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  World News / Europe
ENVIRONMENT: Ecumenical Patriarch takes up the cause
The Orthodox Christian leader is trying to raise his international profile, reports Kerin Hope

Draped in flowing black robes, Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch and spiritual leader of 160m Orthodox Christians steps on to the banks of the Danube river in Romania. The local town band, dressed in bright yellow and blue uniforms, plays an Orthodox hymn. It could be a scene from the last century.

Except for the waiting Mercedes car, and the plumes of smoke rising from a rusting fertiliser factory on the river bank. And then the Patriarch, whose actual diocese in Istanbul is tiny and under constant threat of eviction, has a thoroughly modern mission.

Bartholomew's voyage down the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea, accompanied by about 150 churchmen, scientists and environmentalists, was aimed at highlighting the river's problems of pollution and war damage. Because the Danube is blocked at Novi Sad by the debris of bridges destroyed in Nato's bombardment of Yugoslavia, the group had to disembark and travel through Serbia by road.

It was also aimed at raising Bartholomew's international profile as the "Green Patriarch", building on similar voyages he has led through the Aegean and around the Black Sea. These floating conferences, sponsored by Greece's biggest companies and charitable foundations, have a political purpose.

At home in the mostly Moslem city of Istanbul, the patriarch is recognised by the Turkish government only as the head of the city's dwindling Greek minority of about 2,000 people. The Orthodox seminary on Halki, an island in the Bosphorus, has been closed for over two decades. At times of crisis in Greek-Turkish relations, the possibility of his expulsion from Turkey has loomed.

Bartholomew also faces a challenge to his spiritual primacy from Patriarch Alexis of Russia, leader of by far Orthodoxy's biggest congregation. In Greece, where Orthodoxy is the established religious faith, he is undermined by Archbishop Christodoulos, an ambitious nationalist who wants to open a Greek Orthodox diplomatic mission to the EU.

"With environmental protection, Bartholomew has adopted a cause that makes it possible for the patriarchate to shed its reputation as a beleaguered relic of Byzantium and have a useful international role," explained an Athens-based analyst.

At Novi Sad, Bartholomew called for more democracy in Serbia but criticised the Nato bombardment as "the imprudence of war" which would provoke "hatred and revenge".

From the Danube delta at the end of a 2,800km voyage, he urged the European Union to free funds immediately to clear the waterway and build a temporary bridge at Novi Sad. The release of the E25m ($26m) package is backed by France but opposed by the UK, which is against providing reconstruction aid to Serbia while Slobodan Milosevic remains in power as president of the Yugoslav federation.

Unable to pass Serbia's collapsed bridges, shipping companies in Romania and Bulgaria, which control the biggest Danube river fleets, are close to bankruptcy. Tugs and barges that carried coal to Hungary and raw materials for Austria's steel industry are laid up in ports around the Danube delta.

Bartholomew also asked the EU to help pay for an urgent clean-up of environmental damage caused by bombing. Crucially, he called for both these monies and the E25m to clear the Danube of wreckage to be classified as "humanitarian rather than structural aid". The Nato allies have said Serbia should receive only humanitarian aid for as long as Mr Milosevic is in power.

The Danube is already polluted by waste water from cities along its banks that lack modern sewage treatment plants, by fertiliser run-off from farmland and industrial waste from communist-era factories in Bulgaria and Romania. The war has added the possibility that oil residues and chemicals from Serbia's two damaged oil refineries and a petrochemical complex will leak into the river.

Because of his precarious relationship with the Turkish authorities, Bartholomew is usually careful to avoid making political statements. But his willingness to speak out on the re-opening of the Danube waterway seemed to signal increasing confidence in his role as an eco-warrior.

Orthodox church officials are optimistic the recent warming of relations Greece and Turkey will benefit the patriarchate and the Greek community in Istanbul. If Turkey is formally accepted as an EU candidate at the Helsinki summit in December, obstacles to re-opening the Halki seminary, which would make it possible to train a new generation of Orthodox priests in Turkey, would fall away.

A Greek foreign ministry official said: "Turkey's acceptance of European standards on human rights and the protection of minorities standards would secure the patriarch's position in Istanbul for the first time in centuries."

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