1. What are the historical roots of the Orthodox presence in Africa, its present and the consistency of its prospects?
The beginnings of Christianity in Africa can be traced to Alexandria in Egypt, where the Apostle Mark, one of the four Evangelists and one of the 70 Apostles, preached and spread the word of Christ. He was undoubtedly the first bishop of the Church in Africa, which has been confirmed by historical research. The activities and contribution of the Apostle Mark to the spread of Christianity throughout the continent of Africa are well-noted and he has been venerated by the Christians of Africa since the very beginning. Recently, the remnants of the Basilica of St Mark were discovered in the sea near Alexandria. The early Christians of Africa were of Greek, Egyptian and Jewish origin, and became the first members of the first Christian and community. Alexandria quickly developed into a spiritual centre and was originally the greatest Christian hub, where people of all nationalities congregated. The Patriarchate of Alexandria founded many dioceses, especially throughout Egypt, as well as in other places in North Africa, such as Egypt, Cyrene, Tripoli and Carthage. Due to the presence of Greek and other Mediterranean people in North Africa who travelled to other parts of Africa, Christianity spread to the rest of Africa south of the Sahara, which we now have evidence for. The spread of the Word continued in the so-called Byzantine period, as missionaries were sent to Ethiopia and other places that are not known today. There are some tentative signs indicating the presence of monks in parts of central and southern Africa, a broader area known as “remote border forts”.
During the fifth century, the secession of the Egyptian portion of the Church, namely that of Christians of Coptic origin or Jacobites, took place when they did not accept the decisions of the Fourth Ecumenical Council and they remain known to this day as the Monophysites of Egypt. During the course of many centuries, the Patriarchate of Alexandria has maintained a good relationship with this wider Christian family, although without Eucharistic communion. Since then it has been called the Roman Church (Rum) and is the local Church that remains in unbroken communion with the Church in other places. In AD 536, another section of “Greek” Christians, or Melkites, was established. They identified with the ruling empire and remained faithful to the political power of Byzantium. After the Great Schism in 1054, the Church retained the same name, with the addition of the adjective “Orthodox”, and became known as the Rum Orthodox Church (Roman Orthodox). In this it showed the right belief of the peoples of the East, in contrast to the term “Roman Catholic” that was used in the West.
Today there are many Christian denominations on the African continent and Africa can basically be identified as a Christian continent. The Church, under the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, has bishoprics and parishes everywhere. There are both ancient communities and recently-established ones that have emerged due to the movement of Orthodox groups from North African communities and also due to of the missionary activity of the Church.
There are catechetical schools and seminaries to prepare men for ordination and for other ministries in Kenya and Egypt, and an operational university in Central Africa. These have been set up near the old parishes that were originally created mainly by migrant Greeks from Greece and other Greek-speaking regions, such as Cyprus or Asia Minor, or by the original inhabitants of the area.
In recent times, ethnically-orientated communities were created throughout the rest of Africa, which formed the platform for the creation of new parishes, such as the parishes of Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa as well as in most neighbouring countries. Recently, with the political changes in the world, many believers have come from Eastern European countries and have either joined existing parishes or created new parishes under the canonical jurisdiction and spiritual authority of the local bishops.
The Orthodox mission was initiated by Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus, the monks of Mount Athos and missionary groups from Greece and Cyprus. They were sent to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Central and West Africa where they founded missionary parishes that are still showing surprising growth today.
Within this multicultural environment, and under the guidance of the ruling Church, many churches were built where a continual programme of worship, systematic spiritual support for believers, plus missionary and social service programmes were put in place. A blossoming of sacramental life and a continuous testimony to the presence and the energy of the Holy Spirit can be witnessed in the activities of the members of the Church. We are confident that God will bless the people of Africa and that they will withstand the challenges that they face due to poverty, religious and political disturbances and other dysfunctional situations.
2. How does African culture impact on the experience of the ancient Christian traditions of the East?
Because Africa is a huge continent, traditions, habits and cultural backgrounds vary. There are Africans who were isolated for several centuries and others who had contact with either foreign visitors or opportunistic colonialists from areas of Europe. As a result, they developed proportionate and appropriate relationships. Where there was violent imposition, one can notice that they did not identify with the settlers and only tolerated them. Where there is exploitation, there is also underlying mistrust.
