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Church

4th International Conference on Religious Freedom of the Archons Begins in Athens

ΑTHENS – George C. Rockas, Esq., Archon Dikaiophylax, was the Convener of the first session of the 4th International Conference on Religious Freedom on May 27. The theme of the Conference, presented by the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is ‘Protecting Religious Freedom, Democracy & Human Rights’, and the featured speaker of the session on Monday afternoon in the Chamber of the Old Greek Parliament building was Archbishop of Vilnius(Lithuania) Gintaras Grusas.

William S. Antholis, Archon Prostatis ton Gramaton, Director and CEO of the Miller Center of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia and Past Managing Director of the renowned Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, was the moderator. He asked questions of the Archbishop and later led the Q&A.

One of the highlights of the session was hearing the personal story of The Archbishop, whose mother and sister were among the lucky few who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1960 and immigrated to the United States, where he was born the following year. Despite never having lived there, he was tasked by Pope John Paul II with the preparations for the latter’s visit to Lithuania since he spoke the language.

At the podium during the opening session of the 4th International Conference on Religious Freedom of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are seen George C. Rockas, Archbishop of Vilnius Gintaras Grusas, and William Antholis. Photo: The National Herald

A fascinating overview followed of church life in the USSR, where, despite the fact that its constitution ‘guaranteed’ religious freedom, horrific persecution of the faithful – many thousands of Orthodox priests were murdered – was the reality.

He also noted that while a severely restricted rump official Catholic church was permitted, there was an underground church that was crucial to keeping the faith alive among the people. As ferment grew before the collapse of the USSR, unofficial reports about persecution were smuggled out as ‘samizdat’ – clandestinely produced and distributed banned publications – and broadcast by the West back into Soviet Lithuania, where it made an impact on Church life and late Soviet society.

What was emphasized, however, in the Archbishop’s responses to Antholis’ and the audience’s questions was the importance today of dialogue among Christendom’s denominations and the world’s religions. Frank discussion, which must prevail over silence when faced with evil, is needed to foster the fight against the scourges prevailing in the world today. He addressed the persecution and intolerance that reigns in many countries, driven both by of political extremism – of the left and right – and relgious fundamentalism.

He believes religion has import roles to play combatting social evils – “you still have forms of slavery in the world today” he said.
Asked by Antholis about the role of churches in place and in communication with countries where authoritarianism flourishes, the Archbishop says it is “to bring the law of love to those places.

One of his most fascinating – and troubling – points is that that people from former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact states have a responsibility to warn other Western officials and opinion leaders not to mistakenly look at Moscow’s actions today through their familiar perspectives. “Russia will keep expanding until someone stops it” the Archbishop declared, seeing parallels with earlier efforts to appease Hitler.

Sadly, religious persecution and fanaticism is also apparent in Russia today and in its war against Ukraine. Echoing the statement heard by the Archons earlier in the day at the official opening of the Conference at the Stoa of Attalos, the Archbishop noted that Pope Francis has condemned violence in the name of God. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew often declares that “war in the name of religion is war on religion.”

The conference will hold sessions on May 27 and 28 and will be followed on the 29th by ‘The 1st Summit of Global Archons’.

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