A reader asks about the Orthodox

A reader asks about the Orthodox December 28, 2011

He writes:

Boy do I have a question from you! Not sure if you will be able to answer it or not, but you’ll know more than me! Now I am a convert to the faith (R.C.), for many reasons, including it’s historical claims. Now I know that the Eastern Orthodox (of all Christian groups) are probably the closest to us. My opinions about the relationship between the two have varied over the years, from the initial idea that they were hostile to each other, and then a gradual ‘not that wide a gap between the two’ kind of sentiment. That later sentiment was, in part, helped by people like you, who I have seen point out that we are not that far apart. But I have noticed a tendency in E.O. to bear a grudge against, and that a hostility does exist in the hearts of at least some of its members. This is also historical. Historically speaking it seems more animus is directed at the Catholic by the Orthodox, then vice versa. And please don’t make me mention how they blame so much on us (the sack of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade is complicated, but it was neither devastating nor unprovoked, and the Teutonic Knights who went to war against Russia sought to bring Russia back in communion with Rome and Christendom as a whole).

As of just today I came across something I found very odd (this is where you come in).
I was reading John C. Wright’s blog, and in one of them a E.O. and a Mormon got into a discussion of original sin, it prompted the E.O. to post a link that showed the differences between the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox. Needless to say I read it, and to be frank was quite blown away by it. I knew we had our differences, but at least according to this source, I had no idea the Orthodox thought that we believed in a DIFFERENT GOD THEN THEY DID?!! What?! And that is only one of several WHATS in the thing. So here it is:

What do you make of this? Is this really the differences between us, or are these guys E.O.’s version of our “Trads” and are just causing some stink. Now I am very confused. Please help!

Yeah, this is an Eastern manifestation of the Any Idiot with a Keyboard phenomenon that also plagues the Catholic Church when its members go on line and start pontificating about What the Church Teaches. Eastern Christians can say stupid stuff just as Western ones can, including blather about how Christians who don’t belong to My Little Eastern sect worship strange gods and so forth. Pay it no mind. You can also find any number of Eastern Christians who recognize that other baptized Christians are (obviously) Christian and not Zoroastrian or Buddhist. Oh, and five’ll get you ten that sect also rejects an awful lot of other Orthodox as worshipping false gods too. There is no such thing as “Orthodoxy” just as there is no such things as “Protestantism”. There are lots of “Orthodoxys” and lots of “Protestantisms”.

You are right that the Eastern Churches are closest to us and the Catholic communion greatly desires reunion with the East so that the Church might “breathe with both lungs” as JPII put it. Certainly this has been a priority since the Council. God alone knows if it will ever happen. Meanwhile, we approach the immense complexities of the different Eastern Churches with respect and with the understanding that, online, anybody can say any crazy thing they like. Take it with a huge grain of salt.

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  • Richard C.
  • The author of that screed, Michael Azkoul, is part of the the Holy Orthodox Church in North America, which, based on the Wikipedia account, sounds rather fringey.

  • B.E. Ward

    The text at the link is written by someone involved in the American Orthodox Church. To say the AOC is schismatic to the rest of the Orthodox jurisdictions is to probably understate the division a bit.

    • Ghosty

      Indeed. They’re the “Pope Michaels” of the Orthodox in the U.S. 😛

      Peace and God bless!

  • B.E. Ward

    Another good source (of all things Orthodoxy, as well):


    I obviously misspoke as calling it the AOC.

  • Dale Price

    The Fourth Crusade looms very large in Orthodox thinking (not to mention causing no end of problems for the West given that it pulled down the eastern bulwark against Islam). With all due respect to your interlocutor, and bracketing the question of provoked-ness, it was an atrocity far beyond anything the Byzantines had wrought upon westerners. Despite that, there was still significant pro-western Unionist sentiment within the Byzantine Church after 1204.

    Another thing to factor in is the impact of the long “captivities” of the Orthodox Churches, both to the Mongols and the Turks. It had the effect of “locking” them within a certain channel of development. In the latter case, the Turks were especially vigilant to prevent any pro-western sentiment from rising.

    • Arnold

      Read Rodney Stark’s book about the Crusades to learn how often the Byzantine emperors stabbed the crusaders in the back during the first three crusades, despite the fact the crusades were organized at the behest of the Byzantine emperor and his call to the pope for help, and the machinations on the part of the pretenders to the throne of the Byzantine Empire that led to the sacking of the city to get revenge for non payment of services rendered. It is all very ugly and very complicated. The sacking was an atrocity and was condemned by the pope who excommunicated the Venetian leaders involved. I never read, though, about the pogroms against Latin Catholics in the city of Constantinople before the great schism that led to the deaths of thousands including bishops. I understand the long resentments but isn’t it time after 800 or more years to bury the hatchet?

