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Orthodox leader blesses green agenda

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From a most unlikely quarter, the global environmental movement has gained a new leader, one with hundreds of millions of potential followers.

Last month, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, led fellow clerics in blessing the Baltic Sea from the deck of a cruise ship. He was accompanied by nearly 200 scientists, political leaders, and journalists huddled together against the chilly Nordic night.

"To protect the oceans is to do God's work," the Orthodox leader later said, in a speech calling for the establishment of marine protected areas and an end to overfishing. "To harm them, even if we are ignorant of the harm we cause, is to diminish His divine creation."

The situation is even more unusual when one considers that Bartholomew, the patriarch of the ancient "mother church" in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the titular head of Orthodox Christianity, is the leader of a faith with a centuries-old reputation for avoiding involvement in politics and other worldly affairs.

Saving creation itself

But since becoming patriarch 12 years ago, Bartholomew has led his reluctant church back onto the world stage in an effort to help save creation itself.

In 1997, Bartholomew declared that the wanton destruction of nature was a sin, as were actions that caused the extinction of species; altered the climate; stripped the world of its forests; and poisoned the air, land, and water.

His theological school on the Turkish island of Halki has been running environmental training seminars for priests and church officials from the Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches, each of which is self-governing.

Bartholomew has traveled to so many of Europe's environmental hot spots - usually as part of a series of shipboard symposia between religious and scientific leaders - that the European press has dubbed him the "Green Patriarch."

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