08 December 2011

The Many Various Religious and Secular Winter Festivals of Light

Technology has enabled modern humans to send information around the globe at mind-boggling speeds, and that information has the power to divide and separate mankind. Yet every culture and religion has a tradition surrounding the arrival of winter and the impending darkness — traditions that have endured despite the world's technological changes.

To ancient humans, winter was cold, dark and dangerous, and they faced the threats of hunger, exposure and roaming wild animals. The sun meant light, warmth, plant growth and survival.

During the winter, humans looked to the return of the sun each year as a celebratory event, a symbol of hope that life would return to the landscape and families would thrive again. This "birth of the sun" is celebrated as winter solstice.

The night of winter solstice is the longest of the year. After this date, the sun spends a few more minutes each day above the horizon. This year, winter solstice is Dec. 22.

Another name for the winter solstice is Yule, a pre-Christian European holiday that held many practices that remain in Christian celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving and gatherings to fend off fears of the dark.

Other feasts of light include:


Known as the "festival of lights," Diwali is one of the most important annual observances in India. The festival commemorates Lord Rama's return to his kingdom after completing a 14-year exile. During this celebration, people clean and decorate their homes, light thousands of lamps and give out sweets.

The name Diwali translates into "row of lamps" and involves the lighting of diyas, or small clay lamps, filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. These lamps are kept on during the night as houses are cleaned and firecrackers are burst outside in order to drive away evil spirits.

Diwali is an official holiday in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Surname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji. It is observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists.

Celebrations begin on the new moon night between mid-October and mid-November and continue for five days according to the luni-solar Hindu calendar. This year Diwali began on Oct. 26.

Loy Krathong

Loy Krathong is a Thai holiday celebrated on the full moon in the 12th lunar month (November) each year. "Loy" means "to float" and a "krathong" is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves and usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks and some flowers and coins. The festival starts at night when people carry their krathongs to the nearby rivers. After lighting candles and making wishes, they place the krathongs on the water and let them drift away, carrying away bad luck. It is the time to be joyful and happy as the sufferings are floated away. This year, Loy Krathong was celebrated on Nov. 11.

St. Martin's Day

Saint Martin's Day or Martinmas is a Christian feast held on Nov. 11, and it is celebrated throughout Europe as well as Latin America. The feast coincides with harvest time, the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals.

Because of this, St. Martin's Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving — a celebration of the earth's bounty, with great feasting. In many countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Bonfires are built, and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.

Martin was a Roman soldier before he was baptized and became a monk. The story goes that one winter night he was returning home during a snowstorm wearing a cloak.

A beggar came to him, and Martin cut his cloak in half to share with the man to save him from dying of cold.

St. Lucia Day

Dec. 13 is known in Scandinavian countries as St. Lucia Day, and it originally coincided with the winter solstice.

While this does not hold consistent with our current Gregorian calendar, a discrepancy of eight days is from the use of the Julian calendar during the 14th century, resulting in the solstice falling on Dec. 13. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century shifted these dates to the current Dec. 20.

Lucia is venerated in a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray the saint (originally, the eldest daughter in a family, eventually a girl to represent the village). Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession of women, each of whom holds a candle.

The women sing a song describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. A similar version occurs in churches in the United States.

On the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Dec. 13 is celebrated as National Day. The National Festival of Lights and Renewal is held the night before the holiday in honor of St. Lucy of Sicily, the saint of light.

In this celebration, decorative lights are lit in the capital of Castries, artists create decorated lanterns for competition, and the festivities end with a fireworks display.


Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated for eight nights and days around the globe.

In 165 B.C., the Jewish Maccabees won a great battle over the Syrians. When the victors went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. There was only enough oil to burn their lamp for one day.

The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted eight days. Hence the menorah, a special candelabrum used for the Hanukkah ritual that holds nine candles. One candle, a "shamash," is used to light the others, while the other eight represent the eight days the oil burned. One additional candle is lit each night until all eight are lighted on the eighth night.

Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals performed every day throughout the eight-day holiday, some family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.

Special foods fried in olive oil, including latkes (potato pancakes), are served, songs are sung, and games are played in celebration.

Since Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew calendar, it can occur any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The Jewish day begins at sunset, whereas the Gregorian calendar begins the day at midnight. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset on Dec. 20.


Christmas, the best-known winter holiday in the United States, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Prior to Christmas, there are four weeks of Advent, during which a candle is lit each Sunday. Around the world, families decorate the tree and home with bright lights, candles and stars. On Christmas Eve, many people attend candlelight services.

Christians around the world have their own ways of celebrating Christmas.

In Egypt, many Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Before Christmas, Christian homes are decorated with lights, Christmas trees and small mangers. Advent is a 45-day fast, and the observant do not eat meat, poultry or dairy products. Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 6 and 7, when the churches are decorated with special lamps and candles. Copts also give candles to the poor.

The Philippines is the only country in Asia that is predominately Christian. The Philippine festival of light is marked by the sight of "parols," or star lanterns. Nine days before Christmas, a special Mass is celebrated in which the story of the birth of Jesus in reenacted.

Parols of all sizes can be found decorating the homes, and fireworks are heard over the next nine days. On Christmas Eve, a procession is held reenacting Mary and Joseph's search of shelter. Members of the procession carry parols to light their way.

Christians in China celebrate Christmas by lighting their houses with paper lanterns. They also have "Trees of Light," with paper chains, flowers and lanterns.

During the nine days prior to Christmas, Mexican families gather together and march with candles looking from house to house for a room at the inn, replicating Joseph and Mary's search for shelter.


Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration starting on Dec. 26 and lasting seven days. Light is used in this celebration as a symbol of seven principles, each of which is symbolized by a black, red or green candle, held by a "kinara." Families gather together and with friends to exchange gifts. Each night a candle is lit and families talk about one of the seven principles until all the candles are lit.

These seven candles represent "mshumaa," meaning the seven principles. These principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Chinese New Year

The main winter festival in China is the Chinese New Year, which takes place between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, based on the Chinese lunar calendar. This is when children receive new clothing, eat fancy meals, receive new toys, and enjoy fireworks.

Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. Visits to friends and family take place during this celebration. The color gold is said to bring wealth, and the color red is considered especially lucky. The New Year's Eve dinner is very large and includes fish, noodles and dumplings.
While our outside rituals and festivals might differ, the winter holds hope for peace and renewal in cultures around the world. As Edith Wharton wrote, "There are two ways to spread the light: One is to be the candle, the other is to be the mirror."

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02 December 2011

Freedom of Faith: the Problem of Discrimination and Persecution

A Conference on the Freedom of Faith: the Problem of Discrimination and Persecution of Christians opened at the conference hall of “Danilovskaya” hotel in Moscow on 30 November 2011. Taking part in the opening were Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations; Archbishop Edwin Joseph Ender, representative of the Holy See; Mr. Massimo Introvigne, representative of the OSCE on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions.

The Russian Orthodox Church has initiated the forum with support of the Christian Interconfessional Committee, the St. Gregory the Theologian Charity Foundation and the International Organization “Aid to the Church in Need.”

Attending the opening of the Conference were representatives of the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Serbia, of the Orthodox Churches of Cyprus and Greece, of the Roman Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Muslim and Jewish communities, and the international, inter-Christian, interreligious and public organizations.

Citing the data provided by Massimo Introvigne, Metropolitan Hilarion reminded the listeners that every five minutes a Christian is killed for his faith, and one hundred and five thousand Christians come to a violent death in interreligious conflicts every year. Metropolitan Hilarion underscored the necessity of recognizing a simple fact: Christians are the most persecuted religious community in the world. He named Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Sudan, Nigeria, Etritrea, Somali, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, and India as countries in which Christians are most persecuted.

Metropolitan Hilarion, who accompanied His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in his visit to Syria and Lebanon in November, expressed his concern about the future of religious minorities, mostly Christians, in Syria, in case the political situation is destabilized and a civil is unleashed.

He underscored that not only Christians, but also representatives of other religious minorities are persecuted, and added that the governments of certain countries do much for establishing harmonious intereligious relations.

The DECR chairman noted in particular the historical role of the European countries and Russia in the protection of Christian minorities. He emphasized, however, that the problem of persecution of Christians has been hushed up in Europe for many years. “The European politicians, being moved by the spirit of political correctness, talked a lot about the inadmissibility of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other manifestations of religious or ethnic intolerance, but passed over the discrimination of Christians in silence.”

The situation has begun to change only in the recent years, he said, and gave examples of conferences and resolutions on the problem.

While describing the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church in defense of the persecuted Christians, Metropolitan Hilarion emphasized that the Moscow Patriarchate has come out resolutely against any form of xenophobia, religious intolerance and extremism. “It is known that though millions of the followers of different religions have been living in Russia, there were no religious wars in our country. We cannot be indifferent to the persecution of our brothers in the Muslim countries and hope that our Muslim compatriots will extend their support to us. We hope that our fellow believers in other countries share our pain over the suffering Christians and shall seek the ending of persecution and discrimination,” he said. He hopes that the problem of discrimination against Christians will be considered in the context of cooperation among Christians.

