By His All-Holiness
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
At the World Children’s Day Celebratory Event
(Geneva, Ecumenical Center, November 21, 2018)
It is with great joy that this year, we once again visit the headquarters of the World Council of Churches during the festive celebrations of its 70th anniversary. At this moment, our eyes are turned not to our common past, but toward our common future: our children. It is important to bear in mind that children do not only represent our future, but that they are in fact the present upon which the future is being built. It is not by chance that in the Gospel, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ presents children and childhood as an existence open to God—the key to enter His Kingdom. Jesus Christ said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) Elsewhere, He even stated, “Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
It is extremely sad to see that in today’s world, children are being abused or threatened—sometimes even in our own Church communities. Protecting children from any kind of violence has always been and should remain an essential message of Christianity. Therefore, Christians are called to protect children both in society and within their own communities. This is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate is particularly pleased with the collaboration established between UNICEF and the WCC on the Churches’ Commitments to Children. In fact, just before this program of the WCC was launched, we called upon our spiritual children and people of goodwill in our Christmas encyclical in December 2016 to respect the identity and sacredness of childhood. We encouraged Churches to protect children from the plague of mortality, hunger and enforced labor; abuse and psychological violence; as well as the dangers of uncontrolled exposure to contemporary electronic means of communication, which can negatively affect their souls and their behavior.
In 2017, the year that we declared as the Year of Protection of the Sacredness of Childhood, we organized in collaboration with Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, Primate of All England, a Forum on Modern Slavery that took place in Istanbul. Knowing that children are among the primary victims of human trafficking, we stressed on this occasion that “true faith is a source of permanent struggle against the powers of inhumanity.” Together with the Church of England, we encouraged state leaders to “find appropriate and effective ways of prosecuting those involved in human trafficking, preventing all forms of modern-day slavery, and protecting its victims in our communities and promoting hope wherever people are exploited.” Afterward, a second Forum on Modern Slavery entitled “Old Problems in the New World” took place in Buenos Aires from May 5-8, 2018, and included video messages offered by our Modesty, as well as by our brothers Pope Francis of Rome and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury. We have also announced plans to convene a third Forum on Modern Slavery, with the theme “Awareness, Action and Impact,” which is scheduled for early January 2019 in Istanbul, in order to further address this global scourge that traps millions of people to lives of suffering, injustice and humiliation.
Today, we also face many other challenges that affect children. The impressive developments that have been achieved in the sectors of technology and communication constitute a serious threat against the dignity of childhood, with the computer and the Internet dominating every aspect of individual and social life. Some of the consequences of this change include the so-called “disappearance of childhood,” the loss of the innocence of children and an early induction into adulthood. Children are, indeed, growing up very quickly, and the impact that parents and family have on their formation is weakened when the Internet functions as a primary source of values on a global scale. An electronic device is not a suitable replacement for a babysitter, nor can it ever be a good father, mother or teacher. A child sitting in front of a computer screen is incompatible with its vital need for physical activity and personal communication. While humanity has labored for the protection and preservation of childhood in the last century, the “century of the child” and the “century of education,” we are shortening the span of childhood through the “optical” and “digital” revolution of the Internet, television, smartphones and tablets. That means that the power of formation and the space where we can educate children is shrinking. It has been rightly noted that mankind has begun to forget again that children need an authentic “childhood experience.”
All of these problems, created through “the surrender of culture to technology,” are intensified by the dominance of economism, the “fundamentalism of the market” and the “deification of profit,” and subjugate the souls of children to the “attitude of having,” as well as to materialism and utilitarianism. In our societies, children are transformed from a very early age into consumers. They are forced to adopt a competitive lifestyle, to regard economic criteria as supreme values, and to identify happiness and freedom with possession and with the satisfaction of their ever-growing needs. Children today are treated purely as “markets” and “consumeristic units,” and childhood is thereby transformed into an “economic category.”
In addition to these ever-increasing problems, we face other issues that are intrinsically linked with globalization and the consequences of technology, such as immigration and climate change, which affect children to a great extent. In fact, children are among the most vulnerable with regard to these problems. Every day, we witness images of children in war zones, as refugees and immigrants without protection, and as victims of famine caused by ecological disasters and climate change. In 2015 and 2016, three-hundred thousand children across the globe were in migratory situations with no adults to accompany them. This is five times larger than the same statistic in 2010 and 2011. These children and young people traverse dangerous paths to reach their destination, such as routes through the Aegean and the central Mediterranean, and are often separated from their families, fleeing from violence, misery, poverty or catastrophes related to ecological disasters. Consequently, they find themselves at the mercy of traffickers and smugglers who abuse and mistreat them.
We are cognizant of the intensifying immigrant and refugee crisis that is challenging our humanistic, moral and religious principles. Obviously, these immense problems cannot be addressed with bureaucratic, administrative, temporary or technocratic measures and principles. Courage, engagement, solidarity, openness and faith are required. We must act more decisively, more rapidly, more collaboratively and more effectively against this challenging situation.
In 2016, we traveled with our brothers, Pope Francis of Rome and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, to the Lesbos Moria refugee camp, which at that time was home to some 2,500 refugees, many of which were children and youth. In fact, our visit was organized at a time when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that more than 22,000 refugee children were stuck in Greece facing an uncertain future. At that time, we stated that “the Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb. It is a place of life, a crossroad of cultures and civilizations, a place of exchange and dialogue.” We then promised that “we shall never forget [them]. We shall never stop speaking for [them]. And we assure [them] that we will do everything to open the eyes and hearts of the world.”
