and Pastor of the community.
The Orthodox church is recovering in former communist countries. How many pilgrims come to Jerusalem?
According to statistics the vast majority are Orthodox. Many of them are from Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans.
What do you think about the new Pope Francis?
I hope to meet him when he comes to Jerusalem. But it is clear that the only difference between the Catholic church and ours is the office of the Pope.
23rd October, 2013
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- Orthodox Christians Mark 1,700th Anniversary of Edict of Tolerance (blackchristiannews.com)