You are criticized for three things, and I would like you to respond to the criticism. The first has been greatly discussed: in 2022, you baptized the children of a same-sex couple in Glyfada. Mount Athos did not receive this well. I read that you were not officially welcomed by the Holy Community on your recent visit, that the atmosphere in Karyes was cold, and so on. Was that really the case?
As to whether my visit to Mount Athos went badly, there is evidence, audiovisual material and photographs, that attest to the opposite. That is, I visited all of the five monasteries we planned to visit. I didn’t go alone, you see, but with a group of pilgrims from America, businessmen and other highly successful people who have a great respect and love for the Church, and specifically for Mount Athos. We were received in a very respectful manner and in accordance with the Athonite traditions. Which is to say, we were given the welcome that is customary for a hierarch visiting the Garden of the Holy Virgin, as we call Mount Athos. There were no difficulties or sticking points, not so much as a hint of awkwardness. As for the four individuals who signed the communiqué, they do not represent Mount Athos and the unanimity they claim was clearly false.
So there were no problems?
I am not the problem. The problem lies within the administration of Mount Athos and its services, which are in a state of confusion. Because, while some people are clearly annoyed by anything relating to same-sex couples and homosexuals in general, they have no theological grounds on which to criticize me, because they have all baptized children. It bothers them that I was photographed during the Sacrament, and that it could thus be construed that I am also giving same-sex couples my blessing. But the same could be said about the heads of Churches, let’s say the Archbishop of Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarch, who have both been photographed with, let’s say, Mr. Kasselakis, who does not conceal his sexual identity.
Did you really agree with the Archbishop of Athens, who suggests that the children of same-sex couples should grow up and then decide whether they want to be baptized?
Look, it is not my position to agree or disagree with the Archbishop of Athens. In our Church, we do not consider that there is any obstacle to baptizing a child, wherever they may come from. It is not our place to scrutinize the way a child was conceived or how it came into the world. Our role is to ensure the legality of the baptism. We need to know that those who are responsible for the child consent to the baptism, whether they are the natural parents or have legal custody. That is the legal part. The ecclesiastical part is to ensure the child has a godparent who is Orthodox and guarantees that the child will be raised within the Orthodox faith. It is unthinkable that parents should have their Orthodox piety assessed before a decision is reached on whether their child can be baptized or not. That is what the godparent is for. As long as these two conditions are met, there can be no ecclesiastical or legal obstacle to the baptism of a child. And that is why I did what I did in 2022.
When I interviewed you two years ago, you said that the question the Church should ask itself in every era is how best to embrace the world. Who we invite to the sacred banquet we call the Church. Do you think that the Church is embracing the world today with its stance on same-sex marriage?
The Church has always embraced everyone. It never sets out to examine or weigh someone’s virtue, sinfulness, or any other quality. The Church was made to save humankind and Christ sacrificed Himself and became flesh for that reason, to save us all. God broke the mold and opened the doors and came out and said; the chosen people are not only the nation I Myself created the nation of Israel; no, henceforth, everyone who accepts Me shall be chosen. So today, I think the Church is a little uneasy about what to do, because LGBT people have always existed. I mean, they didn’t suddenly appear in our modern era like aliens. It’s just that only recently have they begun to fight to be treated with dignity and respect by the rest of the community. Which means that the Church needs to find a new equilibrium. It has to find the rhythm and balance it once had by treating everyone equally, regardless of the choices they have made or any particular characteristics they may have.
I’d like to move on now to the second criticism. Which relates to your relationship with the Greek diaspora. Some circles have accused you of centralism, of being obstinate, of having a personal agenda. How would you describe your relations with the Greek community abroad?
Anyone who views the Greek community abroad from an Athenian perspective will be led astray by certain media outlets that try to push that image, that narrative. But when you live in the United States, and you talk to the institutions that operate there, you get a completely different picture. AHEPA, which is one of the best-connected and well-established Greek-American organizations in the United States, does not consider me divisive. Nor does the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, a very powerful and representative organization in the United States. Those who are trying to divide the Greek American community are the same people who would like the Archbishop to do what they tell him to. But no serious Archbishop could ever cede his responsibilities to a media outlet that aspires to steer community issues so as to reap benefits once again from Greece.
