BISHOP TIMOTHEOS OF ASSOS
Preaching Orthodox Christianity in the jungles of Colombia
Bishop Timotheos of Assos studied Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and today he ministers in forests, remote villages and slums in Colombia and Venezuela. ‘I am from an Indian tribe, my lay name is Luis Antonio Torres Esquivel... I was also in Cuba under Fidel,’ he tells Kathimerini in perfect Greek.
15.12.2023 • 22:33
He came to our meeting with his three companeros. He had just arrived at the mission’s offices in Thessaloniki from Colombia and he greeted me singing, “Hello, Mother Saloniki,” a song by popular singer Zafiris Melas.
“I love Thessaloniki. I studied here, at the Aristotle School of Theology. I carry the city in my heart, thousands of kilometers away, in the forests and the poor neighborhoods,” he says, emotional.
Under the Orthodox Christian cassock, the headdress and the Trotsky-style glasses, Timotheos of Assos, assistant bishop of the Holy Metropolis of Mexico in Colombia and Venezuela, is instantly recognizable as an indigenous Central American.
“I am from an Indian tribe, my lay name is Luis Antonio Torres Esquivel, and I perform missionary work for the Orthodox Church in Latin America, specifically Colombia and Venezuela, and I’m based in Bogota. I was also in Cuba under Fidel,” Timotheos introduced himself in perfect, singsong Greek.
Right after, he introduced his three companion. “Here is Andres Santiago, the ‘jungle kid,’ our Mowgli. Look, isn’t he a look-alike? Touch his hair to see how wiry it is. He came from a place, Catatumbo, big jungle, you’ll be shocked to see it, it’s the place where the coca tree grows. He escaped from his village, San Martin, because he was in danger of being conscripted by the guerrillas. They snatched a young girl from his family, instead, and demanded ransom to release her.”
“There is Costas [Constantino Timoteu], a Cuban tenor.” And, as if to confirm, with a nod by Timotheos, the young man started singing a well-known Greek hit in a booming voice: “I love you because you’re pretty, I love you because you are you…”
“I met Costas by chance on a bench in Havana strumming a broken guitar and singing,” says Timotheos. “I asked him if he would like to sing a song for me and he said, he would do so gladly if I explained what was this hanging from my chest, that is, my bishop’s pectoral cross. I explained it, he sang for me and he showed up at the church the next day. Since then, he has been a member of the mission.”
“And here’s Christos from Venezuela. He was introduced to Orthodox Christianity one day I went and spoke to some youth in a village named Tovar. He immediately asked to follow our way to learn about Orthodoxy. Not only was he baptized, but he brought along his father and mother to be baptized, too. That’s how it’s done in Colombia, Venezuela and across Latin America, in general: The young come first, they become Orthodox Christian and the parents then follow. This is a special blessing for us. Seventy percent of the Orthodox faithful are young people.”
And you, an indigenous person, how did you encounter the Orthodox Church and end up becoming a bishop?
Totally by chance [laughs]. I must have been 10 and they happened to show on TV the leaders of the Non-Allied Movement visiting Colombia, among them Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. I didn’t know him, of course. I saw it on my aunt’s black-and-white TV at a village – we didn’t have many TVs back then – and was impressed. I asked a Catholic priest who told me he was a high-ranking priest, a bishop, from a church called Orthodox. He emphasized that this was a heretical church that has strayed from the path. But another priest, an Anglican, explained that the New Testament was written in Greek and that the Orthodox Church is the fountainhead of all churches. He also talked about the works of the Fathers of the Church. So, my path to Orthodox Christianity started with Makarios.
‘I must have been 10 and they happened to show on TV the leaders of the Non-Allied Movement visiting Colombia, among them Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus’
And how did you continue along that path?
It wasn’t until I was 27 that I came into contact with the Orthodox Church. I wrote to the Orthodox base in [North] America and they replied to me that there wasn’t a single Orthodox priest in Colombia and that there was a church somewhere where, once a year, a priest would officiate. I wrote them a second letter saying I want to become Orthodox and what could I do. They forwarded me an address in Panama saying that the Mother and Great Church of Constantinople had recently created a see and appointed a metropolitan. I wrote to that address and, after a while, received an answer that, for the first time, an Orthodox bishop would visit Colombia. It was August when His Eminence Athenagoras, then metropolitan of Panama, now of Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean Islands, arrived, and we met. He was surprised to be greeted at the airport by some 50 Orthodox from all over Colombia. It was obvious that I was not the only one to be seeking to join the Orthodox Church. We talked with the metropolitan; he chose three among us and told us, “You will go to Greece,” where we studied and returned to join the mission.
How difficult it is to be a missionary in the jungle?
We started from zero. In 2000, there were only two of us Orthodox in Colombia. Now, we have nine parishes under His Eminence Athenagoras’ omophorion [a bishop’s vestment worn around the neck and shoulders]. There’s 1.5 million of us in Central America, Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean. All locals. Up to 2000, Orthodox Christianity was unknown in Colombia. Today, we take part in all aspects of public life. We regularly appear on TV, we mediate on matters of peace. I would say we play an important part in Colombian life, for all people, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Generally, everybody in Colombia has heard something about Orthodox Christianity, the name at least. And that’s where the impulse to get to learn something more about it comes.
Does the state put obstacles in your way?
No. The main obstacle is distance. Think about it; I minister to two countries, Colombia and Venezuela. Until a couple of years ago, I used public transport, I had no car. Now, we have bought a small car and travel from Bogota to Caracas, four straight days of travel. We have parishes that take some 10-15 hours to reach, sometimes 24. It takes 12 hours [from Bogota] to Medellin. There are great difficulties.
Speaking of Medellin, it is globally known for its drug cartels. What is the Church’s stance on issues such as gangs, cocaine cartels, clashes between paramilitary groups?
The Church is sending a message of love. In Colombia, only 5% of the population, at most, is involved with drugs. The image projected abroad is inaccurate, and I’ll tell you why. Unfortunately, there are areas where this [coca] tree grows naturally. “Mowgli,” who hails from San Martin, a village in the jungle, knows better about this. The tree is one thing, the coca [leaves] another, cocaine still another. And those who produce and take part in the extraction are 2.5% [of the population] and I may be exaggerating. They live and work deep in the jungle; you need nine hours to reach these places through the mountains. You don’t find these people in cities and villages.
Colombia’s big problem is the civil war. We have left-wing guerrillas, but we also have [right-wing] paramilitaries. They clash with each other and the army is fighting both. Of course, if someone comes to Colombia, they will not feel it; Colombia is almost 10 times as big as Greece, with a population of nearly 60 million.
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