The Dallas Morning News - November 6, 1997

Patriarch gets Dallas welcome

Eastern Orthodox leader extols faith in whirlwind visit

By Deborah Kovach Caldwell

Eastern Orthodoxy's top spiritual leader, flanked by an entourage of black-robed and bearded bishops, spent Wednesday in Dallas in a whirlwind of photo opportunities, handshakes, banquet meals and gift exchanges. Along the way, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople delivered a speech at Southern Methodist University that tweaked Americans for their secular culture and subtly defended Orthodox leaders in Russia. They believe they are under attack by proselytizing Western religious groups.

Last month, Russia passed a law designed to protect the Orthodox Church by curtailing the activities of groups that have gained converts there since the fall of communism opened the country to outside religions. Groups such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and evangelical Christians and television evangelists such as Pat Robertson have been trying to attract converts in Russia.

Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek based in Istanbul, Turkey, visited Dallas as part of a 16-city U.S. tour. He is considered the "first among equals" of the world's 15 Orthodox patriarchs, who represent about 300 million Orthodox Christians.

In the United States, there are about 5 million Orthodox Christians. In North Texas, there are about 7,500.

Bartholomew arrived in Dallas on Tuesday night and leaves Thursday morning for San Francisco; he'll return to Istanbul on Nov. 17.

During his Dallas visit, he presided over a vesper service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in North Dallas, attended a dinner hosted by Mayor Ron Kirk, attended an interfaith breakfast at Thanks-Giving Square and visited SMU.

The U.S. visit is only the second by an ecumenical patriarch. In 1990, Bartholomew's predecessor, Dimitrios, toured eight cities.

But because he spoke no English, his visit was less glamorous.

Bartholomew speaks seven languages, including English, and seems to enjoy the crowds.
But the trip has seen controversy. Widespread dissatisfaction with Archbishop Spyridon, the American leader Bartholomew named last year, has fractured Greek Orthodox in the United States. Some Americans believe that Spyridon is trying to quash their democratic style by exerting authority over them.

Angry parishioners have created a dissident Web site they say attracts 500 visitors a day.

But none of those issues was in evidence Wednesday.
During his 15-minute SMU address, the 57-year-old patriarch thanked his American hosts and complimented American democratic principles.

Then he added: "Secular American culture allows that human rights are God-given, but the relationship between God and man is always seen as personal, private, without any visible or public sign. " That relationship is enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which he called "noble documents. " But they are flawed, he said, because they are only "rationalist constructs" and aren't inspired by God.

He defended Orthodox Christianity as a better path toward freedom because it emphasizes the spiritual transformation of all of society, not just individuals.

"Orthodox Christians will always respect the human rights of others," Bartholomew said. "If they do not respect those rights, then they have desecrated the image of God that is inherent in all human beings. " In a speech two weeks ago at the National Council of Churches in New York, the patriarch dealt bluntly with the Russian Orthodox issue, calling missionaries there "wolves in sheep's clothing. " As in other cities, Bartholomew didn't take questions or explain himself further. But the Rev . Alex Karloutsos, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said Bartholomew hopes to help Americans understand why Russians are so offended by Western-style proselytizing.

And Dallas - a major middle-America city with a concentration of Protestants - seemed a good place to get his message out.

"He feels this is the best place to talk about human rights because this is Protestant America, and it, too, must be grounded in spirituality to sustain itself," Father Karloutsos said.

At least one Protestant in the audience accepted Bartholomew's message - to a point.

"We can live with that, but we would like to see the Russian Orthodox Church open its doors and heart to a social conscience," said the Rev. Bill Matthews, spokesman for the Greater Dallas Community of Churches and an administrator with the United Methodist Church's Russia Initiative.

Mr. Matthews said the 15,000 Methodists in Russia are worried about its new law, which could be used to restrict their support of medical centers and orphanages. But he also said Methodists don't believe they are the Russian Orthodox Church's main target because they've been careful not to offend the Orthodox.

Most of Bartholomew's stay in Dallas consisted of lighter moments.

When he arrived on the stage at SMU, where he received an honorary divinity degree, the 2,000 people in the audience waved small white flags emblazoned with the patriarch's seal and gave him a standing ovation.

Early in the day, he attended an interfaith breakfast at Thanks-Giving Square downtown, where he was greeted by local religious leaders and civic dignitaries. As he arrived at the square, he walked through the Great Golden Ring of Thanks and blessed the Thanksgiving Stone while photographers clicked away.

Then, Bartholomew and his entourage walked through the square's garden, accompanied by Buddhists, Sikhs and Salvation Army members playing musical instruments along the way.

In the chapel, the Turtle Creek Chorale serenaded him, and officials from the University of Dallas presented him with an International Catholic Bible Commentary. On his way out, Bartholomew stopped to kiss a towheaded toddler.

Thanks-Giving Square officials estimated that there were 200 people representing nine major religions and 10 Christian denominations at the breakfast. Executive director Elizabeth Esperson was frazzled but thrilled.

"We understand the fact that at the heart of every religious tradition, gratitude is central," Ms. Esperson said. "And when we work out of a stance of gratitude, things like this happen."

[ The Dallas Morning News | | November 6, 1997 ]
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