Guardian
Cleansing the waters

Paul Brown

Saturday January 8, 2000


The head of a Christian church denouncing pollution as a sin and actively campaigning to prevent humanity further despoiling the environment is a surprise. It smacks of making Christianity relevant to the modern age, of involving young people in a crusade they can understand. Sadly, it not likely to be a message heard this side of the English Channel but from the far side of Europe. The Orthodox church remains influential in some of the former communist countries. It is led by a man whose personal commitment on the environment is affecting the whole church.

His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has emerged in the last decade as a bold figure aiming to re-establish his leadership of a church fragmented and divided by the iron curtain. He has used the environment, or mankind's destruction of it, as a way of uniting the church behind the idea of looking after God's creation.

He has forged a partnership with the European Commission and mounted three expeditions in the Aegean Sea (1995), Black Sea (1997), and last November down the Danube, to campaign against pollution and clean up these seas and the waterways that feed them. He enlists clerics from other faiths - Muslims, Jews and Christians (including two English bishops, Hugh Montefiore and Richard Chartres) - scientists and journalists in a circus of symposiums moving from country to country.

Politicians, scientists and churchman thus tackle the evils of destruction of the natural world and the need to repair the damage in each locality. The patriarch makes a direct challenge: saving the environment is the duty of every Christian, to allow it to be degraded is sinful.

In Serbia, he urged greater democracy, and was met with a rapturous response from younger clerics. Even before the end of the 10-day symposium, he was demanding the reopening of the Danube and the removal of the debris of bridges bombed during the Kosovo war - the wrecked bridges, it was revealed, might act as an ice dam and cause flooding to thousands of homes this winter.

Within days, the EU coun cil of ministers had offered money to help remove the bridges, and tortuous negotiations had begun to solve the problem. So far, no conclusion has been reached, but stalemate has been replaced by communication.

Mainly, however, Bartholomew's message is about defending the poor and the weak. He rightly identifies these as the people who suffer most from the damaged environment, and thus need the church's support. It is the poor who most miss fresh, uncontaminated water to drink, land to plough, and clean rivers and seas in which to catch fish.

His campaign raises questions about the role of any church. He would no doubt say that the environment is essentially non-party, that socialists and capitalists are equally to blame for the mess the natural world is in. All 10 countries along the 1,000 miles or so of the Danube are in part responsible for polluting the river and, as a result, killing a huge amount of life in the Black Sea, where the mess is discharged.

Along the Danube and round the Black Sea, all governments pay at least lip service to sorting out the mess. Indeed, the latest symposium found EU countries often achieve excellent results, but nearly always it is still too little, and much-needed money is diverted elsewhere. The lower Danube countries - like Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukraine - are struggling to survive, with little ability to do anything without specific aid.

It is here that Bartholomew and his River Of Life symposium has made a difference. His partner and supporter Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, was urged in the report on the symposium to produce a coordination plan to improve the whole river. An environmental reconstruction plan was required for the Balkan region, with the Danube at its heart.

Says Maria Becket, the patriarch's coordinator on such matters: "Urgent steps are needed if the Danube is to continue as the source of life it has been for centuries. Human actions are compromising this great river's ecology, threatening public health and preventing commerce that is the lifeblood of the region's peoples."

Thus is the EU lumbering into action - pushed by a Christian message from Turkey, a message that seems to have bypassed Rome and Canterbury.

Paul Brown is the Guardian environment correspondent and reported the last two floating symposiums.




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