And what about you being centralist?
Quite the opposite. The decision-making process in the Archdiocese of America is the most democratic of all the provinces of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We are the only Church in the Diaspora that makes decisions by Synod. That is, we have the Synod of eight Metropolitans and the Archbishop, who presides over the Synod, and all decisions are made by that committee. What’s more, the amendment I proposed to the charter actually served to strengthen the Synod as an institution. Under the former statutes, the Synod met just twice a year, while I now convene a Synod every month.
Which brings us to the most serious criticism leveled against you: that you maintain overly-friendly relations with Turkey. And that you do so because you are angling to replace the Patriarch when he departs. “Elpidophoros has allied himself with anti-national elements”, some say. So, are you a spy for Turkey?
A spy? Of course not. I am nobody’s spy. I am a man of the Church, I am a child of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who was born and raised in Constantinople. I think I have fallen victim to the mentality that views any Greek who was not born and does not live in Greece with suspicion. This is a mentality that has existed since the liberation of the Greek state: the free Greeks of the free Greek state saw the other Greeks who lived in areas occupied by the Ottoman Empire as “Turkomerites”, which is to say not as Greek as they themselves were. And we have experienced this in Istanbul over the years, where it really does feel as though we’re caught between two clashing mindsets. On the one hand, there’s Turkey, which views us as Greek spies and potential traitors to Turkey, and on the other certain extreme circles in Greece, who see us as Turkish-speaking foreigners. Greece hurts us often, but that’s no reason to go over to the other side. No, never. Blood is thicker than water, agapete.
So do you consider your good relations with Turkey to be an advantage?
Of course. The fact that I am from Istanbul and on good terms with the country in which I have lived many years should not be seen as a flaw, but as an opportunity—we Greeks in Istanbul, with the Ecumenical Patriarch first and then the rest of us, can form a bridge, a conduit for dialog, for communicating with our largest and most powerful neighbor. If we fail to do this, we are being blind and shooting ourselves in the foot. Archbishop Athenagoras, for example, was born in the Ottoman Empire, studied in Constantinople, and then at the Theological School of Halki before becoming Archbishop of America and later Ecumenical Patriarch. And he was the man who united Hellenism and ended the national schism in America between the Venizelists and the Royalists. The great national leader and Archbishop of America, Iakovos, who was called ‘CIAkovos’ in Greece, was born in Imbros, grew up in Imbros and in Istanbul, studied at the Halki Theological School and then came to America to lead the Archdiocese, and made it great, opening the doors of the White House to Hellenism and supported Greece and Cyprus in all the national issues they faced. Why? Because he knew Turkey well. He didn’t know the country from afar. He knew it from the inside.
Do you ever regret attending the Turkish House in New York along with the so-called leader of the Turkish-occupied areas of Cyprus? I have the feeling it still haunts you.
I think that subsequent events vindicated me. First of all, I did not know Mr. Talat. I did not greet him; we did not speak or interact in any way. Moreover, the UN Secretary General was also present and spoke most flatteringly about Turkey and about President Erdogan. Yet, I did not see Greece breaking off diplomatic relations with him, or Cyprus questioning his legitimacy or objectivity. If anyone should find it hard to shake my hand again after my presence there, it would be the Cypriots. And yet I am on excellent terms with the Cypriots and Cypriot organizations in America, as well as with the President of Cyprus. Certain Greek circles find that hard to swallow and have become more Cypriot than the Cypriots. And, of course, the Prime Minister of Greece also visited the Turkish House in New York to meet with the Turkish President. And he was right to do so.
I shall ask you straight out: are your relations with the government and the Prime Minister harmonious?
I have always maintained excellent relations with the Prime Minister and his family. A serious attempt was made to undermine that relationship, but it failed and came to nothing. It left a certain bitterness behind, but that has nothing to do with the Prime Minister himself; it is simply the bitter taste that’s left in the mouth when people try to spoil an old, cordial, sincere and selfless friendship, because both of us serve the nation from our respective positions.
You are in close touch with the American reality. Who will be elected president in November?
That’s the million dollar question! May the best man win, I say. But whoever he is, I hope and pray he does not stir up political passions. Because the turmoil of recent years has been unprecedented. The divisiveness must stop.