Several Greek Orthodox priests on the island of Lesvos who organized a joint prayer between Christians and Muslims received criticism for their actions in early November.
According to Protopresbyter Panayiotis Papageorgiou, a Greek Orthodox priest from Marietta, Georgia, the joint Greek Orthodox-Muslim prayer-memorial service on the island following dozens of drownings of refugees, was exactly what Greek Orthodox Christians are called to do.
Several people accused the priests on the island of violating Greek Orthodox canons that prohibit “praying with heretics.”
The American priest wrote a lengthy commentary on Pravmir.com, called “The Joint Prayer of Muslims and Orthodox Christians: Violation of Canons or Expression of Love?” citing the unprecedented situation Greece and Greeks are facing and noting the challenges of those facing these crises first hand, with those further away.
“The closer you are, of course, to any of these events,” he said, “the more emotionally charged you can be. Those of us further away can have a less emotional and more rational response.”
The priest went on to say that “the Orthodox Christian inhabitants of the island are confronted daily with the immense human tragedy and they are faced with real human beings whose lives have been torn apart, whose children or spouses have been killed, who have no place to rest their head and no food to sustain their lives. The Orthodox Christians of Lesvos have to make a decision daily whether to offer them food and shelter, help them bury their dead, and treat them as creatures of God or not.”
The priest went on to conclude his remarks:
Of course, if they ever read the same Gospel as the rest of us (which in fact they hear in every liturgy in its original language) they must have read or heard “if you do this to the least of my brethren you have done it to me”. The natural reaction of every Orthodox Christian would be to try to help those in need, without asking them what religion they profess. You would want to hold the child that is crying, comfort the mother whose husband just drowned, provide food for the old man who cannot walk further because of exhaustion and malnutrition.
As a priest faced with this tragedy, I would be inclined to raise my hands to the Lord and ask for mercy for those who died, as well as those still alive. If they just pulled out their dead from the sea, I would be inclined to offer consolation to the families by turning to God in prayer and supplication. Where else should I go? And if they choose to join me in prayer asking for the same things, should I stop them, because I will be violating a Canon. Is Orthodoxy reduced to a set of rules? Isn’t Love what Christ showed that should always be the rule of our lives?
I am a priest of the Awesome God who created the Universe. I am a priest for all His Creation. I pray for the Creation, the environment, trees and animals, even the pets of my parishioners. I even pray for inanimate objects, their cars, bicycles and homes. Shouldn’t I also pray for a person, who was made in the image of God, who is meant for salvation and the Kingdom of God, even if they are not a Christian at this point? If I am surrendering these people to the hands God in prayer and asking for His mercy and protection, am I compromising my faith in the True God (the Holy Canon prohibiting prayer with heretics is warning against compromising the True Faith). If through my prayer, I witness my faith and show His power through my love for them, am I compromising the Faith? And if the Love of Christ, which I witness to them inspires them to pray with me or right after me in the way they know, would that be a bad thing? Would God be offended, if I lead others to turn to Him in prayer as they understand Him?
It is my conviction that we, as Orthodox Christians, especially those of us who received the power of the Holy Spirit through Ordination, have a major role to play in the world as sanctifiers, vessels of Grace, witnesses of the True God in Christ, witnesses of His transforming Love. This witness is not only for our flock entrusted to us, but for the whole universe, to all nations, to all humanity, even to those who enslaved us at times, even to the enemies of God.