Irrespective of their experiences with any European, Arabic or any other peoples with whom they came in contact, Africans remain largely tied to their distant traditions and culture. They still adhere to aspects of animism, with strong elements of ancestor worship and the acceptance of the existence of spirits that are found in objects around them and in natural phenomena. Although they are professed members of Christian groups, many nevertheless maintain the customs and habits that refer back to their past. They are fond of ceremonies that showcase their status within society and maintain a hierarchy that plays a key role in their lives. They are also concerned about negative power that is transmitted through magic. Through the encounter with previous missionary activity most of the African peoples have become Christians today, but many have adopted only the most basic elements of the Christian faith.
Many African Christians do not belong to any particular confession or sect or else they are members of various denominations, and even those who are members of specific denominations often lack theological awareness. From our experience of ministry in South Africa, we see that the Orthodox standards and specific provisions for the relationships between people who are governed by the balanced and philanthropic perceptions of our Church are enabling Africans to adopt the Orthodox faith and way of life. For example, celibacy is not considered acceptable to Africans, but in the Orthodox faith it is acceptable for a married believer to become a priest. In addition, the ritual elements of the Eastern tradition, such as the vestments, icons, utensils and buildings, together with the music and chanting, all combine to create a more accessible environment for Africans. Perhaps this is a sentimental memory of older times, a remnant of the interaction with Egypt and Ethiopia that has diffused over time into neighbouring nations where we find elements that reflect these perceptions and beliefs even today. Throughout the centuries, nations and peoples have often combined cultural and religious beliefs and created strong cultures that have survived the passage of time. We are opposed to any religious syncretism (the amalgamation of different religions), but where the content of faith remains, some habits and cultural elements of the past can still persist. We believe that there is no need for any form of civilisation that accepts only the elements of Western civilisation, nor should specific ethnic and cultural precepts be imposed. Rather, Africans should be encouraged to continue according to their own traditions, with the only difference being to follow the type of life required of them by the rules of the Church, which is useful for their own spiritual progress and therefore also leads to their salvation.
3. What expectations do the Orthodox communities in Africa have of the next pan-Orthodox Synod?
Given that the Holy and Great Synod has been much-publicised, and that it has been presented as a great event, everyone expected that it would solve many problems, especially relating to fasting and marriage, which were certainly some of the topics on its agenda. It was also expected to address other special issues that relate to participation in the Church’s life of worship and to address modern problems arising from the challenges of new issues in the relations among people, such as the cohabitation of same-sex couples, the interruption of pregnancy, surrogate births, organ transplantation, euthanasia and other related bioethical and scientific issues.
The Christian communities of Africa, as well as those around the world, expect the Holy Synod to lay down a solid confirmation of the content of our faith. They expect the Council’s decisions and provisions to be a natural continuation of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, or even the other councils of the Orthodox Church, which were convened at a local level and have not been classified until now as ecumenical.
The Church’s message will be relayed to all Christians and non-Christians and will expose the specific conditions that are caused by economic and political instability, the destruction of the environment, the management of technology and the distribution of information, the rise of religious fanaticism, moral depression and other crucial issues that involve individuals and communities.
It is important to note that Africa, as a missionary region, is particularly sensitive to the observance of moral and religious precepts, and so we expect the Church to express clearly and in simple terms its opinion on all issues. However, in the present situation, we await the outcome with limited optimism. The process of preparation was only conducted at a committee level. Moreover, the Great Synod will not include the participation of all the bishops, but only a fixed number agreed upon by the primates of the Church, rather than according to the traditional way. The pious have certainly been informed of the preparations, with the publication by the secretariat of the proposed texts after the recent meeting of the primates in Geneva, Switzerland, in January. Regarding mission, it might be an indication of the Church’s special interest if the Holy and Great Synod expressed its willingness to support the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria’s projects on the African continent during the course of its deliberations.
4. How do you see the relations between “patriarchal headquarters” and the Orthodox communities of the diaspora, especially in Africa?
