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Orthodox Conference Commits To New
Worldwide Cooperation In Social Action
Participants in the "Orthodox Diakonia" conference in Finland pose for a group photo at Valamo Lay Academy in early May. The historic conference brought together representatives of Orthodox humanitarian and social service agencies from 25 countries on five continents. They agreed that Orthodoxy needs a more unified approach to addressing the global challenges of war, poverty, injustice and disease.
Valamo, Finland - Orthodox Christian social and humanitarian organizations from around the world have agreed on plans to develop a global network to strengthen cooperation and challenge poverty and injustice.
Participants agreed to work towards the formation of a new association of Orthodox diakonia during the first international conference of Orthodox social and humanitarian organizations held in the New Valamo Monastery and Lay Academy in Finland from April 30 to May 5.
The international conference, "Orthodox Diakonia: the Social Witness and Service of the Orthodox Church," involved 80 participants from more than 25 Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, departments and organizations from throughout Europe, the Middle East, North and South America and Africa.
The conference was blessed by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and was hosted and opened by His Eminence Archbishop Leo, head of the Orthodox Church in Finland. The meeting also received the support of His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch, and many churches sent their representatives to the event.
"The event was of great significance and promise in the context of the unprecedented revival of social work in the Orthodox Church during the last decade," said conference moderator Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America. "It opens the way to increased Orthodox collaboration in diaconal ministry to serve people in need."
The purpose of the conference was to explore the history, theology and present reality of Orthodox cooperation in the area of social justice and outreach, to share experience and methodologies, and to foster new forms of collaboration and exchange among Orthodox social initiatives and organizations worldwide.
The conference was organized by the U.S.-based International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the World Council of Churches, and Ortaid, the humanitarian arm of the Orthodox Church of Finland.
Regenerating the social capital of the Church
Following the political changes in Eastern Europe in the last decade, the Orthodox and other churches have rediscovered their role in society, and have sought to respond to the social upheaval. Hundreds of new social and humanitarian initiatives have been founded, and have joined existing Orthodox programs in other regions.
The conference coincided with two important events for the Orthodox churches in Europe:
On May 1, 10 new countries joined the European Union, in a reminder of the remarkable changes which have swept the region in the last decade - but also raising the possibility of new divisions between Eastern Orthodox and Western Europe.
The following day, during the Divine Liturgy, conference participants marked the canonization of four new Orthodox saints strongly associated with a costly social witness in the 20th century. Mother Maria (Skobtsova), her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, and Ilya Fondaminsky founded an Orthodox social organization in the 1930s, and died in Nazi concentration camps after their efforts to save Jewish victims of persecution in France.
Keynote presentations of the Valamo conference explored the theological and historical experience of social action in the Orthodox Church.
"Christians should seek God in the poor, in whom, according to the church fathers, they serve Christ himself," said Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston.
The social task of the Church is to be the "voice of the voiceless" and to create and nurture communities of life, peace and reconciliation, regenerating "social capital" and resisting dehumanization and injustice, Fr. Clapsis said.
Fr. Demetrios Constantelos, a leading scholar on the history of the Orthodox social ethos, emphasized that the tradition of social justice and charitable work of the Eastern Church has influenced Europe as a whole.
It was in Christian Byzantium - the Eastern Roman Empire - that human equality first became a cornerstone of social policy, he said. In the Orthodox Church, philanthropy and diakonia are central to the Church's mission, but because of historical circumstances, this mission has often been limited or prevented.
As the Ecumenical Patriarch emphasized in his message to the conference, Christians' active love, as experienced in the early Church, "must embrace every human being, each of whom is an image of Christ."
Moving from appearances to authentic love of neighbor
During a panel discussion, the social experience of the Orthodox churches in diverse contexts, from East Africa, the United States, the Middle East and Armenia, was shared and analyzed.
In Lebanon, for example, Helene Andrea outlined the non-partisan role of the Orthodox Church in assisting the victims of the civil war in the 1980s, and in Iraq today. Churches must not only serve, she said, but must also confront injustice and transform society. This implies that the Orthodox must collaborate with other people of goodwill, and assist all those in need, regardless of faith or origin, she said.
Fr. Arkady Shatov, the head of the largest church-based hospital and sisterhood in Moscow, spoke about the striking revival of Orthodox charitable work in Russia the 1990s.
The Russian Orthodox Church estimates that there are now dozens of church organizations and social projects, ranging from orphanages, shelters for street children and care for victims of HIV/AIDS and prisoners.
The Church's social ministry is about the multiplication of love, he said. But he warned that service involves sacrifice, and that many who want to serve find it easier to adopt the external signs of Orthodoxy, rather than to understand that the essence of Christianity is to truly love their neighbor.
The service of the church in a multi-faith context was explored by Bishop Yohannes, head of social work in the 12 million-strong Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. For the Coptic Church, diakonia is based on development, and involves a shift from charity to empowerment and sustainability, he said.
Churches need to offer a moral voice, not a blueprint
Dr. David Bryer, an Orthodox layman with widespread experience in international humanitarian and development work, analyzed the historical evolution of the humanitarian idea and explored some of the new challenges and opportunities facing the churches.
He reminded participants of the central role of churches in the formation of modern humanitarian principles. Poverty is a profoundly moral question, he argued, and the Orthodox churches can provide new insights into the development debate.
"Churches do not need to have an alternative socio-economic blueprint, but rather they can offer a moral voice and spiritual authority, rooted in authentic experience," Dr. Bryer said.
During discussion, participants explored some of the major issues and challenges they face in their work, including professional standards, accountability, and relations with the broader civil society.
Concluding the event, the organizations present appointed a continuation committee to coordinate the follow-up, to consult with church leadership and Orthodox organizations and to work towards the establishment of an association for Orthodox diakonia within two years.