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The Patriarch and Fidel By: Johannes L. Jacobse
OrthodoxyToday.org | Thursday, February 05, 2004


When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited Cuba in late January, he followed a script written in the 1970s. We might call this the Fidel Castro scenario: Invite a prominent Church leader to take part in a public show of religious tolerance in order to mask the fundamentally anti-religious policies of the Cuban dictator’s regime. When the Patriarch consecrated an Orthodox Church that closed when Communism was imposed on Cuba, he barely whispered a word about Castro’s human right abuses.

The first clue that something was amiss with the Patriarch’s Cuba trip was that the National Council of Churches (NCC) “happened” to be there at the same time. Click to see larger imageThe NCC has a deplorable record of ignoring human rights violations under communist regimes. In the 1970s and 1980s, it embraced “Liberation theology” (Marxist theory in Christian dress) and funneled millions into left wing organizations that were sympathetic to totalitarian regimes.

Mural on the newly consecrated Church

The fall of communism startled the NCC but not enough to change it. In 1993, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the former General Secretary of the NCC confessed, “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under Communism. And we failed to really cry out under the Communist oppression.” Despite the confession, the NCC last year blamed America for the division between North and South Korea while affirming North Korea’s right to retain nuclear weapons. It never mentioned the human rights catastrophe in North Korea, including the millions dead by starvation.

NCC coddling of the Cuban regime is nothing new. In 1976 the NCC praised Castro for “a social system built on the principle that every human being, weak or strong, sick or healthy, sustains dignity only by having something to do.” A 1992 mission study included the children’s story, “A Young Cuban Christian.” It taught young readers, “Christians just want to help people and that is the same as the Revolution.” More recently the NCC fought hard representing Castro’s interests in the family struggle over Elian Gonzalez.

Why are some Orthodox representatives aligned with the NCC? They think that the NCC can expand Orthodox influence in religious circles.

As recently as two years ago, financial mismanagement threatened to close the NCC’s doors. It routinely spent 30 percent more than it took in. It claimed to represent more than 50 million American Christians but the reality was that 64 percent of its support came from two member communions: the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church USA. In fiscal year 2000-2001, more than 45 percent of its budget went to fundraising, management, and general expenses.

This near-death experience chastened the NCC. They expanded their ecumenical reach to Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox. Catholics and Evangelicals wisely declined. American Orthodoxy responded hoping to broaden its public presence while the NCC got a much needed boost of credibility. A Greek Orthodox Christian, Dr. Elenie Huszagh, was NCC president in 2002-2003.

Thus, the meeting between the NCC and Patriarch doesn’t appear to be as spontaneous as both sides claim. NCC representatives were serving as Orthodox advisors at most public events. This influence is seen in two Patriarchal missteps.

The first was the Patriarch’s honoring of Castro with “The Cross of St. Andrew.” No such award actually exists. It’s a scaled down version of the “The Order of St. Andrew,” the highest honor given to laymen for exemplary service to the Church. How Castro qualified is anyone’s guess since the Order presumes obedience to such basic commandments as “Thou shalt not kill.”

Patriarch watchers report that Bartholomew I, although well educated and well traveled, misunderstands the symbolism of public acts. He doesn’t understand that it makes no sense to offer a cross to an avowed atheist and persecutor of Christians. Contrast the Patriarch’s gift to the action taken by Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit to Cuba when he wagged a finger at a liberationist priest in full view of the world press. Who communicated the Christian moral tradition more clearly?

The majority of the Patriarch’s professional life has taken place in modern day Istanbul under Turkish control where western cultural values like free speech, inquiry, and debate don’t exist. Giving a gift to Castro is reasonable if it represents the polite necessities of diplomatic protocol, but why not substitute a simple gift such as an art work instead of the Cross of St. Andrew? This would have avoided the moral confusion (and the outrage in the Greek Orthodox community) that resulted.

The second misstep was the Patriarch’s condemnation of the American embargo on Cuba. Lifting the embargo is the NCC's favorite punching bag. Whether or not the embargo should be lifted is open to debate. But the implication that lifting the embargo will measurably improve the Cuban economy is historically naïve.

Cuba’s economy was already on the skids when the Soviet Union was subsidizing Cuba to the tune of $6 million per day. The subsidy ended after the Soviet Union fell, causing the Cuban economy to tank completely. Ending the embargo might improve Cuba’s fortunes a bit, but prosperity won’t return until the Marxist grip on the economy is broken.

Religious leaders are expected to make moral judgments, but those judgments must be informed. Castro should not have received the Cross of St. Andrew. Castro’s brutal trampling of human rights is the pressing issue, not the U.S. embargo. Protocol might not allow an open rebuke of Castro, but lessons can be taught in other ways such as holding a meeting with dissidents, or issuing a strong statement in their defense. Archbishop Demetrios, the leader of American Greek Orthodox Christians, ended up meeting with dissidents on behalf of the Patriarch. It was good, but not good enough.

Did these mistakes occur because the NCC view of the world dominated the planning of the trip? One delegate reported that he pleaded with the NCC to make a visit to a Cuban prison. They refused. Meanwhile, they complained loudly about the American government’s refusal to allow them entry to Guantanamo Bay. The moral confusion of the NCC is bound to influence any church that is closely aligned with it.

It was good that Patriarch Bartholomew visited Cuba. But the Patriarch must be alert to those who would use his office in ways that diminish his authority and the moral tradition he represents. As soon as the Patriarch returned home, Castro claimed that the visit of the Orthodox Christian delegation proved that religious freedom exists in Cuba. Meanwhile hundreds of prisoners of conscience still languish in his jails.

This article originally appeared on OrthodoxyToday.org.


Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and manages the website www.orthodoxytoday.org.


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