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Pittsburgh-born charity delivers gifts worldwide

As Eastern Orthodox faithful celebrate Christmas

Monday, January 07, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Today, when many of the world's Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas, marks the 10th anniversary of a humanitarian organization that has become American Orthodoxy's gift to the world.

International Orthodox Christian Charities, which serves the poor in 13 nations, was born in Pittsburgh when church and business leaders met to discuss what they could do to help destitute Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year, with a staff of 15 at its Baltimore headquarters and seven overseas, the organization distributed about $30 million in aid.

It has brought together the many ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, who are trying to strengthen their ties despite the fact that they don't even celebrate Christmas together. The numerically dominant Greek Orthodox celebrate on Dec. 25, as do many Middle Eastern Orthodox. Most Slavic Orthodox celebrate on Jan. 7.

But all of the Orthodox churches support the international charity.

"One of the purposes was to bring the Orthodox in the United States closer together by giving them a common challenge and common responsibility for helping the needy," said Greek Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, who helped to found the organization.

The prime mover was Pittsburgh businessman John Rangos Sr., who had been moved by a plea that the Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow made during a visit to the United States.

"He said, 'Our shelves are empty, we don't have medicine for our children and old Russian people are starving,' " Rangos recalled.

Rangos gathered a group of Orthodox leaders -- including Maximos and Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America -- and experts on humanitarian aid. Soon, with help from the Pittsburgh-based Brother's Brother Foundation, two military cargo planes of medical and relief supplies were on their way from Pittsburgh to Russia.

"There were headlines all over Russia saying that the American man-of-war is coming here not to hurt Russia, but to help our disadvantaged kids," Rangos said.

As war broke out in the Balkans, the Pittsburgh group realized that there was a need beyond Russia. In March 1992, the organization was incorporated.

The name "is an imitation of Catholic Charities," Maximos said.

That was a tribute to the Catholic agency, which coached the Orthodox and provided its first executive director. Alexander Rondos, a Greek Orthodox who was born in Tanzania, raised in Kenya and educated in England, got the group off the ground before joining the Greek government's foreign ministry. Rondos hired Constantine "Dean" Triantafilou to be the organization's representative in the former Yugoslavia.

There was a war on, which meant keeping a migrant population of refugees from starving or dying of easily curable illnesses, said Triantafilou, who has succeeded Rondos as executive director.

The charity has unique advantages and challenges when it arrives in a historically Orthodox country. The Orthodox church is often the only institution that survived communism with enough resources to do relief work. Its leaders will welcome an Orthodox aid organization more readily than they will a secular one or one affiliated with another tradition.

But those church leaders may also expect an Orthodox charity to show favoritism, which the group will not do, Triantafilou said. The charity does not build churches, teach religion or seek converts.

Today, Russia has the largest Orthodox charity program, followed by the Republic of Georgia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon. But the group has also worked in nations with almost no Orthodox presence. It did earthquake relief in India and El Salvador. Although there are Orthodox in Israel and the West Bank, most people the group assists there are Muslim.

Triantafilou wants the organization to focus its resources on long-term development, especially agriculture projects and micro-loans to start small businesses. In the Republic of Georgia, for instance, the group loaned money for three women to begin making blankets. Their company now employs hundreds of workers and the blankets are distributed in refugee camps worldwide.

In many formerly communist countries, the governments have returned land that was seized from the church. The charity is helping the churches develop farms to raise breeding stock so that refugees can start their own small farms. Triantafilou wants to bring agriculture consultants from America to advise the Orthodox churches on the best way to manage these projects.

"We don't want to be everything to everyone, but we want to zero in on what we do best. Working with local organizations and development activities have become our strengths," Triantafilou said.

Pittsburgh maintains a strong connection with the charity through Nicholas Chakos, its field representative in Romania. His father, the Rev. John Chakos, is pastor of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon.

He provides help to some of Romania's 250,000 orphans, many of whom have AIDS due to tainted blood received during the peculiar Romanian practice of giving a small transfusion at birth.

"AIDS and HIV are a huge stigma in Romania," John Chakos said. "The families refuse to accept them or even to say anything about it. They won't even say the name of the disease. As a result, a lot of these children are not treated."

His son has organized a pediatric AIDS program through the churches and also works with adults who have AIDS or HIV.

The group has also begun work at home. It was dismayed to discover that no Orthodox charity had secured a government contract to resettle the many refugees from historically Orthodox nations who poured into the United States in the 1990s. It is now laying the groundwork for such an effort.

The group's budget has mushroomed. In 1999, it was $11 million. In 2000, it was $23 million. Last year, it was about $33 million.

Triantafilou does not expect that growth rate to continue. Most money comes from government aid to feed refugees, and he believes the organization will increasingly focus on the less-celebrated work of turning refugees into workers. He also wants to see more money come from Orthodox donors, many of whom are not familiar with the organization. Although the United States is home to at least 3 million Orthodox, the group has a donor base of just 10,000 people.

Rangos says the group has had an impact far beyond the individual people it has assisted.

When he visited some of its projects in Russia, "I found that there has been a great kinsmanship built up by the Russian people with the American people. This is a gift from the American people to the Russian people. I think it has helped a great deal in how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin felt about Americans," he said.


More information is available at www.iocc.org.



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