The DECR chairman believes that the Pan-Orthodox Council, currently being prepared, will state its opinion on the problem of the persecution of Christians in different regions of the world.

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01 December 2011

History of the Candy Cane and Christmas

One of the most often seen symbols of Christmas is the candy cane. Not only are candy canes used as a sweet Christmastime treat but they are also used for decoration. How did this seasonal candy get its familiar shape, and when did it become part of Christmas tradition?

When the practice of using Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas became popular in Europe the people there began making decorations for their trees. Many of the decorations were food items including cookies and candy. The predecesor of our modern candy cane appeared at about this time in the seventeenth century. These were straight, white sticks of sugar candy.

Part of the Christmas celebration at the Cologne Cathedral were pagents of living creches. In about 1670 the choirmaster there had sticks of candy bent into the shape of a shepherd’s crook and passed them out to children who attended the ceremonies. This became a popular tradition, and eventually the practice of passing out the sugar canes at living creche ceremonies spread throughout Europe.

The use of candy canes on Christmas trees made its way to America by the 1800’s, however during this time they were still pure white. They are represented this way on Christmas cards made before 1900, and it is not until the early 20th century that they appear with their familiar red stripes.

Many people have given religious meaning to the shape and form of the candy cane. It is said that its shape is like the letter “J” in Jesus’ name. It is also in the shape of the shepherds’ crook, symbolic of how Jesus, like the “Good Shepherd” watches over his children like little lambs. It is a hard candy, solid like a “rock”, the foundation of the Church. The flavor of peppermint is similar to another member of the mint family, hyssop. In the Old Testament hyssop was used for purification and sacrifice, and this is said to symbolize the purity of Jesus and the sacrifice he made.

Some say the white of the candy cane represents the purity of Jesus and his virgin birth. The bold red stripe represents God’s love. The three fine stripes are said by some to represent the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Others say they represent the blood spilled at the beating Jesus received at the hands of the Roman soldiers.

From its plain early beginnings to its familiar shape and color of today, the candy cane is a symbol of Christmas and a reminder of the meaning of the holiday.

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07 November 2011

Saint Menas of Egypt

Saint Menas (also Minas, Mina, Mena, Mennas) (285 – c. 309), the Martyr and Wonder-worker, is one of the most well-known Egyptian saints in the East and the West, due to the many miracles that are attributed to his intercession and prayers. His feast day is celebrated every year on 15 Hathor (November 24) in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and on November 11 in the West and East.

Mēna was his original name, according to the story his mother called him Mēna because she heard voice saying amēn. Mēnas [Μηνας] is a Greek variation of the name, while in Arabic he is known as "Mīna" [مينا‎‎].

Menas was born in Egypt in 285 AD, in the city of Niceous (Nakiyos or Nikiu), which lies in the vicinity of Memphis. His parents were ascetic Christians but did not have any children for a long time. His father's name was Eudoxios and his mother's name was Euphemia. On the feast of the Virgin Mary, Euphemia was praying in front of an icon of Saint Mary with tears that God may give her a blessed son. A sound came from the icon saying "Amen". A few months later, Euphemia gave birth to a boy and named him Menas.

Eudoxios, a ruler of one of the administrative divisions of Egypt, died when Menas was fourteen years old. At the age of fifteen Menas joined the Roman army, and was given a high rank due to his father's reputation. His appointment was in Algeria. Three years later he left the army longing to devote his whole life to Christ. He headed towards the desert to live a different kind of life.

After spending five years as a hermit, Menas saw in a revelation the angels crowning the martyrs with glamorous crowns, and longed to join those martyrs. While he was thinking about it, he heard a voice saying: "Blessed are you Menas because you have been called to the pious life from your childhood. You shall be granted three immortal crowns; one for your celibacy, another for your asceticism, and a third for your martyrdom." Menas subsequently hurried to the ruler, declaring his Christian faith. His endless sufferings and the tortures that he went through, have attracted many of the pagans, not only to Christianity, but also to martyrdom.

The soldiers who executed Menas set his body to fire for three days but the body remained unharmed. Menas' sister then bribed the soldiers and managed to carry the body away. She embarked on a ship heading to Alexandria, where she placed the saint's body in a church.

When the time of persecution ended, during the papacy of Pope Athanasius of Alexandria, an angel appeared to the Pope and ordered him to load Menas' body on a camel and head towards the Western Desert. At a certain spot near a water well at the end of Lake Mariout, not far from Alexandria, the camel stopped and wouldn't move. The Christians took this a sign from God and buried Menas' body there.

Berbers of Pentapolis rose against the cities around Alexandria. As the people were getting ready to face the Berbers, the Roman governor decided to secretly take the body of Saint Menas with him to be his deliverer and his strong protector. Through the saint's blessings, the governor overcame the Berbers and returned victorious. However, he decided not to return the body to its original place and wanted to take it to Alexandria. On the way back, as they passed by Lake Mariout at the same spot where the body was originally buried, the camel carrying the body knelt down and would not move. People moved the body to another camel, but the second camel would not move either. The governor finally realized that this was God's command. He made a coffin from decay-resistant wood and placed the silver coffin in it.

During the early fifth century, the body's location was forgotten. Years later, a shepherd was feeding his sheep in that location, and a sick lamb fell on the ground. As it struggled to get on its feet again, its scab was cured. The story spread quickly and the sick who came to this spot recovered from whatever illnesses they had just by lying on the ground. During that time, the legendary daughter of Emperor Zeno was leprous. His advisers suggested that she should try that place, and she did. At night Saint Minas appeared to the girl and informed her that his body was buried in that place. The following morning, Zeno's daughter was cured, and she related her vision about the saint to her servants.

Zeno immediately ordered Menas' body to be dug out, and a cathedral to be built there. A large city was also built there and named after the saint. Sick people from all over the Christian world used to visit that city and were healed through the intercessions of Saint Menas, who became known as the Wonders' Maker. Today, numerous little clay Menas flasks, or bottles for holy water or oil on which the saint's name and picture are stamped, are found by archeologists in diverse countries around the Mediterranean world, such as Heidelberg in Germany, Milan in Italy, Dalmatia in Croatia, Marseille in France, Dongola in Sudan, Meols (Cheshire) in England, and the holy city of Jerusalem, as well as modern Turkey and Eritrea. Pilgrims would buy these bottles and take them back to their relatives.

As soon as Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria became Pope and Patriarch on Saint Mark's Throne, he began to put the foundations for a great monastery close to the remains of the old city. Today, the Monastery of Saint Mina is one of the most famous monasteries in Egypt. The relics of Saint Menas, as well as that of Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria lie in this monastery. The cathedral of Saint Menas was destroyed during the Arab invasions of the 8th century.

Menas is sometimes called Menas the Soldier also called the "Wonder worker" in the West, where he is venerated as a military saint.

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04 November 2011

Icons: A Lesson in Humility

The painting of Orthodox icons is an exercise in humility, says artist Lino Wong Wing-kuen, and one rooted in an artist’s spirituality. One does not earn fame for such work, nor even public recognition. The rewards are private, but no less compelling.

Wong, 43, is one of the few Chinese iconographers in the field.

“One cannot sign any signature on Orthodox icons. Unless you are a master recognized by the Church, you can only imitate predecessors, which runs contrary to an artist’s mandate to be creative.”

Calling himself an “instrument of God,” Wong says he does not feel proud to be an iconographer but thinks it is “more meaningful to be humble” after he learned about the Orthodox icon’s high status in Christianity as an object before which people worship and pray.

The Hong Kong-born artist began painting as a child, inspired to pursue the art after receiving his first sketch book as a gift from his sister on his 10th birthday.

As a student of architecture at university, he had his first contact with Italian art. Later he decided to pursue his studies in Italy to better understand Western civilization.

Wong studied at an art academy in Florence, where he was invited to paint icons by the nuns in a Church where he was housed. This invitation began his quest for faith and he was baptized in 1994.

His teachers in iconography included a Greek monk.

“I learned traditional techniques from him. After about 20 days, he told me, ‘You are not an Orthodox Christian. You can never draw a good Orthodox icon.’”

Wong said the monk’s words surprised him at the time but that he has since learned their true meaning.

“The icon is their traditional art. There is an in-born feeling to it. If you do not belong to that religion, you can hardly understand why the icons are so important to them.”

Wong says Chinese artists actually have an advantage in iconography because they pay more attention to details.

He says, nonetheless, that he has yet to be satisfied because even painting on the same theme repeatedly, he finds something different each time.