  • nate

    When I visited the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora a few years back, I picked up a pamphlet wherein the author explained how the Orthodox church was the only true church, why the Roman Catholics preached heresy, and why Protestants were even worse. The author then listed the many heretical teachings of the Catholic church. Interesting reading, to be sure. More recently, I’ve lived in a very Greek section of New York City, with a gorgeous Orthodox church serving as my neighbor. I found many of the same attitudes and beliefs from the pamphlet in Meteora among the members of that NYC neighborhood. Nice folks, one and all. But also unwilling to move and inch. And not particularly concerned with evangelizing. And not particularly hiding the fact that I, as a non-Orthodox, were part of a heretical church. Of course, as a Roman Catholic, I didn’t agree with these attitudes entirely. But I kinda liked the fact that they weren’t, er, welcoming. That they didn’t want dialogue. And so forth. I gotta admit: in our age of easy going ecumenism, non-denominational confusion, and wide-scale assimilation (especially among Catholic circles), I find the Orthodox separatism (and perhaps tribalism) to be terribly refreshing.

  • B.E. Ward

    Meant to add this earlier.. for a perhaps more reasoned Orthodox critique of Catholicism, listen to this:



    I’d actually *love* to hear a Catholic apologist take on some of this perspective.

    • RUs

      After listening to the first section, there are some new particulars to me. (It’s been a while since I’ve tended to Orthodoxy.) However, the representation of Catholic doctrine and the Orthodoxy alternatives, as well as the historical citations were, to be polite, a bit slippery. He was just plain ignorant on many points. There were numerous areas where he glossed over things, but stated them as simple facts, when a deeper examination would reveal some mighty big matza balls to digest. With this in mind, and with my past experiences of these things, I find his more difficult citations greatly suspect, and wouldn’t accept them without much greater diligence to show context and credibility.

      In fact, a quick search revealed that the citation of Pope St. Gregory the Great is easily countered by looking at the intention of the letter and finding him cited in much more explicit terms to the contrary:
      “Who does not know that the holy Church is founded on the solidity of the Chief Apostle, whose name expressed his firmness, being called Peter from Petra (Rock)?…Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles…received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate.” (Letter to the Patriarch Eulogius of Alexandria, Ep. 7) (Taken from http://credo.stormloader.com/Ecumenic/gregory.htm)

      And here’s more:

      That’s a horribly major thin to get wrong. Once one thing like that is so easily refuted, I lose respect for the man presenting them, and have little faith in his other citations. Unlike him, however, I’m not going to pretend it’s just that simple and call it good.

      (I did a further search on his assertions about Honorius, and his errors are even worse. One can only hope he merely parrots the bad arguments of others through ignorance and doesn’t engage in deception.)

      But, not only that, some of his assertions about Catholic dogma are flat wrong. My charitable side hopes that he simply fell into the same problems as the average evangelical who interprets without understanding, and assumes he is right without due rigor or authority.

      I have a lot of respect for the faithful Orthodox, and I don’t like to add to the polemics, but there are a few things that stick out.

      1) He directly states that the Orthodox Church has no particular way to recognize Ecumenical Councils, which means he has no foundation for accepting or rejecting the Councils that many of his argument rest upon.

      2) He refutes the “simplicity” doctrine of the church, of which his statements of Catholic belief are flat out wrong (straw man). I would really like to see him reconcile this with his take on Grace.

      3) He refutes the use of reason for the sake of doctrine. If he refutes reason–he’s done. There’s nowhere for him to go. And since even stating the facts of doctrine requires reason, he doesn’t even have that to sit on.

      This kind of thing actually disappoints me. I’m greatly interested in a substantive discussion about Orthodoxy, but this guy doesn’t deliver. As far as I can tell, he only serves to cloud the truth.

  • RUs

    I’m no expert, but I think your reader downplays the 4th Crusade way too much.

    On the one hand the blame for it is misplaced. They were a bunch of rogues who ignored the intended and pope-sanctioned purpose of the Crusade, and the sacking of Constantinople was not approved at all. (I may be ignorant of something, but I think implying it was provoked is completely untenable.) But that’s sure to be small comfort to the eastern mistrust of the Catholics.

