Istanbul

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their report included this passage about Byzantium: "We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism."

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, the labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word "Kiev" in that spiritual and national narrative.

"Just as the original Church in Jerusalem is the mother of all Orthodox Churches around the world, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople some 300 years later, so the venerable see of Kiev in Kievan Rus in the tenth century is the mother of the Churches in all the East Slavic Orthodox lands -- including the current nation-states of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Byelorussia," explained the Very Rev. Alexander Webster, dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in upstate New York. This seminary is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

"Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church," he said, "and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev."

Nevertheless, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taken the first step to establish an independent, or "autocephalous," Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church responded by breaking "Eucharistic communion" with Istanbul.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it's important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

* The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Islamic urband legends

The rumor spread across Pakistan in a blitz of text messages on cellphones.

There was a killer virus on the loose and all you had to do to catch it was answer a call from an infected number. The virus didn't hurt cellphones, but would -- eyewitnesses confirmed this -- cause users to drop dead. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority was forced to issue a denial telling users that it was safe to turn their phones back on.

Then there were messages claiming that Israeli trucks were carrying a million HIV-infected melons to Arab consumers in a new biological-warfare plot. This was not to be confused with other urban legends about a "Western-Zionist conspiracy" to use polio vaccines and other medical means to sterilize the next generation of Muslims.

"The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories often limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs," argued Husain Haqqani of Boston University, at a conference in Istanbul entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This recent gathering of journalists and scholars was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

Haqqani stressed that the "Muslim world's willingness to believe rumors is not a function of the Islamic religion. Like other Abrahamic faiths, Islam emphasizes truth and righteousness. The Koran says: 'O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and (always) say a word directed to the Truth.' And one of the sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad ... specifically forbids rumormongering: 'It is enough to establish someone as a liar that he spreads what he hears without confirming its veracity.' "

Nevertheless, these rumors roll on, creating a cycle of fear and bigotry. The result is a climate of confusion and cynicism that prepares millions of people to believe the next round of rumors, often with violent consequences in an age in which ancient prejudices and modern technology merge seamlessly.

The results can be seen in recent WorldPublicOpinion.org surveys in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia, said Haqqani, who is an active Muslim. As a rule, participants had positive attitudes about globalization, freedom of religion and democracy. Yet roughly three out of four surveyed said that Muslim nations should strictly enforce Sharia, or Islamic, law as part of efforts to reject sinful "Western values." Large majorities affirmed the belief that the United States is trying to "weaken and divide" the Muslim world and slightly smaller majorities said America's goal is to "spread Christianity in the region."

The impact of the rumors can, perhaps, be seen in another paradox seen in these surveys, said Haqqani. Large majorities in Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco (results were mixed in Pakistan) agreed that violent groups that kill civilians are guilty of violating the "principles of Islam." However, less than a quarter of those polled believed that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Many Muslims seem to believe that 9/11 was a great achievement, but that Osama didn't do it," he said. "They are confused by all the rumors."

Leaders in the West must understand that almost half of the world's Muslim population is illiterate. Meanwhile, the 57 Organization of the Islamic Conference nations contain about 500 colleges and universities, compared with more than 5,000 in the United States and 8,000 in India. That is one university for every three million Muslims.

Yet this painful fact is not the only source of this predisposition to embrace conspiracy theories, said Haqqani. After all, the digital consumers who use their cellphones to spread ridiculous text messages are not illiterate.

"What we are seeing is not just a crisis rooted only in religion or education," said Haqqani. "This is a culture-wide crisis of politics and economics and technology and education and it is easy to see the role of religion because of the powerful role that faith plays in the lives of millions of people.

"The greatest fear of most Muslims is that their societies will be over run by the Western world. ... They believe that modernity equals Westernization, Westernization equals promiscuity and licentiousness and all of that equals a loss of faith. We cannot change that overnight. It is a project of a century or more, in which millions of people must learn that the modern world is built on values, laws and tolerance, not just highways, airplanes and cellphones."

Truth, tolerance and faith

ISTANBUL -- When it comes to religion and politics, many skeptics are convinced that strong faith leads to judgmentalism, which leads to intolerance, which leads to oppression and, ultimately, theocracy.

Many people disagree, saying that it's impossible to defend basic human rights without a religious or at philosophical commitment to moral absolutes.

It's easy to tell who is who when they speak out.

Consider this voice: "Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. ... There is no freedom without truth."

That was the young Polish bishop who would become Pope John Paul II, arguing for a tight connection between truth and freedom at Vatican II.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins disagrees, to put it mildly: "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Don't be surprised if they are used."

While it's easy to find examples of religion being used to justify great evils, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson finds it hard to grasp how Dawkins and company can study history and say things like that. It's no surprise that Gerson feels this way, since he is best known as the White House scribe who wove faith-based images into so many speeches for President George W. Bush.

"This anti-religious viewpoint claims too much. Do its advocates really intend to lump the Grand Inquisitor with the Amish? To say there is no difference between radical Salafists and Sufis?", asked Gerson, speaking at a global conference entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This gathering in Istanbul was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

"Surely the content of religion makes some difference," added Gerson. "But the central problem with this anti-religious attitude is this: It would remove the main source of reform -- the main source of passion for justice and change -- in American history."

If it's hard to maintain a demilitarized zone between religion and politics in America, it's even harder to do so in a land like Turkey, where many politicians insist that they have created a "secular Muslim state."

Many other Turks have severe doubts about the success of that project, especially those in the nation's shrinking Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish minorities. Ask the Armenians if trying to separate "truth" from "rumor" raises tolerance issues in modern Turkey.

While Gerson discussed a wide range of issues in an off-the-record dialogue session, including the Iraq war, his keynote address focused on the big picture -- his conviction that in "every culture, standing for truth against lies and conspiracy theories is essential to tolerance."

At the very least, he stressed, tolerance requires a belief in at least one absolute truth, a belief in human dignity. And without some kind of doctrine of human equality -- that, for example, all men are created equal and in God's image -- it is hard to defend universal standards of human rights and social justice.

In American history, said Gerson, the source of that moral truth has often been found in the prophetic voices of religious believers.

Thus, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." A truly "just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

Moral relativism, on the other hand, forces leaders to root their decisions in power and power alone, said Gerson. The result is "the rule of the strong -- the rule of those who can seek their wants and impose their will most effectively."

Thus, as a contrast to King, consider this voice from the bloody 20th Century.

"Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition -- if relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth. ... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable."

The speaker? That would be Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.