The significance of the joint visit to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Saturday, April 16, 2016, by the leaders of the Christian Churches of the East and West cannot be understated. And its impact on the refugee crisis—in addition to its spiritual and symbolical dimensions, as well as its seemingly non-political and refreshingly spontaneous nature—should not be diminished.
This was the fifth time that Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are meeting together and the second joint pilgrimage that they have realized together since the pope’s election in 2013. On most of these occasions—Rome (March 2013), Jerusalem (May 2014), Rome (June 2014), Istanbul (November 2014), and now Lesbos (2016)—they have declared their solidarity with people suffering from war and persecution, poverty and hunger, as well as ecological repercussions of social injustice. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have, from the very outset of their relations, demonstrated that they understand the role of the church. They know what matters, or at least what should matter, in the church; and they understand what the responsibility, priority, and ministry of the church should be in the contemporary world.
Many of the encounters of these two remarkable men have been spontaneous. For example, when the patriarch attended the inaugural mass of the pope in March 2013, it was the first time in history that this had occurred—ever. Just over a year later, when Francis invited President Peres of Israel and President Abbas of Palestine to the Vatican in June 2014, he spontaneously asked Bartholomew to extend the invitation jointly to the two political leaders.
Finally, this latest visit to Lesbos began as a request from the Greek government to the ecumenical patriarch in February, which led Bartholomew to initiate communications with Rome in March for a possible joint visit in April to a small Greek island that had generously and graciously welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees over the last eighteen months. And it was a way to remember and mourn the tens of thousands—among them many children—who lost their lives in the Mediterranean as they crossed by inflatable boats from Turkey to Greece.
However, this time, the meeting between Francis and Bartholomew was different. Theological dialogues and ecumenical relations are often carried out in order to gain something—whether to achieve clarity or advance toward unity. The visit by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, accompanied by the local Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, aimed at giving something: hope to the hundreds of detainees, thanks to the already beleaguered people of Greece, and caution to politicians to examine their hearts. Together, the three leaders declared:
We have met on the Greek island of Lesbos to demonstrate our profound concern for the tragic situation of the numerous refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers who have come to Europe fleeing from situations of conflict and, in many cases, daily threats to their survival. World opinion cannot ignore the colossal humanitarian crisis created by the spread of violence and armed conflict, the persecution and displacement of religious and ethnic minorities, and the uprooting of families from their homes, in violation of their human dignity and their fundamental human rights and freedoms.
And while the political dimensions were deliberately diminished, one of the pivotal objectives of the joint visit was to censure politicians and nations for shunning the refugees and exacerbating their crisis. As Patriarch Bartholomew boldly observed in his address at Lesbos, “the world will be judged by the way it has treated” the refugees:
We have traveled here to look into your eyes, to hear your voices, and to hold your hands. We have traveled here to tell you that we care. We have traveled here because the world has not forgotten you.
We have wept as we watched the Mediterranean Sea becoming a burial ground for your loved ones. We have wept as we witnessed the sympathy and sensitivity of the people of Lesbos and other islands. But we also wept as we saw the hard-heartedness of our fellow brothers and sisters—your fellow brothers and sisters—close borders and turn away.
Those who are afraid of you have not looked at you in the eyes. Those who are afraid of you do not see your faces. Those who are afraid of you do not see your children. They forget that dignity and freedom transcend fear and division. They forget that migration is not an issue for the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world.
The world will be judged by the way it has treated you. And we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions that you come from.
For his part, Pope Francis stunned the world by inviting twelve eligible Syrian refugees to board his plane and relocate to the Vatican City, a humanitarian gesture repeated countless times previously in Greece and Turkey where millions of refugees have fled.
The event in Lesbos a few days ago indicated a practical response by the churches of the East and West to a tragic crisis in our world. At the same time, it signaled a powerful reassessment of how ecumenical relations can advance human rights at a time when the world is either turning its face away from the victims of extremism and persecution or else deciding their fate on financial terms or national interests. The power of ecumenism lies in beginning to open up beyond ourselves and our own, our communities and our churches. It is learning to speak the language of care and compassion. And it is giving priority to solidarity and service.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, the Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne, serves as theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.