November 17, 1997

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Patriarch calls for unity among diverse Orthodox Christians


The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Orthodox Christians applauded their spiritual leader's call for unity among the religion's many churches as he ended his one month tour of the United States.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said he wants Orthodox Christians across the country to savor ethnic diversity while uniting over faith.

Bartholomew, 57, leads 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. In the Unites States, Orthodox Christians belong to 15 different churches, including the large Greek church and smaller churches with ties to countries such as Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

"He is here to spread love among Orthodox Christians and even other religions," said Peter Zikos who saw Bartholomew's arrival at Pittsburgh International Airport Saturday.

"Not many people know much about Orthodoxy. This visit gives people a chance to look and see what it means to be Orthodox," he said .

The patriarch's visit, which ends Monday when Bartholomew returns to his home in Istanbul, marks the 75th anniversary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in this country.

After his arrival Saturday, Bartholomew spoke to about 500 followers in a corporate airplane hangar.

He called for unity in the church and "unity for the entire race of man."

Bartholomew described the trip as one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life, "but the melancholy of having to leaves one's family is intertwined in that joy."

George Kanakis came to see Bartholomew from the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox church in Ambridge, about 15 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

"He is saying to these churches, 'Diversify, but maintain your ethnicity.'" Kanakis said. "It's not about unifying churches -- its about unifying people through philosophical beliefs."

The religious leader's visit was inteded to forge a bond among ethnic groups while still ensuring individuality in the Orthodox church, said Metropolitan Panteilemon, a church official who traveled with Bartholomew.

For example, an orthodox Russian church in Moscow can enjoy different traditions and songs that a church in Athens, Greece.

"Why remove individuality? Let them enjoy theirs, and I will enjoy mine. The same is true here in America," Panteilemon said. "If a Greek church does Greek dances and sings Greek songs but likes American songs too -- then let them."

The purpose of the Patriarch's visit is not to be like the Pope, who "is the head of an administration, according to Panteilemon.

"The purpose is to keep people together in their own community ... and secure unity in faith and sacraments -- not unity through administration," he said.

Angel Mrkonja, 24, also a member of Holy Trinity in Ambridge, demonstrated her church's individuality by wearing a traditional Mediterranean costume.

Ms. Mrkonja, wearing a bright blue blouse, green, red and white skirt, and a gold coin necklace, greeted the patriarch with 10 other women on behalf of a Greek orthodox folk dancing troupe.

"At our age, it is so easy to get away from the church, but the patriarch's visit affirms your faith," she said.

As the hangar doors opened to allow Bartholomew and his entourage of Eastern orthodox officials into the structure, wind and snow rustled the dancers' skirts and the dozens of Greek flags the crowd lifted into the air.

Sam Kakiou's flag dominated them all. Swaying a massive Greek flag from a 15-foot bamboo stick, the member of Kimsis Tis Theotokos church in Aliquippa shrugged and said he didn't mean to outdo anyone.

"I don't really want the publicity," said Kakiou, 66. "I just wanted him to see that there was a Greek in the audience."

On Sunday, Bartholomew led a six-hour liturgy before a crowd of about 5,000 in a makeshift cathedral at the David L. Lawrence at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

After the service, Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland presented Bartholomew with the Congressional Gold Medal.