AS EMERGENCY services in Greece fought to contain devastating wildfires this week, Anglicans in the country praised the solidarity shown by the public, but also echoed calls for lessons to be learned from the disaster.
“Since our parishes are mostly city-based, they haven’t been directly affected, other than from darkened skies and falling ash,” the Senior Chaplain of St Paul’s, Athens, Canon Leonard Doolan, said on Tuesday.
“But it’s the only topic of conversation, and Greeks as a whole have responded extremely well to those in need. Since the vast majority are Orthodox, the predominant Church will have to decide how best to support them. But we ourselves, even with very limited resources, are also ready to assist in any way we can.”
Canon Doolan spoke as wildfires, the worst in living memory, continued to wreak havoc in parts of the Peloponnese, as well as on Evia, Greece’s second largest island, north-east of Athens.
He said that minority denominations lacked networking facilities for a common response to the catastrophe, but that Anglicans would look for ways of helping the worst-affected areas, using funds collected from USPG and the diocese in Europe.
An assistant curate in the Great Athens chaplaincy, the Revd Christine Saccali, ministering in the northern suburbs of the capital, said that some friends and neighbours had now “lost everything”, in a country already severely hit by a long-running financial crisis, as well as a massive refugee influx and the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve witnessed wildfires over my four decades in Greece, but I’ve never experienced temperatures running so high for so long in such tinder-dry conditions.
“Although Greece has excellent volunteer rescue teams, no one can contain flames as high as the trees, which can jump across six-lane motorways and restart after they’ve been put out. Many of the people affected have no home insurance and little social-security cover, while electricity, water supplies, and telephone and internet links are now cut as well. The situation is truly dreadful.”
Firefighting teams from the UK and other European countries, assisted by water-bombing helicopters, have struggled to control more than 500 wildfires raging across Greece this month, fuelled by strong winds, parched vegetation, and heatwave temperatures of 45ºC.
The Greek centre-right Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said on Monday that the disaster had reached “unprecedented dimensions”, and apologised for government failures. He said that he completely understood “the pain of citizens seeing [their] homes and property burning”.
The Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod appealed to its 101 bishops to make schools, monasteries, and parish centres available to the destitute, and pledged help with rebuilding and reforestation via its Apostoli charity.
Several Orthodox hierarchs have visited fire-damaged areas and set up disaster bank accounts. Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens said that he was “deeply shocked, like every Greek”, by media images of the fires, which have left historic Orthodox landmarks destroyed, including at least one monastery on Evia.
“The fires and floods now spreading across the world are a reminder of the importance of caring for ecology,” the Primate, who is 83, said in a statement at the weekend. “Humanity forgets that God has entrusted us with a duty of care for the environment and natural world. An effective response to climate change is one of humanity’s greatest challenges for the 21st century.”
Ms Saccali said that her own evacuation towards Marathonas had been rerouted when fires around Mount Parnitha national park suddenly changed direction, and that the Malakasa refugee camp near by, where she works regularly, had had to be moved north in the middle of the night.
She said that many people would need “long-term practical and emotional support” once the immediate emergency was contained, while fears were high that another forecast heatwave could reignite the fires.
Canon Doolan said that he agreed with Archbishop Ieronymos on the need for greater ecological awareness, especially after this week’s dire warnings from UN climate scientists; but some fires had also been set deliberately.
“There are fires here most summers; so it can’t all be down to global warming — there’s always been an element of irresponsibility which no local authority can completely guard against.
“Perhaps a crisis like this could open up avenues of discussion and bring Christians together. But Anglicans are sparse here, with no official presence in most of the country; so there’s a limit to what we can hope for.”
Beyond Athens, there are C of E chaplaincies across the peninsula and islands of Greece.
Pledges of solidarity have come from Orthodox Churches in Serbia, Ukraine, and Romania, while the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, said that he had also been in touch with bishops in affected areas.