“It may be something that I could not do before but this time I could do it. I feel miraculous. It seems that God is painting together with me.”

Now an immigrant to Italy, Wong feels that he has a mission to help the Chinese better understand iconography.

He concluded an exhibition in Hong Kong late last month, where he displayed 26 icons that he painted since 2004.

“There is no specific spirituality for icons. The audience only needs to be attentive to what they see. Nothing then will obstruct them from getting close to faith.”

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31 October 2011

Romania: On the trail of Count Dracula/Vlad the Impaler

The romantic-sounding region of Transylvania, the eastern Carpathians and their neighbouring region of Moldova (though not the Republic of that name) all lie within one country – Romania. But as we spent a week travelling around this extended section of eastern Europe we felt that, although we might indeed be geographically within one country, we were in fact traversing three separate and quite distinct emotional and historical worlds.

The first world was one of Gothic fantasy. It is epitomised by Bran Castle, with its much-vaunted connections with Vlad the Impaler – better known as Count Dracula. Other castles crowd the hilltops with their turrets and dungeons, their armouries and torture chambers. This is a world in which Ludwig II – the mid-19th-century mad king of Bavaria – and Wagner would have felt at home.

The periodical rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning seem a natural backdrop to its dark coniferous forests, still alive with wolves and the occasional brown bear. Occasional encounters with light-fingered gipsy gangs lend a frisson of danger to the unwary traveller – as we were to discover during our travels. The swans on the moonlit lakes look as if they might at any moment transmogrify themselves into ballerinas in search of a lovelorn prince.

The second world is a more wholesome one of Saxon villages and simple peasant agriculture. Horse-drawn carts trundle slowly along the lanes; small old-fashioned haystacks line the fields and punctuate the horizons; smiling old men scythe in the fields and decoratively dressed women fork up the hay; poppies and other wild flowers enliven the meadows; wooden Saxon houses with their high gates and brightly coloured exteriors line the village streets; every telegraph pole seems to support a nesting crane newly arrived from Africa. This is the world beloved of Prince Charles, who has bought a manor house in the region. It is no longer Wagner's world, but rather that of The Sound of Music.

The third of the worlds through which we passed is a ghost world of the former Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu and the communist era. Much has been done in the past two decades to remove the ugly traces of that unhappy chapter in Transylvania's history. Hotels have had massive makeovers; no longer do they look as if they are awaiting party delegations, and are instead alive with young people dancing at wedding breakfasts; but still bath plugs tend to be absent and loo seats tend to be wobbly; credit card machines tend to be non-functional; and one is tempted to ask the occasional receptionist whether she got a refund from charm school.
Away from the hotels, too, there is indestructible evidence of the insensitive state planning of the Ceausescu years: tyre factories belching dark smoke have been dumped down in areas of outstanding natural beauty; a vast cement works intrudes on a spectacularly beautiful mountain gorge; in some places, ribbon development stretches along highways for mile after mile, blanketing the road from the glorious surrounding countryside. Old practices from the hard years die hard: it still seemed safer to our driver to fill up his car in a sizeable urban petrol station than risk the contamination of a wayside pump, and everywhere people were still smoking like chimneys.

My wife and I had made our plans carefully in advance, and were met at Bucharest airport by our guide, who was also the driver of the comfortable Mercedes that was to transport us for the following week around a route which dipped in and out of all the varied worlds described above. We set out northwards straight for the hills, our first night being at Sinaia (a town and monastery named after Mount Sinai by a returning pilgrim in the Middle Ages).

The next morning our first port of call was Peles Castle, a fairy-tale creation built as the summer residence of King Carol I in the late-19th century. Our arrival coincided with a rally of vintage cars which gave an agreeably Belle Époque atmosphere to the park and surroundings. Inside, the atmosphere was more military: vast arrays of armour and weapons adorned the walls, including an executioner's sword, the blade of which was inscribed "may God forgive the villain whose head this will sever".

Our next stop was Bran Castle, supposed abode of Prince Vlad Tepes – the prototype for the mythical Count Dracula. There is no doubt that Vlad was – even by the standards of the 15th century – an exceptionally cruel ruler, impaling rather than beheading his enemies, though not – like Dracula – drinking their blood. He was something of a hero in his time, as he led a stout resistance to the Turkish invaders. But it is the gruesome aspects of his legend which now haunt his castle: vampire masks, blood-red wine and wooden daggers jostle for prominence in the market below the castle.

Inside the castle, winding spiral staircases and low cavernous doorways increase the sense of menace. One feels one could drop into an oubliette and disappear forever at any moment. Our visit coincided here not with vintage cars but with a coachload of Romanian schoolgirls. This seemed to upset the castle guide, and when I asked him why, he said it meant he could not use the joke he liked to make to tourists: "Dracula only drinks the blood of young virgins: you will all be safe!" This lot, he said, were certainly young, and he hoped they were virgins.

We concluded our day at Brasov, visiting two churches. The Black Church – so called because it was burned and largely rebuilt in 1689 – houses one of the largest and finest organs (440 pipes) in Europe, and also a collection of Turkish rugs draped over pews and choir stalls as if for sale, but which were in fact permanent furnishings serving as a reminder of the intercourse with the Ottoman Empire. The painted pew fronts depict the role of the various civic guilds with whose wealth the church was built.

At our second church – that of St Nicholas – we were met by an elderly professor who took us to the library in the precincts, which contains a remarkable collection of early-Christian books and manuscripts. So sensitive were these in the Stalinist period (the town had been renamed after Stalin in the Fifties – a fact not often mentioned now) that the professor had hidden them away in the church tower to prevent their destruction. As he turned over the pages, he remarked wistfully how odd it was that Romania (an Orthodox country) had adopted the Latin/Roman rather than the Cyrillic script. I found myself wondering about the risks this dedicated scholar must have run in hiding away his precious Christian evidence from Stalin's henchmen.
Another day, another place. Sighisoara is a medieval fortress town which is now a Unesco world cultural heritage site. There is a bizarre legend that its Saxon inhabitants are descended from the children of Hamelin who were led away from home by the Pied Piper. Its charming square, with its brightly painted houses and welcoming cafés, is certainly part of that second world of gentle Saxon rural life. But it also turns out to have been the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, and its clock tower (another steep rickety climb) is flanked by a torture chamber displaying gruesome instruments of the trade: the world of Gothic horror is never far away.
Continuing our journey, we made a short diversion to a quintessentially Saxon village, where we were able to see Prince Charles's manor house overlooking as peaceful a scene as could be found anywhere in central or Eastern Europe. But again, the Gothic drama was not far below the surface: when we stopped for my wife to wander off alone to take a photograph of a passing hay wain, she was set upon by a group of gipsy lads, one of whom attempted to snatch her camera and push her into a ditch, while another waved a scythe menacingly; she extricated herself – scratched, bleeding and slightly disillusioned. It was as if the evil baron of Swan Lake had suddenly appeared on the set of The Sound of Music.

Sibiu, our next staging post, was declared the European capital of culture in 2007. Its labyrinth of medieval squares, churches, bridges and narrow streets seemed to justify the award. We were particularly careful how we answered questions while standing on the Liar's Bridge, since we were assured than any untruth uttered on the bridge would cause it to instantly collapse; in Transylvania it seemed unwise to disregard such superstitions.

In the nearby village of Sibiel, we visited a museum of icons painted on glass; despite their age, many of them were almost Picasso-like in their modernity, but all managed to convey a reverence for their sacred subjects. In the same village, we were invited to dinner in a Saxon house belonging to a friend of our guide, where a collection of meat balls were washed down with generous quantities of plum brandy.

From Sibiu to Bucovina, the region of the famous painted monasteries, was a long drive of some 300kms (186 miles) passing through the eastern Carpathians and the dramatic Bicaz Gorges and skirting the Lacu Rosu (or Red Lake). This was the scenery that most romantic visitors to Transylvania had been hoping to encounter: the dense pine forests sloping steeply into ravines bordering the road are – we were assured – still the habitat of wolf packs and brown bears of the sort that had chased Nicholas Crane when he walked through the region in the Nineties. If a comfort stop required a wander into the dark trees, we were careful not to go too far into this Wicked Wood.

The monasteries themselves, when we reached them, were worth every one of the 300kms. Voronet Monastery is known as the Sistine Chapel of the Orthodox Church on account of its spectacular ceiling and wall frescoes; but the exterior walls are also a visual delight of early 16th-century imagination. Not all the murals depict the normal biblical scenes; one, for instance, shows a line of Turkish dignitaries queuing up (like passengers at Heathrow) to be sent down to hell. This is not altogether surprising when it is remembered that the monastery was built by Prince Stephen the Great of Moldova (1457-1504), the renowned Hammer of the Turks. Moldovita Monastery was built by Stephen's son and – true to form – shows Turks decapitating lines of haloed Christian saints. At the Sucevita Monastery, a nun explained one of the murals to us; a child was being restored to her mother by St Nicholas; we asked innocently how he had come to be parted from her and the answer was predictable – kidnapped by the Turks. One is not allowed to forget that this was indeed the front line of Christendom for several centuries.

