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Sunday, February 01, 2004


Fidel’s Unorthodox Emissary

The consecration of the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Havana on January 25 by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew received extended coverage in both the Greek and Greek American media. The initial reaction to the visit, both before and during the patriarch’s five-day stay in Cuba, appeared to be positive. Following his departure from Cuba, however, the National Herald, the Greek American community’s sole surviving Greek-language daily, published an editorial censuring the patriarch’s motives for visiting the island as well as certain decisions he made while there.

Dated January 28, and titled, “Bartholomew, Fidel Castro’s Ambassador,” the editorial sharply questioned the logic of consecrating a church in a country with such a small number of Orthodox Christians and criticized both the patriarch’s condemnation of the US embargo against Cuba and his decision to associate with a government with such a poor record on human rights. The editorial sternly denied the possibility of anything in the “spirit” of Christianity that would justify the patriarch’s actions.

It’s at this point that the editorial’s reach exceeds its grasp. Is there any doubt, by anyone, that the US embargo has caused tremendous, and unnecessary, deprivation for Cuba’s people? Is there, further, any doubt that a religious or spiritual leader’s humanitarian obligation is to question any policy by any country in the world that leads to unwarranted suffering, even among a population that — through no fault of its own — is considered by the most powerful nation on earth to be part of an axis of evil. The pope has never stopped criticizing the war in Iraq. No matter how much this has exercised the US administration, however, there has never been any suggestion that the pontiff’s strong opposition to the war translates in any way into support of Saddam Hussein or his regime. Why, then, is the patriarch’s criticism of the US embargo construed as approval of Fidel Castro? Even the US senate recently voted 59-38 (with several key Republicans obviously supporting the majority) to substantially ease the embargo.

Reading the National Herald’s editorial, however, it is clear that the issue is not Orthodox Christian spirituality, but, rather, Greek American politics. It is precisely the US government’s disapproval of this visit, and the patriarch’s refusal to attend a reception by the chief of mission of the US interests section (USINT) in Cuba, James Cason, that seems to have motivated the particular criticism. To me at least, the editorial leaves the impression that there would have been no, or perhaps muted, criticism of the patriarch had he chosen to attend Mr. Cason’s reception, at which, of course, a number of opponents of the Castro regime were present.

As for the so-called un-Christian nature of the patriarchal visit, one does not need to be a historian of the early Christian era to know that Christianity thrived and placed profound importance on spreading its Gospel, in the most hostile lands and under the most adverse conditions, and that it was the Rock of the Church, Peter, who counseled the Apostles that “…the nations should hear the word of the Good News, and believe,” and that “God, Who knows the heart…made no distinction between us and them” (Acts, 15:7-9). (Even the most superficial reading would reveal a fundamental chasm here between the New Testament and the president of the United States, at least on the salvational “distinction between us and them.”) In what text of the faith does Christ’s teachings prohibit acts such as the patriarchal visit, as the editorial implies? And why is it necessary that there be obvious political benefit to “Hellenism,” or even to the ecumenical patriarchate, in such a visit, as the editorial also demands? Would political profit have made the visit more acceptable (and how does one define this profit exactly)?

This is not to argue that Castro did not manifestly use the visit for his own PR purposes, or that the patriarch’s motives were purely spiritual and religious, or, most important of all, that his All-Holiness was not guilty of a serious sin of omission by refusing to meet with Cuban dissidents in a gathering that could have been arranged outside the prejudicial context of the USINT. But what is evident in the Herald’s editorial is that it is just a pretext to criticize the patriarch on a purely personal level. Absolutely no mention is made of the approximately 150 Greek Americans — including Archbishop Dêmêtrios — who accompanied the patriarch on his trip. On the contrary, the archbishop’s presence at Mr. Cason’s reception is treated positively (but of course, since he’s hobnobbing with the Americans). There is also no criticism of the delegation of approximately 300 people who came from Greece, including the (conservative) mayor of Thessalonikê, Vasilês Papageôrgopoulos — and, of course, there is absolutely no criticism of New York businessman and Greek American mover and shaker John Catsimatidis, who, according to the Herald, was the Havana cathedral’s “godfather.”

Finally — and most strangely of all — in an interview broadcast on the National Greek Television program last week, Dêmêtrês Kastanas spoke with the former king of Greece, Constantine. It was clear from the discussion that the consecration of the Orthodox cathedral in Havana had been an initiative, and was made possible by the efforts, of the former monarch, who had conferred with Fidel Castro himself in the past regarding the church. The silence on this matter from the National Herald was telling, as was the newspaper’s refusal to criticize Constantine in any way.

In the end, it is clear that it was not the consecration of the cathedral of Saint Nicholas per se that displeased the National Herald but the fact that the ceremony was led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It allowed the newspaper to indulge in some good old-fashioned anticommunist demagogy while skewering the patriarch himself for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with either Cuba or its “maximum leader,” but with the continual conflicts within the Orthodox church in Greece and, specifically, the clash between the ecumenical patriarch and the archbishop of Athens — an imbroglio in which the National Herald has apparently allied itself with the latter.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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