Orthodox Christian leader Bartholomew in Washington
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
An unusual environmental lobbyist will be making the rounds this week on Capitol Hill: the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the highest spiritual figure for the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, arrived in Washington on Sunday night for a week of lectures and meetings highlighting his interest in environmental health as a religious issue. He is scheduled to meet with President Obama on Tuesday, Vice President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday.
Although it has only about 4 million adherents in the United States, the Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian community in the world after the Catholic Church. It is concentrated in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
Experts say Bartholomew, who calls himself "the green patriarch," has been in office 18 years and has tried to make spiritual issues into public policy issues. His U.S. trip was scheduled around a symposium he organized last month in New Orleans about the health of the Mississippi River.
He also plans to speak about health care and terrorism.
More sensitive is another of his priorities: religious freedom in Turkey, where he is based. The Turkish government has limited the practice of Orthodox Christianity, including closing a seminary in the 1970s. The past three U.S. presidents-- including Obama in April-- have publicly advocated for the reopening of the seminary and religious freedom advocates hope the issue will be resolved as a condition for Turkey to join the European Union.
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, who teaches about Eastern Orthodoxy at Georgetown University, said social justice issues were "frankly not something the Orthodox Church has been front and center on" before Bartholomew. "For Orthodox leaders generally, your spiritual health, your devotional practice, these are the things that are important."