Surprisingly unsated by churches, castles, haystacks and forests, we eventually headed south to Bucharest airport and home. As we dozed off on the plane, we had gentle memories of a sunlit land of calm medieval pastures and homesteads; we had disturbing dreams of vampires looming down on us from crenellated ramparts; and we had a gratifying sense of having seen a land successfully lifting itself out of decades of communist drabness. But I'm not sure that if I had been leaving from London rather than Bucharest, my wooden Dracula dagger (for my grandson) might not have been confiscated as a threat to airline security.

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30 October 2011

North Texas draws religions from around the world

The Sikh temple on Euless Boulevard comes to life every Sunday morning. Men wearing turbans and women in colorful dress remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the temple, which is in a former bank building. Once inside, they sit cross-legged on opposite sides of the main hall, singing hymns and praying in Panjabi, the native language of many of the members, who come from northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. After the service, plates are handed out for a communal vegetarian lunch. The temple is also open for daily prayer services, with members driving from Arlington, Fort Worth and Dallas to participate.

Rajvir Singh of Arlington said it's important for his people to have a Sikh temple nearby. About 300 people regularly attend Sunday services at the temple, called Gurdwara Sikh Sangat.

"There is a plus if you have your community with you. You share the same culture. You share the same beliefs," said Singh, a biological chemistry student at the University of Texas at
Arlington. "It's just the same as why anybody would want to get together with their culture."

The Sikhs represent a growing change in the makeup of religious groups in the suburbs, especially Northeast Tarrant County, where Baptists, Methodists and Catholics are now joined by Buddhists, Hindus, Romanian Orthodox and Baha'i.

As people move into North Texas -- seeking jobs and a better education for their children -- it's only natural for them to open houses of worship and cultural centers to meet their spiritual needs. Changes to the religious landscape are particularly noticeable in Euless and Colleyville.

"What's driving this is you're getting folks who aren't from Texas who are capitalizing on the opportunity, and of course, we bring our faith with us," said Jason E. Shelton, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at UT Arlington. "This isn't anything different than what we saw in the 1880s. This is the same story."

Euless has a Coptic Christian church on Euless Main Street, and nearby is a Greek Orthodox congregation that is building a new church featuring Byzantine architecture.

Plans are also under way to build a Buddhist and Hindu cultural and spiritual center on a 4-acre tract along Euless Boulevard to serve the Nepali community. About 9,000 of the 54,700 residents of Euless were born outside the United States, and another 1,672 were born in a U.S. territory or born abroad to American parents. Of those, 36 percent were from Latin America, 32 percent from Asia and 18 percent from Africa. according to the 2009 American Community Survey.

Students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford (HEB) schools speak 72 languages at home, including Arabic,
Vietnamese and Urdu, the district's annual survey showed.

Neighboring Colleyville is a bit of an anomaly. There's a Romanian Orthodox Church, a mosque, a Catholic church, a synagogue, a Baha'i community, several protestant churches and more, all within the borders of this largely white, affluent city.

St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church launched 30 years ago in a small building that another Christian congregation used for services. It is unclear why the community settled there, but parish priest, The Reverend Gabriel Popa, speculates that the property was affordable for the group, mostly first-generation immigrants.

"Thirty years ago, it was a farm zone," he said.

In 2004, members bought a different piece of property and built a new church on Glade Road. The congregation has grown from 20 or 30 members to more than 300, although only a few live in Colleyville, with others driving as much as 50 miles to the church.

Colleyville is also the home of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, which hosts the offices of a bishop and serves 28 Coptic communities in 11 states. The Coptic Christian Church was established in Egypt, and many adherents are Egyptian immigrants, officials said. Locally, the Coptic Church launched in 1985 in Colleyville at St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church. A handful of families had been renting spaces elsewhere and came together to buy 4 acres in Colleyville on John McCain Road. St. Mary Coptic opened a new 400-seat building at the same address in December.

"They wanted a place of their own," said The Reverend Samuel Bakhoum, the priest at St. Mary Coptic. "It's important to have a gathering space to socialize, for people to celebrate."

In 2004, another group from St. Mary found a church building for sale in Euless and branched off, creating St. Abanoub Coptic Orthodox Church. The St. Abanoub congregation has surpassed that of St. Mary Coptic, with about 300 families, many of whom moved to Texas to be near relatives who had already immigrated.

Several of the Colleyville faiths came together for an interfaith National Day of Prayer event marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The North East Tarrant Interreligious Association hosted similar National Day of Prayer events in 2009 and 2010.

"Everybody prayed from their own perspective," said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. "The goal was for everyone to be able to say 'amen' to everything."
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28 October 2011

Entrance of the Theotokos

On Monday, November 21, Orthodox Christians celebrate one of the Church's twelve major feasts: The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The historical events connected with this event form part of Sacred Tradition and are described in early extra-Scriptural documents and in the hymns of the Church.

According to these sources, when St. Mary was three years old her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna, the grandparents of Jesus, sent their daughter to the Temple in fulfillment of a promise made at the time of her conception, that she would be dedicated to the Lord. Joachim did not want Mary's departure to be a sad occasion. He, therefore, gathered together young girls from the neighborhood, gave them lit candles or lanterns, and Mary intrigued by the bright lights happily followed them to her new home. She was met at the Temple by St. Zacharias, the future father of St. John the Baptist. There she dwelt until her betrothal to St. Joseph.

The meaning of this feast can be derived from its title: Mary enters the Temple to become herself the Temple of God. She enters the Holy Place to become a "living" Holy of Holies. In her womb the Fashioner of all creation will be fashioned. He will take for Himself a complete humanity, our entire human substance, from Mary. Everything we are He will become, and the years spent in the Lord's House prepare the Virgin for her role as Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God. There she is nourished physically, mentally and spiritually, to become the flower of Old Testament piety. Indeed, Tradition relates that Mary was fed by messengers of God while in the Temple. Sometimes this pious belief is depicted artistically with Mary represented twice in the festal icon: once in the center, escorted by Joachim, Anna and the young maidens as she enters the Temple; and once in the top, right corner, seated "near the door of the Holy of Holies, where an angel comes to assist her" (The Meaning of Icons).

As the dwelling place of God, Mary typifies humanity. Her entering the Temple and later her conception of the Messiah, signals an end to a strict identification of God's House with any man-made structure. "Man" is now revealed as the true and proper dwelling place of the Almighty. According to ancient Christian Tradition, "we are all fashioned in God's image and likeness to be abodes of His presence".
"Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are" (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). 
"...the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands..." (Acts 7:48)
The emphasis on man as the abode of God is applied not only to the individual but to the entire people of God. The Church, for example, is spoken of by St. Paul as, "the fullness of Him Who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23), the fullness of God's life, revealed and shared with His followers. Mary's entrance into the Temple is thus an essential reminder and celebration of our own entrance into the Church, through baptism and chrismation, at which time we are offered to God, and reborn of "Water and the Spirit."

As far as services are concerned, it is significant that "the feast of the Entrance of Mary...marks the first specific liturgical announcement of the birth of Christ". On the eve of this holiday the Nativity canon is sung during Matins, at the Vigil service, and at each subsequent major Vigil until Christmas. The troparion (main theme song) for the day exclaims why this is: 'Mary's appearance in the Temple is an anticipation of the Messiah's Advent.' In Orthodoxy Mary is always contemplated in light of her role as Jesus' mother. The liturgical art of the Church bears this out. Icons of Mary almost always depict the Incarnate Word as well. Even the most traditional name used for Mary, "Theotokos," identifies her directly with Christ. There is no separate cult of Mary in Orthodoxy. Instead, "Mariology is simply an extension of Christology" for Orthodox Christians (The Orthodox Church). So it is, that as we celebrate the Entrance of the Theotokos during Advent we look forward already to the birth of her Son on December 25.
"Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the Temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice O Fulfillment, of the Creator's dispensation." (Troparion)
In closing we shall quote from the Psalter, verses that are understood as prophetic utterances directly related to Mary. They are used 'extensively in the services of this particular feast and have no doubt provided a great inspiration for the celebration of Mary's consecration to the service of God in the Temple'.
"Hear, O Daughter, and consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house, and the King will desire your beauty. Since He is your Lord, bow to Him...
"The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes, in many-colored robes she is led to her King, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train...
"Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations, therefore, the peoples will praise you forever and ever" (Psalm 45: 10-17)

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27 October 2011

Drought and Redemption – The Lessons of Global Warming

“And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” (Isaiah 58:11)
October 2010 to October 2011 was the driest of any 12-month period on record for Texas. Scorching heat, wildfires, crops destroyed, cattle herds relocated seem to be the new norm for the Lone Star state. But we are not the only ones suffering this, Asia, Africa are also experiencing similar weather patterns, bringing millions to the brink of starvation.