Environmental immigration is an increasingly intense type of immigration that produce a multitude of ecological refugees, the so-called climate change refugees, or environmentally displaced persons. These are people who are forced to leave their homes due to sudden or long-term climate changes in their local environment. Climate refugees may choose to flee or immigrate to another country, or they may migrate internally within their own region.
Children are especially vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. When water becomes scarce because of drought, the poorest children and families are most likely to resort to unsafe water sources. As we have repeatedly affirmed, we endorse and are committed to various international agreements that recognize environmental resources as God’s gift to the world, and not as private property to be exploited. Moreover, their sustainability and stewardship demand a proportionate legal and canonical obligation, which cannot be undermined or ignored. Any abuse of our earth’s resources—and, above all, of water as the source and symbol of life and renewal—contradicts our sacred and social obligation to other people, and especially to those who live in poverty and in the margins of society. Water is a fundamental good, which must be accessible for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other aspect of discrimination.
In 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarchate designated the first day of the ecclesiastical year, September 1st, to be the day of the protection of the natural environment. Continuing in this spirit, a year ago, we co-signed a declaration with Pope Francis to affirm “that there can be no enduring resolution to climate change unless the response is concerted and collective.” Still, even as so many recognize climate change as arguably the greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced, there is much resistance to any call for change. Even when presented with unprecedented glacial melting, extreme weather patterns and devastating impacts on world poverty, some continue to ignore the signs of our times.
The issues of immigration, refugees and climate change are closely linked and will remain the biggest global challenges that our world will have to face in the coming years. It is estimated that 500 million children live in flood-prone areas, 160 million children are exposed to severe drought, and 115 million children are exposed to tropical cyclones. Other statistics show that every year, environmental risks take the lives of 1.7 million children under the age of five. Therefore, climate change serves as a primary cause of child immigration, and in turn, represents a serious threat to their lives.
Therefore, our Churches must undertake initiatives that promote the protection of the environment and subsequently, our children. For this reason, on many different occasions, we have expressed our dismay that, while it is clear that the ecological crisis is constantly escalating in the name of growth and development, humanity remains oblivious to the global appeals for radical change in our attitudes toward creation. As stated by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which convened on the island of Crete in June 2016, “the approach to the ecological problem on the basis of the principles of the Christian tradition demands (…) a radical change in mentality and behavior, but also asceticism as an antidote to consumerism, the deification of needs and the acquisitive attitude. It also presupposes our greatest responsibility to hand down a viable natural environment to future generations and to use it according to divine will and blessing.” (Encyclical, §14)
As one of the founding member Churches of the WCC, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was pleased with the approval of the “Child Safeguarding Policy” during the Central Committee meeting last June. This document calls WCC member Churches to promote child protection in our Church communities, preventing children from experiencing violence. Christian communities should be places of refuge for children in distress, similar to how Egypt was a land of refuge for the infant Child escaping the cruelty of Herod. (Matthew 2:13–21)
We also stand together with UNICEF in the promotion of its new initiative “Children on the Move.” As previously mentioned, migratory children are often the first to be affected by war, conflict, climate change and poverty. Their protection is the shared responsibility of our Churches. As underscored in another significant document of the Holy and Great Council concerning the mission of the Orthodox Church in today’s world, “the Church cannot remain indifferent to the problems of humanity in each period. […] The word addressed to the world is not primarily meant to judge and condemn the world (cf. John 3:17; 12:47), but rather to offer to the world the guidance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God—namely, the hope and assurance that evil, no matter its form, does not have the last word in history and must not be allowed to dictate its course.” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, Prologue). So, we thank and congratulate all those who engage in initiatives supporting the protection of children and efforts relating to inter-generational climate justice.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
This year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its preamble, this document calls human rights the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” whereas article 25 (par. 2) refers to the protection of motherhood and childhood: “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” Moreover, next year, we will celebrate two equally important anniversaries for the protection of child rights and childhood: the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, as well as the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For Orthodox Christianity, the highest ethos is the renouncement of our individual rights in the name of love (ἀγάπη)—for the sake of the protection of the rights of the other. Consequently, we defend the rights of children and promote the protection of their integrity. We strive to uphold their dignity in the digital space, to eradicate their abuse and exploitation, together with all forms of violence and discrimination. It is clear that our ecological initiatives against climate change are in and of themselves an expression of our care for children and future generations.
Christian faith inspires and strengthens our commitment for dignity, justice and solidarity. It supports our effort, even if it seems to be at an impasse. Indeed, faithful can be, and they have to be, more humanists than the mere humanists. Then, the struggle for the protection of human dignity will not be just a moral appeal, but a supreme commandment of the God of love.
In this spirit, we declare: Every day, not only one day of the year—such as yesterday, when we celebrated the World Children’s Day”—is a day for children. Every year—and not just 2017—is a year for the protection of the sacredness of childhood. The eyes of all children are brighter than the sun, and their souls are purer than light. They never bear a mask—they are full of confidence and cordial wisdom. For us Orthodox Christians, the most frequently encountered and impressive holy icon is that of Jesus Christ as a child—a true child and a true God—embraced by His All-Holy Mother. Dear friends, in Christian Faith, God Himself assumed flesh as an infant and called us to become “like children,” so that we may be deemed worthy to become gods by Grace.
Thank you for your kind attention!
21 November 2018