|Standing beside the Mississippi River, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, made a plea Wednesday for more action to save the planet and stop destroying it "as if there is no tomorrow."
"The dilemmas we are faced with are the problems created by human beings," Bartholomew said at the opening of an environmental symposium in New Orleans. "We are consuming environmental capital and destroying its sources as if there is no tomorrow."
He added: "We have cracked the code of DNA, we can create life in test tubes, we can genetically modify crops, we can put men upon the moon _ but we have lost our balance, externally and within."
The Istanbul-based patriarch, whom former Vice President Al Gore has called the "green patriarch," brought a delegation of Orthodox church leaders to New Orleans, where they planned to visit neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina and take a trip up the Mississippi, where oil refineries and chemical plants dwarf rural communities and light up the night sky with burning flares.
Bartholomew came to New Orleans in January 2006 after Katrina flooded New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and prayed for the storm’s victims during a visit to the Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s neighborhoods hit hard by the hurricane.
Also Wednesday, the Archbishop Demetrios of America, the Greek Orthodox Church’s leader in the United States, called attention to the troubles of New Orleans and the Mississippi.
"This glorious river through the years has become heavily polluted causing grave damage to both the land and the Gulf far beyond its basin," Demetrios said. "There is a concerted effort to reverse the damaging course of pollution and return to the pristine clarity of the waters, but restoration is not easy."
Doug Daigle, an expert on environmental policy for the Mississippi River, said the river’s water quality has improved much in the past 30 years, but urban and agricultural runoff still pose a problem because they have turned the river into a conduit for nutrients. The river’s nutrient-rich waters flush into the Gulf of Mexico and create a huge area of low-oxygen known as a dead zone every summer.
"Broadly speaking, it’s not as polluted as it used to be thanks to the Clean Water Act," Daigle said. "But it’s got pollution."
Since 1995, Bartholomew has brought attention to the world’s environmental problems with a series of forums billed as the Religion, Science and The Environment symposia. The New Orleans event, entitled "The Great Mississippi River: Restoring Balance," was the eighth forum overseen by Bartholomew. Numerous scientists and politicians were expected to attend the symposium, which ends Sunday.
"The patriarch’s message is more than about changing your light bulb and recycling paper goods," said the Rev. Mark Arey, an ecumenical officer for the patriarch’s trip. "It’s also about raising your consciousness toward your relationship with other human beings and your relationship with the entire world."
John Barry, the New Orleans author of "Rising Tide," a history of the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to tame the Mississippi River, called Bartholomew’s comments "apt and impressive." Barry spoke at the symposium Wednesday.
The patriarch is scheduled early next month to meet President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, Arey said.
The patriarch’s U.S. trip also will include stops in New York, Georgia and Maryland. He was expected to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the enthronement of Archbishop Demetrios of America in New York, attend an Ecumenical Gathering of Peace at the Annunciation Cathedral in Atlanta and mark his 18th year in his role as ecumenical patriarch in a service at Sts. Constantine and Helen Church in Annapolis, Maryland.
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