Who is to blame? Some say the global warming, others argue that is a natural variation of the climate, others see in it the wrath of God against a sinful generation. Nobody really knows who’s fault it is, but we all suffer greatly from it.

I am sure, based on the testimony of the Fathers, that this is not what God intended for mankind: a world with unpredictable natural calamities that affect the livelihood of billions of people every day; a world where man cannot control his environment and has to work harder and harder everyday for an elusive piece of bread. God is love and He wants better for us.

God’s true plan for mankind was revealed from the very beginning when He put Adam and Eve in the abundant Paradise and not in a forsaken desert (Gen 2:15). All was given to Man free and with the intention of eternity. Man was crowned the King of the world and all was given in his administration to be used as support towards His union with God.

The change of the entire universe that we are witnessing today is not God’s doing, Man alone is responsible. With the fall of Man came also the fall of the entire cosmos: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”. (Gen 3:17-19) Man is the one that missed the target of his existence through sin, isolating himself from God, in a meaningless hope that things would get better this way.

What Man failed to understand was that he was never created to be alone, to live independently. This may be difficult to hear in an age where self determination and self worth is embedded in every grain of our beings, but this is the truth. “Personhood means otherness, difference, but not in isolation, because the full meaning of personhood is found in the communion of persons” writes the theologian John Zizioulas. Man was created in the image of God and the image of God is a Trinity of Persons, living in perfect harmony and love. God made Man so he also can participate in this, to share God’s love through Communion, not independence. This terrible illusion, this false dream of grandeur, has had devastating effects on the entire Creation.

As a consequence of this disaster we live in a fallen world, a world that has turned against Man, its formally crowned king. Droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis are part of this changed earth and we cannot blame any of this on God. He gave us free will because He wanted us to voluntarily accept His love; he gave us the possibility to choose, knowing that we can even make the wrong choice.

We shouldn’t understand this in a mechanical way however: I sin and I get sick, I do the right thing and I receive an immediate reward. It is not that simplistic. All we do however has consequences. As global warming may have an effect on the environment so our irrational cooling from God will have an influence on our climate, both physical and spiritual.

Man was not made immortal, but was given with the possibility to partake in the eternal existence of God. Only through his willful participation Man can achieve a life free of the turmoil of this fallen world. God’s initial intention was made even clearer through the incarnation of Christ. In Him all was renewed; the Adam of old was replaced by the New Adam that made the right choice for us, not isolated in a distant heaven, but by being one of us in the flesh.

Christ showed that this fallen nature is only temporary and though it is corrupted and filled with suffering and pain it is not all that is; it is not the goal, it is not the end. He showed that although we may die we can still live if we are in Communion with Him. He died and rose from the dead to show us how we can also rise from the fallenness of our nature and be not what we are now, but what God always intended us to be.

We live in a world that is not what it was supposed to be and periodically we suffer its mood swings. It is up to us to make the best out of it and work for our salvation in spite of the harshness of our environment. We are called to follow Christ and by our transformation in Him to change the entire cosmos. This time for better and for ever.

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26 October 2011

Taoism: remedy for a world in crisis?

From environmental protection to crime prevention, Taoist priests, scholars and dignitaries on Tuesday called for building a harmonious world by using the ancient wisdom of Lao Tze, a Chinese philosopher who lived over 2,500 years ago.

During the three-day International Taoism Forum, which closed in central China's Hunan Province on Tuesday, about 500 delegates from more than 20 countries and regions, including China, the United States, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Japan, exchanged thoughts on how to integrate Lao Tze's philosophy into modern society in an effort to solve existing problems such as war, terrorism and financial crises.

A declaration issued at the closing ceremony called on people around the world to "achieve serenity of body and mind, peaceable human relationships, environmental harmony and sustainable development," as conflicts grow rife and the natural world is disturbed due to the unchecked desires of man.


The 1,800-year-old religion of Taoism originated from Lao Tze's (BC 571-471) book "Tao Te Ching," in which he postulated that everything in the universe was born from emptiness and that balance and harmony should be achieved between human beings and nature.

Taoism was all but wiped out during the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and resumed after China's reform and opening-up to the outside world in the late 1970s. Recent statistics show that there are nearly 100,000 Taoist priests and over 5,000 Taoist religious sites on the Chinese mainland.

During the forum, religious figures and philosophical experts lashed out at the greed of modern people, saying that their behavior has led to natural degradation.

"The destruction of the natural environment -- often done today in the pursuit of wealth -- has gathered force in the past hundred years and is now like a runaway train," said Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the U.K.-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

"To me, the global financial crisis was caused by nothing other than the greed of Wall Street," said Liu Changle, board chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television.

Delegates also expressed concerns over moral degradation in Chinese society. Earlier this month, a two-year-old girl was ignored by 18 passersby after she was run over by two vans and left to bleed on a street in the city of Foshan in the wealthy southern province of Guangdong. The injured girl died in a hospital last Friday, sparking a nationwide debate on the country's moral standards.

"In a market economy, some people blind themselves with materialist desires and pursue nothing but profits. It is causing a moral, psychological and social crisis for China," said Professor Xu Kangsheng from the Department of Philosophy of Peking University.

"Many Chinese are occupied with pursuing fame and fortune, only to end up with an exhausted and uneasy mind," said Huang Zhijie, vice president of the Chinese Taoist Association.

Delegates called for promoting Taoist wisdom as a possible remedy, as the belief system holds that greed is the root of all hatred, killing and war.

"Taoism asks people to pursue a simple, but correct lifestyle, and to jettison excessive desires and choices," said Ge Rongjin, a philosophy professor from Renmin University

He said a return to Taoist tranquility could help people relax and calm their minds, allowing them to find the "right path."

Palmer said that to many in our contemporary world, extravagant wealth is the main goal and greed feeds on the desire to have the best of everything and to show it off to the rest of the world.

"But Taoism goes in the opposite direction. Simple living is the heart of the Taoist way of life. And it is a joyful simplicity," he said.


The forum, co-sponsored by the Chinese Taoist Association and the China Religious Culture Communication Association, is a continuation of the International Forum on Tao Te Ching held in Xi'an and Hong Kong in April 2007, bringing Taoists from all over the world to discuss their beliefs.

"The philosophy Lao Tze wrote 2,500 years ago is still alive today," said Herve Louchouarn Trestard, a Mexican doctor and president of the Mexican Taoist Association.

Nevertheless, compared with Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Taoism has yet to develop into a global religion, although modern international communities are starting to realize the practical significance of Taoism and Lao Tze's thoughts.

In 1995, the British Taoist Association was founded in London, making it the first Taoist group in Europe. In 2001, the Spanish Taoist Association was founded and the first Taoist temple in Europe, the Qing Jing Gong, was established in Barcelona in the same year.

The number of Taoist disciples in Europe and North America has been on the rise over recent years, with Taoist associations established in several countries, including the United States, France, Portugal and Italy.

Ong Seng Huat, director of the Taoist Culture Research Center in Malaysia, believes that Taoism should develop into a world religion because the Tao Te Ching and Lao Zi's thoughts had a "global perspective" from the very beginning, which has allowed Taoism to transcend countries, regions and races.

He suggested that Taoists should set up more organizations and engage themselves in more international talks and activities in order to contribute more to the international community.

"It is time for Taoism to grow. Because it can help not only people in China, but also people in the West," Trestard said.

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23 October 2011

What happens to the soul after death?

Many western sects believe that the soul is in a state of sleep after Death, and awaiting Judgement Day. Some others believe the soul dies, only to be awakened after Judgement.

This teaching also helps them to reject the saints. They argue that since the departed souls are either “sleeping” or “dead”, we cannot Intercede to them.

St. Paul's admonition in the Bible to intercede to each other, applies only to the “living”(on earth), they say.

Concept of Soul Sleep contradicts Bible.
Most Protestants have recently decided to believe a new teaching that the soul is dormant and inactive till the final Judgement Day.

Ponder over these questions:
  • Where did the Good Thief’s soul go after death? (“Today you will be with me in Paradise”Luke 23:43). Jesus promised him “paradise” right after death.
  • Where are the souls of Elijah and Moses kept alive, so that they could talk to Jesus on the Day of Transfiguration? (Mark 9:1-8)
  • Where is Enoch now, bible says he was taken upto heaven alive. Is he exempt from Judgement Day? "Then Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him".–Genesis 5:2
  • Where is Elijah now, the bible says he too was taken up to heaven alive like Enoch. Is he exempt from judgement day? “….behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven”.–2 Kings 2:11
  • How could Prophet Jeremiah give blessings to the Jewish army, centuries after his earthly death? "Onias then said of him, "This is God's prophet Jeremiah, who loves his brethren and fervently prays for his people and their holy city."–2 Maccabees 15:14
They believe that everyone is in “Soul Sleep” till Judgement Day. This is a wrong concept biblically because of the points/questions raised above.