    On the other hand, it was certainly devastating. It completely supplanted their chain of rule for a time, and it leached out immeasurable riches from the city. The resulting low morale and loss of economic footing had to have a huge effect on their vulnerability when the sultan came knocking. Their population and manpower had suffered immensely in that time.

    • Dale Price

      Well, “provoked” is a loaded term. But the Byzantines could be brutal to the westerners in their midst, as the pogrom of 1182 demonstrates. There was a good deal of bad blood between the West and Byzantium, almost all of it stemming from the impact of the Crusades and the growth of Italian commercial power.

  • Mark R

    You will find Orthodox thought friendliest to the R. Catholic Church had its source at a time when the Orthodox were new to the West via emigration after the Russian Revolution and had to explain who they were. Some of their host countries had large Catholic populations, like France and Belgium. Schmemann and Meyendorff were associated with Paris; Anthony Bloom with England. IMO, they brought the best of Orthodoxy with them. Very Tsarist groups or “Old Calendar” groups seem to be best at articulating what they are “against” rather than what they are “for” and will dwell on more negative aspects regarding Catholicism and will tend to over-emphasize differences. The same thing happens with unseasoned R. Catholic would-be apologists vis-a-vis the Orthodox, in reverse direction.

    • As related to the contact between Catholics and the Eastern churches (Catholic and Orthodox) in Belgium:

      There is a beautiful monastery in Belgium, le Monastere de Chevtogne , that is dedicated to Christian unity, specifically the unity of the Western and Eastern Churches.

      The Monastery boasts both a Byzentine Church and a Latin Church (as the website calls them), with monks living their vocations side-by-side. A true rapprochement.

      The grounds themselves are wonderful, and I encourage anyone heading to Belgium to visit. That little country has more Catholic treasures than practically any other place on earth (including two approved Marian apparitions and many of our great saints). And that’s without even getting into the best beer in the world.

  • Thomas R

    What I’ve read on them, or talked with them, they vary but there are some differences that struck me as more significant than I originally thought.

    From what I’ve gathered scholasticism, clarification, and “development of doctrine” is far less significant in Eastern Orthodoxy. Or is even disdained within it. Orthodoxy, from what I’ve gleaned from fairly official sources of the main churches, tends to believe most of the things that were undefined at the last Council of Nicea remain undefined. So as I’ve read it they don’t approve of birth control so much as they feel “it’s undefined” and allow it to be a priest/parishioner discussion. And they value mystical experience to a far greater extent. I wouldn’t say they’re anti-intellectual, but I think it’s common for them to feel Scholasticism/Thomism is too influenced or even tainted by Aristotelian notions. That Catholics want to “explain too much.” Also I’ve seen some Orthodoxy agree the Pope is ideally leader of Christianity, but all Orthodoxy rejects Papal Infallibility and I think tends to put the Pope (at most) as a kind of “First Speaker” type leader. Placing Councils as about the most defining for doctrine and dogma.

    Although I think the difference some of them go on about “ancestral sin” vs “original sin” is based a bit on a misunderstanding of what we teach about original sin. I think some Orthodox seem to think original sin means we teach people are born simply bad or that original sin is actually about blaming babies. The actual teachings on “ancestral sin” vs “original sin” is not as different as some of the Orthodox I met online indicated. I think most everything before 787 we’re about the same. The seven sacraments, monasticism, celibate bishops, etc.

    • Manwe

      Your comments pretty much confirm what I have seen, and experienced myself. Especially in regards to scholasticism and the development of doctrine.

  • bob

    I can suggest that as an Orthodox layman the language of “two lungs” that sounds so conciliatory to Catholics always sounds very insulting. I’m sure it isn’t intended to be. It suggests at once that Orthodox are handicapped, “incomplete” in some way. It denies what Orthodox proclaim daily in the (old version) of the Nicene Creed: faith in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. They think they *are*. They have the temerity to say that they’re breathing with two lungs right now, thanks. Sinners, sick and in need of healing, but just the Church that the creed speaks of.
    Michael Azkoul and the HOCNA folks are in communion with no one in particular, certainly do not speak for the Orthodox of the world. THey were formally excommunicated some years ago. No more than Pius X folks speak for most Catholics. There are serious divisions that sit there and don’t go away. A problem, but there is very much the Orthodox Church, not merely “Orthodoxies”. A Roman Catholic cannot for example, receive communion in any parish of “them”. Neither can any Orthodox do so in a Catholic parish. They’re different marriages. No family pictures together for now.

