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Church

Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis Speaks to TNH about the Devastating Fires

September 13, 2023

BOSTON – Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis, in an interview with The National Herald, described the recent wildfires that caused the destruction and burning of thousands of hectares of forests. He said, “this [event] surprised us greatly; something like this had never happened in our region before. Fires occur, but never to this extent, with such swirling winds, in so many focal points and from so many directions.”

He emphasized, “I am also awaiting the official findings that the authorities are studying very seriously in order to determine the cause of this tragedy. Is it the human factor, the negligence that characterizes all of us? Earlier, the television reported that someone was caught throwing a cigarette near some pine trees. It’s a matter of education for our people regarding littering, bottles in the forests, etc. Do the services responsible for forest protection bear blame for not paying more attention to the forests? Is it the lack of forest rangers? Is it the excessive effort to protect the forest that did not allow for the creation of firebreaks – they should be large because the fire reached the Egnatia [highway], so we need larger zones. To prevent us from losing the entire forest, let’s not hesitate to create larger zones. Do illegal immigrants sometimes attempt to start fires to distract attention? I cannot say or assign blame to anyone. We need to conduct a thorough investigation to determine the cause of this disaster so that it doesn’t happen again anywhere.”

Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis watches with bated breath as the fire approaches the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Aetochori. Ultimately, the monastery remained untouched by the flames, even though everything around it was burned. (Photo provided by the Metropolis of Alexandroupolis)

Metropolitan Anthimos, who stands out as one of the most distinguished, learned, and active hierarchs of the Church of Greece and Orthodoxy in general, was present day and night on the frontlines of the wildfires, helping, praying, and experiencing the great trial and threat alongside his flock.

When asked, “living in Alexandroupolis, which you shepherd, where does your suspicion lean more towards, what are the people telling you?” he replied, “if I may say so now, the greatest responsibility lies with the management of the forest by the authorities. In an attempt to protect it, they isolated it, did not allow for clear roads and large firebreak zones that could now be accessible to fire trucks and aircraft, and also in the negligence of people, including ourselves, in not engaging in the protection of our environment.”

To the question, “Given the upgrading of Alexandroupolis and the presence of the American base there, are there suspicions that this disaster could have been caused by external factors, specifically from Turkey?’ he answered, “no, I think it is clear that there is no [truth] to such versions [of the story – I tell you that categorically. The activities in Alexandroupolis have to do with the port and the road and rail routes that will carry goods, etc., from Alexandroupolis to Svilengrad and enter Bulgaria to go to Eastern Europe. This part was not affected at all; what happened is a gratuitous tragedy, and to attribute it to such targeting because it only harmed the mountainous area, only harmed the environment and nature that surrounds us, not the commercial activities that are already developing in the port” is not correct.

The church of Saint Marina in Avanta, which was completely consumed by the devastating fire. (Photo provided by the Metropolis of Alexandroupolis)

His Eminence believes that “the forest should have different management. The Fire Department cannot be responsible for a forest it does not know. The forest is difficult to access. We are talking about an extraordinary virgin forest with such dense vegetation that you cannot pass through it. How can a firetruck, designed for city specifications, reach there? It requires a different approach. When tracked firefighting vehicles arrived, they immediately produced results. Therefore, we need permanent mechanisms and technology, vehicles, and aircraft that can reach the heart of the forest.”

Metropolitan Anthimos said, “I witnessed miracles; I saw the fire entering the male Monastery and all the trees of the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Aetochori, right above the airport, burning. I said, ‘I will not see you again, Saint John,’ and left, crying. I went and sat in the village café. After a while, some forest rangers called me and told me to come; the Monastery did not burn. I returned immediately and saw the entire landscape burnt, everything black, and the Monastery appeared whiter than it was. The same happened at the Women’s Monastery of Panagia Evrou in Makri. We kept vigil, in the morning we undertook a procession with the relics. We watched the fire – thank God, nothing bad happened. But our small chapels burned, and a parish church in the village of Aetochori, the Transfiguration of the Savior. It’s OK; with the help of the people, we will gradually restore them. First, we will assist the families whose homes burned, and then the churches.”

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