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Halki Summit highlights care for creation amid pandemic

  • 18 February 2021
  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.

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