The co-existence of many ecclesiastical jurisdictions in an area is indeed problematic as it is in opposition to the Church’s rules and canons, which specify that there should be only one exclusive ecclesiastical authority in each specific area. This is a phenomenon of the recent past centuries that occurred with the movement of Christians into the new countries, such as America, Australia, the Far East and elsewhere. One finds a number of parishes in a specific area that belong to different ecclesiastical jurisdictions (which refer to and are under the spiritual jurisdiction of their Mother Churches, outside of their state boundaries and the normative jurisdiction of the local Church). The temporary co-existence of these various ecclesiastical authorities has been addressed by the agenda of the Great Synod with the establishment of Episcopal Assemblies that were decided on by the Fourth Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference. However, there is no so-called “diaspora” in Africa as all the Orthodox communities and parishes belong to the normative jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. Through regular interaction on a frequent basis, all regions participate in one annual or special meetings of the Church in Africa. Under the guidance of the spiritual leader, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, who is also President of the Holy Synod of the African Church, the work is co-ordinated with the co-operation of the local metropolitans and bishops. The clergy belong to the clergy of the patriarchate and report regularly to the patriarch and the bishops concerned.
All African countries have parishes that include members of various ethnic backgrounds. They are served by clergy who are either native Orthodox men who have been ordained, or by clergy from other regions. This is done by proper arrangement and with the approval of the patriarchate’s Holy Synod and in accordance with Church law and the appropriate canonical documents. New parishes are created in accordance with the needs of the area by the establishment of parish committees under the direct oversight of the local priest and the approval of the bishop. The bishop is accountable to the Church’s synod that meets at regular intervals, and also in cases of particular need. The patriarch, as the primate (primus) or first in honour among the bishops of the African Church, in addition to co-operating with the metropolitans and bishops of the Holy Synod, has the opportunity for direct contact with the flock through his visits to local bishoprics and parishes, and also by meeting with local authorities, particularly heads of state and other politicians and leaders. The experience of centuries helps to streamline and systematise the co-ordination of this work of pastoral care in such a huge area. The goodwill, humility, but above all the self-sacrifice of all sides, ensures the best results from the efforts of the flock and their spiritual leaders in the world’s arena.
In this situation, the only opponent is the enemy of this world, the devil himself. We must face the sin that is derived from him by all the means and opportunities that are at our disposal.
No one can be seen as a competitor and no one is without responsibility in the Church. Everyone has the right to work and we all have a duty that is owed to God and His people. So, following the rules, the experience of centuries, but also aware of the institutional position of every local spiritual leader, the task of the Church continues undisturbed by challenges.
5. What could be the specific contribution of the experience and the reflection of the African Orthodox communities to the great Orthodox tradition?
The antiquity of the Church and the vibrancy that distinguishes it, help to make it the upcoming local Church. The parishes now have those elements that characterise living Church organisations, enabling them to become spiritual centres. Many African Christians live in societies with conditions that are similar to the early Christian times, and in which the principles of coexistence and mutual respect apply, something that we seem to have lost in the so-called civilised world. In this, they can serve as a role model for Christians in other places.
Weddings and funerals, for example, are social events that show the family relationship and the sanctity of the person, and usually provide an opportunity for mutual joy or comfort. This also applies to the Holy Eucharist, where we are participants in the sacramental sharing of the Body of Christ, and which also provides a good opportunity for strengthening family ties, friendship, solidarity and fraternity.
However, this does not stop at the family level but proceeds to the philosophical and theological perception of ubuntu. This word encapsulates the African understanding of human experience, a quality that includes essential human virtues such as compassion and humanity through communion with one’s fellow human beings. The concept of ubuntu can easily be identified with the Gospel message of love of neighbour and a life in communion that leads to man’s salvation. Someone who is isolated due to excess wealth, selfishness or immorality cannot be complete if he or she does not realise the true nature of humanity through the process of exchange with the other fellow human beings.
Poverty has undoubtedly influenced the African peoples, providing them with experience that has taught them how to cope. In new parishes, the places of worship have often been simple straw huts or shacks, but surprisingly they have not lagged behind in enjoying the benefits that the sacraments held for them. With only a few essential goods, they have learned to enjoy the spiritual goods and higher provisions of the soul. For centuries these people had not experienced the unnecessary accumulation of material goods, and they did not seek improvement that was aligned with material worth, which they rather underestimated and despised.
This wisdom and experience gained from their years of survival under conditions of colonial exploitation carried out by “civilised” peoples from advanced countries is essential for the rest of the world that is now suffering from an economic crisis.
Patience and persistence, tolerance and acceptance, humility and other virtues developed during the difficult times of enslavement are exactly what contemporary man needs today in order to end his contemporary exploitation by those that belong to dark forces and are supported by invisible groups.
