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Saturday, 15 June, 2002, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
Sailing with the Green Patriarch
Bartholomew I, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church
The Patriarch's environmental trip took him to Venice

Let me say at the outset - working in the Balkans is difficult and often dispiriting.

How can one not be affected by the wretched children who live in the Albanian settlement of Porto Romano?

A former industrial complex from the communist period, it is now a squatter camp accommodating immigrants from the countryside who have come in futile search of the paved gold streets supposedly covering the capital Tirana and the nearby port of Durres.

Pope John Paul II signs the declaration
The Catholic-Orthodox cooperation was unprecedented
On Tuesday last week an extraordinary group of scientists, religious leaders and environmental activists visited the toxic playgrounds of twisted Dickensiana, the cankered legacy of Albania's great dictator, Enver Hoxha.

It was a sobering experience, but a useful one for the Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic leaders who had accepted an invitation issued by Bartholomew I, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church and first among equals of the autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

He wanted them to join him in drawing attention to the calamitous state of the earth's oceans, seas and coasts.

Ecological ills

The trip was the culmination of an unprecedented co-operative effort between Bartholomew and Pope John Paul II who had agreed to end it with a joint appeal to the world to establish environmental protection as our over-riding political, economic and social policy.


With his sonorous low tenor, his friendly face and an astonishing bejewelled crown, the Patriarch moved several in the church to tears

Locked into a northern finger of the Mediterranean that stretches from the Otranto Straits in the south to Trieste in the north, the Adriatic is especially vulnerable to the devil's cocktail of untreated sewage, regurgitated industrial slime, fanatical over-fishing and dribbling pesticides that has begun to threaten the basis of our entire marine eco-system worldwide.

Our pilgrimage took us along the coasts of the Adriatic's children - Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy.

Ferocious wind

But while we heard and saw present and future disasters, on this journey through the Balkans and Italy, there were compensations on a breath-taking scale.

I had never travelled through Montenegro's Bay of Kotor by boat, only around it by car.

But last Thursday, just as a late yellow afternoon gave way to the dark fluorescent blue of twilight, the enormous ferry carrying us drifted majestically into Kotor's first enormous crater. Its sides were studded with deep green forest, broken only by the delightful red and white roofs of tiny villages.


This was a real sign that the two churches are coming closer together after a millennium of hostility

For 10 minutes we were as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

But as we reached Kotor's thin neck leading to the second, more elongated bay, a ferocious wind began to blow us about the deck - and as the entrance narrowed, it almost felt as though we were about to confront both Scylla and Charibdys.

We survived, of course, to be greeted by the now twinkling lights of Kotor village and a Montenegrin customs office which, perhaps recognising the long tradition of smuggling in the region, had been converted into a bar for the evening to welcome the pilgrims.

Pope link-up

This contrast of the spectacular and the miserable served well to remind us what we are destroying with our lifestyles of relentless consumption.

But we were also afforded an opportunity into the greatness of humankind's creativity.

In Ravenna, we witnessed the first liturgy spoken by the Greek Patriarch in Italy for over 1,000 years.

Waste dump in Greece
The Adriatic pilgrimage aimed to highlight environmental problems
With his sonorous low tenor, his friendly face and an astonishing bejewelled crown, the Patriarch moved several in the church to tears.

It may be hard to grasp, but this was a moment of immense historical significance in ecclesiastical history and a real sign that the two churches are coming closer together after a millennium of hostility.

This was underlined the next day when the Pope joined the Patriarch in the Doge's Palace in Venice - thanks to a live video link-up from St Peter's in Rome.

The Pope, frankly, looked close to death and every time it seemed as though he might keel over, the link up inexplicably went down.

But sign the document he did, opening a new chapter in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Dry martinis

But then the highlight - we were invited to hear an Orthodox choir in the splendidly extravagant Basilica on St Mark's Square.

Bartholomew I, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church
Bartholomew I became the first Patriarch to deliver a liturgy in Italy in 1,000 years
The eerie minor chords echoed through the church.

Then as the second chorus rose to a climax, so was the gorgeous mosaic ceiling of the Basilica illuminated with a battery of lights.

The audience was almost prostrate at this celestial harmony of light and sound and quite a few were - like me - not known for their religious conviction.

How do you top that? Well, I'll tell you - dinner in the courtyard of the Doge's palace, that's how.

Yes sometimes, I think, working on the Balkans does have its compensations.

And to finish? It's obvious. Off to Harry's Bar where, and I'm sure Hemingway will be pleased, they still make the finest dry martinis in the world.

See also:

07 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
04 Jan 02 | Americas
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