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Halki Summit highlights care for creation amid pandemic



The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked difficult questions about the links between the simultaneous health and ecological crises. How has environmental vandalism contributed to the spread of zoonotic disease? How will the pandemic affect our collective response to climate change and biodiversity loss? These issues were examined in late January at the virtual Halki Summit, the latest in a long series of environment-focused events convened by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch is the ‘first among equals’ of Orthodox bishops. Halki, or Heybeliada, is the island near Istanbul where previous summits were hosted.

Main image: His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Centre for American Progress/Flickr)

In recent years, environmental protection has become increasingly pronounced in Orthodox Church teaching. The Moscow Patriarchate’s 2000 document on ‘The Bases of the Social Concept’ affirms that ‘ecological problems are essentially anthropological as they are generated by man, not nature’. The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s 2020 ‘social ethos’ document, ‘For the Life of the World’, states that ‘our ecological crisis must be seen not merely as an ethical dilemma; it is an ontological and theological issue that demands a radical change of mind and a new way of being’.

The same document acknowledges climate change as ‘an issue of social welfare and social justice’, given its disproportionate impacts on the already disadvantaged. It argues that ‘our pursuit of alternative sources of energy and our efforts to reduce our impact on the planet as much as possible are now necessary expressions of our vocation to transfigure the world’.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate hosted a series of meetings on the environment in the late eighties and early nineties (interestingly, in parallel to the intergovernmental negotiations of that time). In 1989, Patriarch Bartholomew’s predecessor, Demetrios, declared 1 September a day of prayer for the environment — a practice adopted by Pope Francis in 2015.

Since beginning his patriarchate in 1991, Bartholomew has consistently advocated for environmental protection. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis wrote that ‘Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms’.

In opening the summit, Bartholomew explained that due to the impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives, ‘we wanted to dedicate a series of discussions to the relationship and connections between the pandemic and climate change’. Bartholomew noted that ‘humanity’s persistent and excessive “intrusion” into nature’ had been ‘responsible for the quick spread of contagious diseases and viruses from animal to animal, including man’. He concluded that the ‘pandemic is not an act of “revenge” by God, but it is a desperate call to a much more respectful approach to nature by all of us’.

The question of COVID’s relationship with environmental degradation was pursued from several perspectives. Dr Gayle Woloschak, Northwestern University professor of radiation oncology, noted that while in the past most zoonotic viral infections came from domestic animals, now they come from wild animals. Epidemiologist Dr Nadia Abuelezam highlighted the links between infectious diseases and ‘breakdowns’ in ecological systems such as deforestation, concluding that ‘all of these ecologies are interconnected’. Theologian Metropolitan John Zizioulas asked the question ‘What about after the vaccine?’, and called for a ‘healthy relationship with nature’, based on an ethos that ‘nature is not our property’, to prevent recurring catastrophes.


'These interventions remind us that dealing with the climate emergency is not some technocratic exercise, but rather a profound and unavoidable question of justice.'


Regarding global cooperation on climate change and related challenges, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University argued that ‘we are in the midst of a fundamental change of values from the wealth of nations to the wellbeing of nations’, drawing a connection between the teachings of various faiths and ‘global value change’. Stressing the practical opportunities for green economic transition and noting the series of major environmental summits coming up, Sachs claimed that 2021 ‘can be a great turning point, because the values of protecting creation have spread’. Theologian Fr. John Chryssavgis responded that the Vatican and Ecumenical Patriarch are ‘working closely together’ to champion these issues at the Glasgow climate conference scheduled for November 2021.

The dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has come a long way since the mutual lifting of anathemas by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in 1965. Deepening cooperation on the ecological crisis may be a key opportunity to further strengthen ties, in Pope Francis’ words, ‘by walking together’.

Those of us who work on secular processes to address climate change should welcome the contributions of religious leaders, and indeed of other thinkers concerned with ethics. These interventions remind us that dealing with the climate emergency is not some technocratic exercise, but rather a profound and unavoidable question of justice. Also, the actions and advocacy of civil society — including religious organisations — can contribute to a groundswell of momentum for more ambitious climate agreements, as before the 2015 Paris conference.



Stephen MinasStephen Minas is associate professor of law at Peking University and senior research fellow at the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London, where Stephen completed a PhD in law. Stephen has worked on climate issues in various capacities in domestic and international processes. He is an alumnus of Newman College.

Main image: His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Centre for American Progress/Flickr)

Topic tags: Stephen Minas, COVID-19, climate crisis, Halki Summit, Orthodox, Ecumenical Patriarchate



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Existing comments

It is refreshing to see the Church of East and West focusing on these issues. It will be sharing issues such as these that will help bring East and West together rather than focusing on dogmatic and doctrinal issues. I commend both His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch and His Holiness Pope Francis for this joint focus, so important for the future of our planet. It is also a deeply theological issue which East and West can share.

Thomas Amory | 18 February 2021  

It is interesting that the celebrated Theological school on Halki, which produced quite a few patriarchs, has been and remains shut, courtesy of the Turkish government. Orthodoxy's foothold in its former major centre is fast eroding, as is Christianity in the Levant. Anything good and universal coming out of Halki in these parlous times is wonderful. A bit like Noah sending out the dove.

Edward Fido | 21 February 2021