Clerics set sail on a mission to protect the environment

 

An eclectic group of clerics and scientists went on a cruise in the Adriatic to discuss the environment. Kieran Cooke went with them

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of an estimated 180 million Orthodox Christians around the world, puts his silver topped cane to one side and sits down. He carefully brushes his long white beard, adjusts his black pill box hat and raises his glass. "You are very welcome."

Lunch with the Patriarch is not exactly an everyday affair. The protocol can be a little bewildering. John of Pergamon - one of the church's senior theologians with the title of Metropolitan - is sitting in the next chair. He inadvertently fingers my bread roll. Bartholomew should be addressed as Your All Holiness. Metropolitans are Eminencies. An Archbishop carries the title of Beatitude.

We are cruising up the Adriatic towards Venice and an assignation with the Pope. To an outsider, the Orthodox Church is a mysterious array of ancient rites and elaborate ritual, an incense laden, timeless world, its liturgy echoing down the centuries. Though little in the outward appearance of the church has changed over the centuries, Bartholomew is a thoroughly modern figure.

Known as "The Green Patriarch" Bartholomew (61), is a passionate environmentalist.

"The church is not locked away from the world," says the Patriarch. "It is not a museum. It must be involved in trying to solve the great environmental problems facing the globe."

Our ship - which started in Corfu and called in on Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Ravenna on the east coast of Italy en route to Venice - is a floating university of scientists, eminent professors, senior UN representatives, ministers and ambassadors, heads of non-government organisations - all discussing environmental problems, in particular those in the Adriatic. The Patriarch has been more outspoken on environmental matters than any other Christian leader. He has described polluting as a "sin against creation" and a "sacrilege".

Also on board is a wide array of religious figures and theologians. The Grand Mufti of Syria strides on deck, taking the air. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan is searching for his cabin. There is talk of whales, tigers and the disappearing Asian elephant. The Mayor of Tirana, a man with the physique of a heavyweight boxer, joins in the discussion.

A clutch of Cardinals sip their cappuccinos in a corner of the lounge. Efforts are made to engage a Curia cleric in talk of the Pope's health, and rumours of his imminent retirement. A long answer is given in Italian, adding up to a polite "no comment".

The voyage serves other purposes besides an environmental one. Aides say that since becoming Patriarch in 1991, Bartholomew has made efforts to modernise the church and make it more accessible.

For much of the time the Patriarch is isolated to a small area in the mainly Muslim city of Istanbul, under constant threat of eviction by the Turkish authorities who only recognise him as head of the city's dwindling Greek minority of about 2,000 people. Little remains of what was once the centre of the Byzantine Empire.

Through adopting an environmental agenda, Bartholomew has strengthened his international reputation. Such global recognition has the added benefit of helping the Patriarch face internal challenges to his spiritual primacy: Patriarch Alexis of Russia, leader of by far Orthodoxy's biggest congregation, is often outspoken about the policies adopted by the Patriarchiate in Istanbul, in particular its emphasis on having closer relations with the Vatican.

His Holiness Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi is described as the Grand Father of Bektashism, a liberal branch of Islam practised in Albania. Bektashism is a world of monasteries and dervishes - a religion which was nearly wiped out during the long period when Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator, was in charge in Albania.

In Venice, we dine in the grand courtyard of the Doges Palace, next to St Mark's. The Pope, increasingly infirm, did not arrive. Instead a big screen relayed a live picture of John Paul, sitting in his office in Rome. Together, he and the Patriarch signed a document on the environment.

"We must frankly admit that humankind is entitled to something better than what we see around us," it said.

Outside, in St Mark's Square, pigeons fluttered, the pink evening light stole in. The Patriarch, the Metropolitans, the Beatitudes - long black capes billowing in the wind - clambered aboard a water taxi. A gentle wave of the hand and Bartholomew - a figure of the past but also very much of the present - heads out into the Venice lagoon.