Finally, living in harmony with nature and with other beings, Africans have maintained the harmonious use of natural resources. Despite the impact of outside abuse on the African continent, they have ensured that the impact of environmental degradation is less than anywhere else. Nowhere else have so many species survived, despite man’s contribution to the destruction of natural resources, fauna and flora.
6. What do you expect from the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, now under the guidance of Pope Francisco?
Each new leader has a role in the evolution of our world, which is in a state of constant upheaval and, as such, gathers the concerned gaze of others, particularly people in need. Dramatic developments are taking place today in the wider Mediterranean region and people are in a difficult situation due to political conflict and religious rivalries. The phenomenon of migration and the existence of millions of refugees in hitherto Christian Europe, the global market and its consequences, inequality and racism, together with religious fanaticism, are issues that require drastic and immediate attention.
A lack of good political leaders, corruption in administration, the weakening of institutions that had previously provided a balance in society, the apparent immorality that is constantly displayed on social media and in other channels of communication, the tragic phenomenon of legislators imposing immoral laws that exploit their peoples and resources, all these factors do not leave much hope that solutions will be found. There are many cases in which anonymous or hidden forces are trapping the rulers of our society and through them controlling economic, social and political life, thus worsening the already negative situation.
Religious leaders may be the only hope left for the world, especially those whose attitudes and actions indicate that they have the people’s benefit at heart. This is particularly true when their work is for the moral and spiritual support of the faithful, and also of our other fellow human beings.
Perhaps today we need less fewer sermons from the pulpit as there are now new means of communication that can immediately convey the teachings of religious leaders to the public. In addition, everything we communicate by means of social media is open to scrutiny by those in our congregations and by the entire society. Therefore, if the leaders themselves become role models by their actions, we can be optimistic about the future of our world.
Pope Francis comes from Latin America, where the people have gone through terrible difficulties and are still suffering. The sensitivity he has gained as a clergyman in a country that still suffers from so many problems will be helpful in his ministry. He will obviously be able to understand the problems of the poor, the victims of drugs and other addictions, the victims of sexual and other abuse, human trafficking, the scourge of discrimination and racial inequality amongst his brothers and sisters throughout the world.
The discontinuation of ecclesial communion of Catholics with the Orthodox Church, over many centuries, is a sad fact. The kind of negativity that followed the schism and kept the Christian world divided may have affected the whole world. It may have created the opportunity for different religions to take advantage of Christianity and it may be the cause of many evils in the Middle East and North Africa. Since that time, we have prayed for unity and for the return to the One Church, to the One, indivisible Body of Christ. These efforts are still continuing at all levels.
Pope Francis is one of the powerful Christian leaders and he may be the catalyst towards the solutions of many problems. His contribution will therefore be significant. In this endeavour, he will find many allies in the Orthodox world, as the Ecumenical Patriarch and other Orthodox primates seek to spearhead actions that will bring the various parties closer together. Of course, there is the perception in society that such unity is not possible due to doctrinal differences. These differences must naturally be respected by both sides in order to satisfy all sensitive groups who are seeking to preserve the true faith as derived from the Ecumenical Councils and the Holy Tradition the Church. Many theologians do not accept that the Church is divided, but rather see other Christian groups as separated from the Body of the Church. For them, the only acceptable result of ecumenical efforts is the return of the Roman Catholics, together with other denominations, to the one Body of the Church. This poses a serious challenge and addressing it will require great courage, substantiated by serious theological understanding and sound ecclesiological arguments.
Moreover, the numerical strength or material power of a particular denomination cannot be sufficient grounds for determining who is in the right, dominating others or forcing compromise.
In addition, it is important to clarify that the only criterion in the process of the restoration of ecclesial communion is the preservation of the purity of the faith, which will ensure the confession of truth with theological accuracy, rather than the acceptance of any form of compromise, which is only suitable for civil proceedings.
Certainly, then, we are in a more positive situation, having overcome centuries of complete schism and a breakdown of communication in which curses and excommunications dominated. Now all the sides exchange courteous commendations and engage in ongoing dialogues on a systematic basis, with sincere efforts to bring the various parties closer together. It is obvious that there is progress in communication, but it will take a long time to achieve unity and canonical ecclesial communion. Until then, it is useful to maintain contact through meetings at different levels between the various religious confessions. Moreover, co-operation between different groups can help us to address the critical issues facing the world, such as those related to bioethics, technology, interpersonal and inter-communal relationships, and worship and order within the religious life, and can help to promote the solutions to the problems we all face.