The Christian Church has from the beginning taught that there are two judgments:
  1. The first, or “Particular” Judgment, is that experienced by each individual at the time of his or her death, at which time God will decide where the soul is to spend the time until the Second Coming of Christ. This judgment is believed to occur on the Fortieth day after death.
  2. The second, General or “Final” Judgment will occur after the Second Coming.
Particular Judgement.
The first or Particular Judgement decides where and how the soul will reside till the Judgement Day.

The greatest example of Particular Judgement is that of the Good Thief, who was promised paradise right after death by Jesus Christ.

There are examples in Old Testament too, like that of Enoch and Elijah who were taken upto heaven alive.

If even the Good Thief, who accepted Christ on his dying state, was given an active and alive soul, which resides in Paradise, how much more will Jesus Christ honour his own Mother, His Apostles, the Martyrs and the Saints?

They too will be alive in Paradise. Mother Mary, the Apostles, Saints, Martyrs and the pious Christians.

Revelation 4:4"And round about the throne were four and twenty thrones: and upon the thrones I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold".

These 24 elders sitting on the thrones in heaven are the 12 patriarchs of Old Testament and the 12 Apostles of the New.

Day 40.
In most cases, the Particular Judgement is supposed to occur on Day 40.

We, Orthodox, consider the first 40 days after the material death of a person as very important.
We pray for them/conduct eucharist on these points during the 40 days:

The 3rd day (because Jesus ressurected on 3rd day).

The 9th day (because there are 9 classes of angels, and it is the angel that delivers the soul safely to its location and protects it from the devils legions)

The 40th day is very symbolic and important in Christian and Jewish theology. Major Changes and Transformations took place after 40 days:
  1. 1)The Great Flood’s rains lasted for 40 days: Gen 7:12“And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights”.
  2. The embalming of Jacob in egyptian fashion. Even though the Egyptians were pagans, they too understood the importance of day 40 in the transitions during after life: Gen 50:3“And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those which are embalmed”.
  3. Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days (TWICE) Exo 24:18"And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights".
  4. It took the spies 40 days to search out the promised land and bring back fruit. Num 13:25"And they returned from searching of the land after forty days".
  5. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness, one year for each day they explored the Promised Land. Exo 16:35"And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan."
  6. Goliath came for forty days before being killed by David. 1 Sam/Kdm 17:16"For forty days, twice a day, morning and evening, the Philistine giant strutted in front of the Israelite army".
  7. Noah waited 40 days after it rained before he opened a window in the Ark. Gen 8:6“And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made”
  8. Elijah strengthened by one angelic meal went forty days to Mount Horeb where the Lord passed by and he heard the voice of God. 1 Kin 19:8“And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God”.
  9. Jonah warned the City of Nineveh they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city. The people repented in those 40 days and God spared the city. Jonah 3:4 & 10“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”.
  10. JESUS fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Mat 4:1-2"Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered".
  11. JESUS was seen in the earth 40 days after His crucifixion. Acts 1:3"After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God".
Also of note:
  • The ancient Egyptians took 40 days to embalm their dead.
  • The Hindus pray for their dead on day 41.
  • The Tibetan Buddhists Book of the dead speaks of a journey of 49 days after death before reaching the final destination.
  • The Jews mourned their dead for 40 days.
  • The early Christians pray for their departed ones fervently in the first 40 days and they too understood the importance.
St. Symeon of Thessalonika writes: “The forty days of prayer are done in memory of the Ascension of the Lord, forty days after His Resurrection, [in hopes] that likewise, the deceased, rising from the tomb and ascending to meet the Lord, might taken be taken up in the clouds, and thus ever be with the Lord.” Novaya Skryzhal’, Part 4, Chapter 472.

In Christ, we dont die.
The Church (to which St. Mary, St. Peter etc belongs) is the BODY of CHRIST.

There is no separation. So just as Christ is alive, we to live.

Christ and Church are compared to:

Vine and branches
  • Joh 15:1,5 Foundation and building
  • 1Col 3:10,11; Eph 2:20,21; 1Pet 2:4-6 Body and members
  • 1Col 12:12,27; Eph 5:30 Husband and wife
  • Eph 5:25-32
Christ being in us- Eph 3:17; Col 1:27

Our being in Christ- 2Co 12:2; 1Jo 5:20

John 10:34–“Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?”

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.”1 John 4:13

So if you say that the Saints, who achieved a high degree of theosis to be grafted onto his body, are dead, then you are saying that Jesus Christ is dead too.

So we can say that some of the Christians (mostly the saints) are in paradise right after death due to particular judgement (as in the case of the Good Thief, Elijah, etc.)

Some maybe in a state of sleep.

Who gets what is upto God alone. We only have the scripture and tradition to give us answers which science cannot provide.

However we Orthodox Christians believe certain Christlike individuals like St. Mary, the Apostles, Saints etc are ones who passed particular judgement like the Good Thief, and like Enoch and Elijah.

We can say conclusively that it is not for nothing that Jesus Christ said thus:

″I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”Mark 9:1

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22 October 2011

On Ghosts, Wandering Spirits and Demons by Saint John Chysostom

"It came to pass," it is said, "that Lazarus died; and he was carried up by angels," (Luke 17:22).
Here, before I proceed, I desire to remove a wrong impression from your minds. For it is a fact that many of the less instructed think that the souls of those who die a violent death become wandering spirits (or demons).

But this is not so. I repeat it is not so. For not the souls of those who die a violent death become demons, but rather the souls of those who live in sin; not that their nature is changed, but that in their desires they imitate the evil nature of demons. Showing this very thing to the Jews, Christ said, "Ye are the children of the devil," (John 7:44). He said that they were the children of the devil, not because they were changed into a nature like his, but because they performed actions like his. Wherefore also He adds: "For the lusts of your father ye will do." Also John says: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do therefore works meet for repentance. And think not to say, We have Abraham for our father" (Matt. 3:7-9). The Scripture, therefore, is accustomed to base the laws of relationship, not on natural origin, but on good or evil disposition; and those to whom any one shows similarity of manners and actions, the Scripture declares him to be their son or their brother.

But for what object did the evil one introduce this wicked saying? It is because he would strive to undermine the glory of the martyrs. For since these also died a violent death, he did this with the intention of spreading a low estimation of them. This, however, he is unable to effect; they remain in possession of their former glory. But another and more grievous thing he has brought to pass; he has, by these means, persuaded the wizards who do his work to murder many innocent children, expecting them to become wandering spirits, and afterward to be their servants. But these notions are false - I repeat they are false. What then if the demons say, "I am the spirit of such and such a monk"? Neither because of this do I credit the notion, since evil spirits say so to deceive those who listen to them.

For this reason St Paul stopped their mouth, even when speaking the truth, in order that they might not, on this pretext, at another time mingle falsehood with the truth, and still be deemed worthy of credit. For when they said, "These men are the servants of the Most High God, which show unto us the way of salvation," (Acts 16:17) being grieved in spirit, he rebuked the sorceress, and commanded the spirits to go out. What evil was there in saying, "These men are the servants of the Most High God"? Be that as it may, since many of the more weak-minded cannot always know how to decide aright concerning things spoken by demons, he at once put a stop to any credence in them. "If," he implied, "thou art one of those in dishonor, thou hast no liberty of speaking: be silent, and open not thy mouth; it is not thy office to preach; this is the privilege of the apostles. Why dost thou arrogate to thyself that which is not thine? Be silent! Thou art fallen from honour." The same thing also Christ did, when the evil spirits said to Him, "We know Thee who Thou art," (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:24). He rebuked them with great severity, teaching us never to listen to spirits, not even when they say what is true. Having learnt this, therefore, let us not trust at all in an evil spirit, even though he speak the truth; let us avoid him and turn away. Sound doctrine and saving truth are to be learned with accuracy, not from evil spirits, but from the Holy Scripture.

