Baltic Sea heritage and responsibility

During a speech he made in 1989, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios established September 1 as the day to offer thanks each year to the Creator for the gift of creation, to make pleas to protect the natural environment and to exhort governments to take prompt action to protect and preserve the natural environment. Quoting from the Bible, Demetrios said: «For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now» (Romans 8:22). And he added that «creation was already complaining about its treatment by mankind. Humanity cannot exploit natural resources indefinitely and at will. The price of his arrogance will be his self-destruction, if the current situation continues.» His message met with positive reactions from around the world, and provided the basis from which to further the idea of convening a Pan-Orthodox congress for official representatives from all the Orthodox churches, observers from other Christian churches as well as from international organizations such as the United Nations. The basic project was to examine how the Orthodox Church could deal with the environmental crisis on the international level. The congress was placed under the aegis of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and president of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The congress took place after the death of Patriarch Demetrios but was continued by his successor, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who not only embraced the initiative but developed it into its current form. The fifth symposium on the environment in the Baltic Sea, titled «The Baltic Sea – A Shared Heritage, A Shared Responsibility,» was held on a ship in the Baltic Sea from June 1-8. The ship stopped at ports in countries that border on the Baltic Sea. This year’s symposium was devoted exclusively to the Baltic Sea and its problems, in connection to the countries that border on it. The starting point for the shipboard symposium was the Polish port of Gdynia, in the north of the country, close to historic Gdansk. Senior clergy from many denominations, the organizing team, official speakers, members of organizations, guests and journalists embarked on the Clean Monarch, a Greek-owned cruise ship which sails under the Portuguese flag. The ship first port of call was Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad, also known by its German name of Konigsberg, has a grim history. Much blood was shed as it changed hands from one country to another, eventually becoming part of the former Soviet Union. But it is also unique: Until May 1991, when the USSR collapsed, it was out of bounds, not only to foreigners, but also to other Soviet citizens. Only the locals had the right of residence and limited rights of movement. The Soviet armed forces were the absolute authority, because the enclave was a military base. Even today, when the area is no longer out of bounds, the Russian military presence is strong and the symposium’s cruise ship lay at anchor right next to the Russian fleet. On the first day of the cruise, a visit to the huge nature park, Koronian, was an introduction to the topics to be covered by the congress. The ship returned to Gdynia, where Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios was to board after a visit of several days to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki. The religious and civil leaders of Gdynia received us in the local Catholic church, marking their active cooperation in the protection of nature with a common prayer and wishes by representatives of various creeds, bypassing the disagreements and disputes of the past. On June 2, the symposium was officially opened by Cardinal Walter Casper, and then four working groups began separate discussions. – The first workshop, «Economic Development and Global Justice – Potential and Contradictions,» was moderated by Thymios Papayiannis, president of the Greek branch of WWF and Neal Ascherson from the Archaeology Institute of University College London. – The second group met to discuss «Religion and Science – Dialogue for the Future.» The moderators were Bishop Kallistos of Thyateira and Great Britain and Daniel Amit from Rome University. – The third group dealt with the topic of «Initiatives in the Baltic Sea – Problems and Potential,» moderated by Dr Charles Ehler, director of the international program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Stefan Edman of the Swedish Environmental Council. – The title of the fourth workshop was «Specific Measures for Environmental Education in the Baltic Sea Area.» It was moderated by Reverend Ragnar Svenserud of the Church of Sweden and Professor Robert Lange of Brandeis University. The purpose of all the workshops was to come up with measures to save the environment and protect the immeasurable wealth of the natural heritage, while also raising public awareness and that of the authorities in the countries where the symposium was held. This is part of an environmental ethic where religion plays a part, unhindered by disagreements and dogmatism. In this, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul and its head, Vartholomaios, played a leading role. The symposium continued its journey, calling in at the ports of Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm. The patriarch’s ecological initiative followed the same lines there, with discussions of the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea, contact with civil and church leaders, and confirmation of the cordial relationship between the patriarchal throne and local Orthodox churches.

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