To show that it is not true that the soul, when it departs from the body, comes under the dominion of evil spirits, hear what St Paul says: "He that is dead is freed from sin," (Rom. 6:7) that is, he no longer sins. For if while the soul dwells in the body, the devil can use no violence against it, it is clear that he cannot when the soul has departed. How is it then, say they, that men sin, if they do not suffer any violence? They sin voluntarily and intentionally, surrendering themselves without compulsion or coercion. And this all those prove who have overcome the evil one's devices. Thus [Satan] was unable to persuade Job to utter any blasphemous word, though he tried a thousand plans. Hence it is manifest that it is in our power either to be influenced or not to be influenced by his counsels; and that we are under no necessity nor tyranny from him. And not only from that which has just been said, but from the parable, it is quite certain that souls when they leave the body do not still linger here, but are forthwith led away. And hear how it is shown: "It came to pass," it is said, "that he died, and was carried away by the angels." Not the souls of the just only, but also those of sinners are led away. This also is clear from the case of another rich man. For when his land brought forth abundantly, he said within himself, "What shall I do? I will pull down my barns and build greater," (Luke 12:18). Than this state of mind nothing could be more wretched. He did in truth pull down his barns; for secure storehouses are not built with walls of stone; they are "the mouths of the poor." But this man neglecting these, was busy about stone walls. What, however, did God say to him? "Thou fool, this night shall they require thy soul of thee." Mark also this: in one passage it is said that the soul is carried away by angels; in the other, that "they require it;" and in the latter case they lead it away as a prisoner; in the former, they guard and conduct it as a crowned victor. And like as in the arena a combatant, having received many wounds, is drenched with blood; his head being then encircled with a crown, those who stand ready by the spot take him up, and with great applause and praise they bear him home amid shouting and admiration. In this way the angels on that occasion led Lazarus also away. But in the other instance dreadful powers, probably sent for that purpose, required the soul. For it is not of its own accord that the soul departs this life; indeed, it is not able. For if when we travel from one city to another we need guides, much more does the soul stand in want of those who can conduct it, when it is separated from the flesh, and is entering upon the future state of existence. For this reason it often rises up and again sinks down into the depth below; it fears and shivers as it is about to put off the flesh. The consciousness of sin ever pierces us, and chiefly at that hour when we are about to be led hence to the account there to be rendered, and to the awful tribunal. Then, if a man has robbed, if he has been covetous, if he has been haughty, if he has unjustly been any one's enemy, if he has committed any other sin whatsoever, all the load of guilt is brought fresh to light, and being placed before the eye causes mental compunction. And as those who live in prison are always in sorrow and pain, and especially on that day when they are to be led forth, and brought to the place where they are to be tried, and placed at the bar, and hear the voice of the judge within; as they then are full of fear, and seem no better than dead men, so the soul, though it is much pained at the very moment of the sinful act, is much more afflicted when about to be hurried away.

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21 October 2011

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Greek: Οἰκουμενικὸν Πατριαρχεῖον Κωνσταντινουπόλεως, IPA: [ikumenikˈon patriarˈxion konstantinuˈpoleos]; Turkish: Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi, "Roman Orthodox Patriarchate"), part of the wider Orthodox Church, is one of the fourteen autocephalous churches within the communion of Orthodox Christianity. It is headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I.

Due to its location at the former capital of the Byzantine Empire and its role as the mother church of most modern Orthodox churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has enjoyed the status of "first among equals" among the world's Eastern Orthodox prelates. Unlike the Pope, he does not exercise control over the individual autocephalous churches, which are fully autonomous. However the Moscow Patriarchate represents the numerically largest Orthodox community.

Christianity in Byzantium existed from the 1st century, but it was in the year 330 that the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great moved his residence to the small Greek town of Byzantium, renaming it Nova Roma. From that time, the importance of the church there grew, along with the influence of its bishop.

Prior to the moving of the imperial capital, the bishop of Byzantium had been under the authority of the metropolitan of Heraclea, but beginning in the 4th century, he grew to become independent in his own right and even to exercise authority throughout what is now modern-day Greece, Asia Minor, Pontus, and Thrace. With the development of the hierarchical structure of the Church, the bishop of Constantinople came to be styled as exarch (a position superior to metropolitan). Constantinople was recognized as the fourth patriarchate at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, after Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. The patriarch was usually appointed by Antioch.

Because of the importance of the position of Constantinople's church at the center of the Roman Empire, affairs involving the various churches outside Constantinople's direct authority came to be discussed in the capital, particularly where the intervention of the emperor was desired. The patriarch naturally became a liaison between the emperor and bishops traveling to the capital, thus establishing the position of the patriarch as one involving the unity of the whole Church, particularly in the East.

In turn, the affairs of the Constantinopolitan church were overseen not just by the patriarch, but also by synods held including visiting bishops. This pan-Orthodox synod came to be referred to as the ενδημουσα συνοδος (endimousa synodos, "resident synod"). The resident synod not only governed the business of the patriarchate but also examined questions pertinent to the whole Church as well as the eastern half of the old empire.

The patriarch thus came to have the title of Ecumenical, which referenced not a universal episcopacy over other bishops, but rather the position of the patriarch as at the center of the oikoumeni, the "household" of the empire.

As the Roman Empire stabilized and grew, so did the influence of the patriarchate at its capital. This influence came to be enshrined in Orthodox canon law, to such an extent that it was elevated even beyond more ancient patriarchates: Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople (381) stated that the bishop of that city "shall have primacy of honor after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is the New Rome."

In its disputed 28th Canon, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 recognized an expansion of the boundaries of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and of its authority over bishops of dioceses "among the barbarians", which has been variously interpreted as referring either to areas outside the Byzantine Empire or to non-Greeks. The council resulted in a schism with the Monophysite Patriarchate of Alexandria.

In any case, for almost a thousand years the Patriarch of Constantinople presided over the church in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and its missionary activity that brought the Christian faith in its Byzantine form to many peoples north of the imperial borders. The cathedral church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), was the center of religious life in the Christian world.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate came to be called "the Great Church of Christ", and it was the touchstone and reference point for ecclesiastical affairs in the East, whether in terms of church government, relations with the state, or liturgical matters.

In history and in canonical literature (i.e. the Church's canons and traditional commentaries on them), the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been granted certain prerogatives (presbeia) which other autocephalous Orthodox churches do not have. Not all of these prerogatives are today universally acknowledged, though all do have precedents in history and canonical references. The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of these prerogatives and their reference points:
  • Equal prerogatives to Old Rome (Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, Canon 36 of the Quinisext Council);
  • The right to hear appeals, if invited, regarding disputes between clergy (Canons 9 and 17 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council);
  • The right to ordain bishops for areas outside defined canonical boundaries (Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council);
  • The right to establish stavropegial monasteries even in the territories of other patriarchates (the Epanagoge, commentaries of Matthew Blastares and Theodore Balsamon)
In the eighth and ninth centuries the iconoclast movement caused serious political unrest throughout the Empire. The emperor Leo III issued a heretical decree in 726 against images, and ordered the destruction of a statue of Christ over one of the doors of the Chalke, an act which was fiercely resisted by the citizens.

Constantine V convoked a church council in 754 which condemned the veneration of images, after which many treasures were broken, burned, or painted over with depictions of trees, birds or animals: one source refers to the church of the Holy Virgin at Blachernae as having been transformed into a "fruit store and aviary". Following the death of his son Leo IV in 780, the empress Irene restored the veneration of images through the agency of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, only to be resolved once more in 843 during the regency of Empress Theodora, who restored the icons.

The relations between the papacy and the Byzantine court were good in the years leading up to 1054. The emperor Constantine IX and the Pope Leo IX were allied through the mediation of the Lombard catepan of Italy, Argyrus, who had spent years in Constantinople, originally as a political prisoner.

Patriarch Michael I ordered a letter to be written to the bishop of Trani in which he attacked the "Judaistic" practices of the West, namely the use of unleavened bread. The letter was to be sent by John to all the bishops of the West, including the Pope. John promptly complied and the letter was passed to one Humbert of Mourmoutiers, the cardinal-bishop of Silva Candida, who translated the letter into Latin and brought it to the Pope, who ordered a reply to be made to each charge and a defence of papal supremacy to be laid out in a response.

Although he was hot-headed, Michael was convinced to cool the debate and thus attempt to prevent the impending breach. However, Humbert and the pope made no concessions and the former was sent with legatine powers to the imperial capital to solve the questions raised once and for all. Humbert, Frederick of Lorraine, and Peter, Archbishop of Amalfi arrived in April 1054 and were met with a hostile reception; they stormed out of the palace, leaving the papal response with Michael, who in turn was even more angered by their actions. The patriarch refused to recognise their authority or, practically, their existence. When Pope Leo died on April 19, 1054, the legates' authority legally ceased, but they effectively ignored this technicality.

In response to Michael's refusal to take on the issues at hand, the legatine mission took the extreme measure of entering the church of the Hagia Sophia during the Divine Liturgy and placing a bull of excommunication on the altar.

The events of the East-West Schism are generally dated from the acts of 1054. However, these events only triggered the beginning of the schism. The full schism was not actually consummated by the seemingly mutual excommunications. The New Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the legates had been careful not to intimate that the bull of excommunication implied a general excommunication of the Byzantine Church. The bull excommunicated only Caerularius, Leo of Achrida, and their adherents. Thus, the New Catholic Encyclopedia argues that the dispute need not have produced a permanent schism any more than excommunication of any "contumacious bishop". The schism began to develop when all the other Eastern patriarchs supported Caerularius. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, it was the support of Emperor Michael VI Stratiotikos that impelled them to support Caerularius. Some have questioned the validity of the bull on the grounds that Pope Leo IX had died at that time and so the authority of the legates to issue such a bull is unclear.

The legates left for Rome two days after issuing the bull of excommunication, leaving behind a city near riot. The patriarch had the immense support of the people against the emperor, who had supported the legates to his own detriment. To assuage popular anger, the bull was burnt, and the legates were anathematised. Only the legates were anathematised and, in this case too, there was no explicit indication that the entire Western church was being anathematised.

In the bull of excommunication issued against Patriarch Michael by the papal legates, one of the reasons cited was the Eastern Church's deletion of the "Filioque" from the original Nicene Creed. In fact, it was precisely the opposite: the Eastern Church did not delete anything. It was the Western Church that added this phrase to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

"Even after 1054 friendly relations between East and West continued. The two parts of Christendom were not yet conscious of a great gulf of separation between them. … The dispute remained something of which ordinary Christians in East and West were largely unaware". In fact, efforts were made in subsequent centuries by Popes and Patriarchs to heal the rift between the churches. However, a number of factors and historical events worked to widen the separation over time.

The Fourth Crusade in agreement for funds attempted to help the deposed emperor Alexius IV regain his throne. After taking Constanople, returning Alexius IV to the throne, the revolt against and death of Alexius IV, the Crusaders were left without payment. On 12 April 1204, the crusaders inflicted a severe sacking on Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were either stolen or destroyed. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders ruthlessly and systematically violated the city's holy sanctuaries, destroying, defiling, or stealing all they could lay hands on; nothing was spared. It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. The Venetians received 150,000 silver marks that was their due, while the Crusaders received 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly up between the Crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were secretly kept back by many Crusader knights.

Speros Vryonis in Byzantium and Europe gives a vivid account of the sack of Constantinople by the Frankish and Venetian Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade:
"The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church's holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention."(Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, p.152)
When the Bishop of Rome, Innocent III, heard of the conduct of his pilgrims, he was filled with shame and strongly rebuked the crusaders.

Meanwhile, the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established, and Byzantine refugees founded their own successor states, the most notable of these being the Empire of Nicaea under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III), the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus.

The new seat of the Patriarchate was established in the city of Nicea until in 1261, when Constantinople was reconquered by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos.

After Constantinople was overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Patriarchate came to care more directly for all the Orthodox living in the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed II appointed Gennadios II Scholarios as the Patriarch in 1454 and designated him as the spiritual leader as well as the ethnarch or milletbasi of all the Orthodox Christians in the Empire, not just those of Hellenic origin. During this period Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians of southern Albania, and Greeks of northern Greece came under the spiritual, administrative, fiscal, cultural and legal jurisdiction of the Patriarchate. Some of the other patriarchs came at various points to live permanently in Constantinople and function as part of the local church government.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which for centuries had been a diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, declared its independence in 1448, shortly before Constantinople fell, owing to its protest over the Council of Florence, in which representatives of the patriarchate had signed onto union with Rome, trading doctrinal concessions for military aid against the encroaching Ottomans. The military aid never came, and those concessions were subsequently repudiated by the patriarchate, but from 1448, the Russian church came to function independently. Within decades after the Fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on 29 May 1453, some were nominating Moscow as the "Third Rome", or the "New Rome". 141 years later, in 1589, Constantinople came to recognize Russia's independence and led the Orthodox Church in declaring Russia also to be a patriarchate, numbering Moscow's bishop as fifth in rank behind the ancient patriarchates. The Russian Orthodox Church became the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world.

As Ottoman rule eventually weakened, various parts of the Orthodox Church that had been under the direct influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate came to be independent. These churches at first usually declared their independence without universal approval, which came after Constantinople gave its blessing. The rate at which these new autocephalous ("self-headed") churches came into being increased in the 19th century, particularly with the independence of Greece.

In 1833, the Church of Greece declared its autocephaly, which was subsequently recognized by the patriarchate in 1850. In 1865, the Romanian Orthodox Church, against the protests of Constantinople, declared its independence, which was acknowledged in 1885. A year before Greece's autocephaly was self-proclaimed, the Serbian Orthodox Church was named autocephalous by the local secular government, and Constantinople refused recognition until 1879. In 1860 the Bulgarians de-facto seceded from the Great Church and in 1870 the Bulgarian church was politically recognized as autonomous under the name Bulgarian Exarchate by the Sultan's firman, although it was not until 1945 that it was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1922, the Albanian Orthodox Church declared its autocephaly, being granted recognition of it in 1937.

In addition to these churches, whose territory had been agreed upon by all as within Constantinople's jurisdiction, several other disputed areas' Orthodox churches have had recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as either autocephalous or autonomous, including the Finnish Orthodox Church and Estonian Orthodox Church in 1923, the Polish Orthodox Church in 1924, the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church in 1998. The majority of these disputes are a result of the expansion of the Russian Empire, which often included a subjugation of the churches in conquered lands to the Moscow Patriarchate.

As a ruling institution, Ottoman Empire brought regulations on how the cities would be build (quality reassurances) and how the architecture (structural integrity, social needs, etc.) should be shaped.

Special restrictions were imposed concerning the construction, the renovation, the size and the ringing of the bells in Orthodox churches. For example, an Orthodox church should not be larger in size than a mosque. Many of the large cathedrals were destroyed (e.g. the Church of the Holy Apostles), transformed into mosques, by desecrating their interior and exterior (notably the Hagia Sophia, Chora Church, Rotonda, Hagios Demetrios) or served as armories for the Janissaries (e.g. Hagia Irene).

Since 1586 the Ecumenical Patriarchate has had its headquarters in the relatively modest Church of St George in the Phanar district of Istanbul. The current territory of the Patriarchate is significantly reduced from what it was at its height. Its canonical territory currently includes most of modern Turkey, northern Greece and Mount Athos, the Dodecanese and Crete. By its interpretation of Canon 28 of Chalcedon, Constantinople also claims jurisdiction over all areas outside the canonically defined territories of other Orthodox churches, which includes the entire Western hemisphere, Australia, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. This claim is disputed by other autocephalous churches with diocese in those areas, as well as the Turkish government.

The Orthodox presence in Turkey itself is small; however the majority of Orthodox in North America (about two-thirds) are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, primarily in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The Patriarchate also enjoys an even greater majority in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the Albanian, Carpatho-Russian and Ukrainian jurisdictions in America are also part of the Patriarchate.

Most of the Patriarchate's funding does not come directly from its member churches but rather from the government of Greece, due to an arrangement whereby the Patriarchate had transferred property it had owned to Greece, in exchange, the employees, including the clergy, of the Patriarchate are remunerated by the Greek government. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides substantial support through an annual contribution, known as the "logia", and its institutions, including the American based Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptohos Society and the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, usually important laymen who make large donations for the upkeep of the Patriarchate. In turn, they are granted honorary titles which once belonged to members of the Patriarchal staff in centuries past.

The Patriarchate acts in the capacity of being an intermediary and facilitator between the Orthodox churches and also in relations with other Christians and religions. This role sometimes brings the Patriarchate into conflict with other Orthodox churches, as its role in the Church is debated. The question centers around whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate is simply the most honored among the Orthodox churches or whether it has any real authority or prerogatives (presveia) which differ from the other autocephalous churches. This dispute is often between Constantinople and Moscow, the largest Orthodox church in terms of population, especially as expressed in the Third Rome theory which places Moscow in the place of Constantinople as the center of world Orthodoxy.

The relationship between Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire was frequently bitter, due in no small part to the privilege given to Islam. In the secular Republic of Turkey, tensions are still constant. Turkey requires by law that the Patriarch be a Turkish citizen, but all Patriarchs have been ethnic Greeks since 1923. The state's expropriation of church property and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki are also difficulties faced by the Patriarchate.

The affairs of the patriarchate are conducted by the Holy Synod, presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The synod has existed since some time prior to the fourth century and assists the patriarch in determining the affairs of the possessions under his jurisdiction. The synod first developed from what was referred to as the resident synod, composed of the patriarch, local bishops, and any Orthodox bishops who were visiting in the imperial capital of Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople, the synod's membership became limited to bishops of the patriarchate.

Head of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and of the Holy Synod is the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch "first among equals" and Co-Head of State of Mount Athos, Bartholomew I (Dimitrios Archontonis) (1991-). The local churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate consist of six archdioceses, eight churches, and 18 metropolises, each of which reports directly to the Patriarch of Constantinople with no intervening authority. In addition, three of the six archdioceses have internal metropolises (17 in all), which are part of their respective archdioceses rather than distinct administrative entities, unlike the other metropolises. Two of the churches of the patriarchate are autonomous, the Finnish Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox Church.

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