    • Rosemarie


      If the “two lungs” talk meant the Orthodox are somehow “handicapped,” wouldn’t the pope have been suggesting that Catholics are “handicapped” as well? The West is also “breathing with one lung,” by the same token. If that was an insult to you then it was one to us, too. Yet, like you said, it was not intended as an insult to anyone. He was just using a figurative image which should not be taken too far.

      • Confederate Papist

        True. We have the most in common with the EO’s and should work for reunification. If the RC’s can talk to the CoE and the Lutherans, why not the EO’s?

        On another note, my aunt, raised RC married a Greek Orthodox. She maintains her Catholicity, but goes to church with him, but cannot receive communion there. She told me on more than one occasion that the Orthodox Church is the original and that the Roman Catholic church separated from them….that’s not how I remember it…

    • The two lungs analogy speaks of the Church being incomplete because of the division between East and West. It reflects the desire of Catholic Church to be united with the Orthodox Churches. If anything, the incompleteness refers to the Catholic Church, and the emptiness or void she feels in a lack of union with the East.

    • As Rosemarie states, the two lungs analogy speaks of the Church being incomplete because of the division between East and West. It reflects the desire of Catholic Church to be united with the Orthodox Churches. If anything, the incompleteness refers to the Catholic Church, and the emptiness or void she feels in a lack of union with the East.

  • Manwe

    Thanks Mark! I’m glad that that is not the case!

    As per my comments on the 4th crusade, I think the word ‘unprovoked’ was too much, I take that back. What I meant to say was that the Byzantines had a history with the Crusades and the crusaders (long story, but it invovles false promises, disdain, and quite possibly even treachery regarding the Emperor druing the very first crusade). Sorry about that, should have used a different word. Nor did I mean to downplay the horrors of the 4th crusade. There were some indeed, without question. But it is way overplayed, in the exact same way the other crusades are, and the inqusitions. Those with a grudge love to portray latins (catholics) in the worst possible light (see for instance the aforementioned things). Was the result of the fourth crusade rather bad, DUH. Was it, in late historian Steven Runciman’s words “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade”, no (to say that is an overstatement, is an overstatement, especially given that it was said in 1954, just a few years after WW2, that makes it all the more far fetched). There is much debate over the effects of the fourth crusade, but needless to seems to be many historians nowadays who don’t fault the crusaders with the fall of the Byzantine empire, but rather lay the blame on Byzantine’s own deadly politcs, and a few massive losses against the turks, that were key turning points in it’s fall. In other words, the Byzantnes fell in the same way the Romans fell (first from within, then to outside forces). It really is a sad story, the Byzantines were great, but it is unfair to blame everything on the crusaders of the foruth crusade. And FWIW, none of what I have said was my opinion, but rather what I have read from recent books about the crusades and the time period (the middle ages).

    And also thanks to all the commenters, much appreciated (especially to those who pointed out who Father Azkoul was).

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    Go read Bob’s post from around 1400 hrs.

    If the choice is between a Bishop of Rome calling humbly for unity, and some blowhard who is insulted by the very suggestion that East and West need each other, then mark me down as thankful I hit the banks of the Tiber and not Bosporus’ shores.

  • James


    I investigated the Orthodoxies and found it dismaying that the smorgasbord of different jurisdictions treated me so differently. To many I was a heathen in need of baptism, to a few I was practically “separated brethren” and only required chrismation (confirmation) to join. There were a number of other attitudes between these two extremes—alas the first one is much more common.


    Regarding the Orthodox idea that we worship s different God, it comes from the Orthodox belief that the Filioque is a terrible heresy that mutilates our conception of God the Holy Spirit beyond recognition.

    A lot of Orthodox also consider our annulment system the height of hypocrisy and consider their longstanding recognition of up to two divorces and remarriages to be the true position.

    Most Orthodox also dissent from our absolute prohibition of contraception, and many deny our understanding of original sin, insisting that men are not born corrupt but innocent till influenced by a corrupted world. Thus those who believe in the sinlessness of Mary (many don’t) consider the Immaculate Conception wrong and unnecessary—Mary could simply avoid sin of her own free will.

    As for the Pope, there is another huge chasm there.

    Alas I used to think we were very close in faith, but that’s not true. Patriarch Bartholomew is a fairly unimportant figure in modern Orthodoxy, and his friendly overtures to Rome are rejected by most Orthodox.

    • Confederate Papist

      I read an article from a Greek Orthodox who’s main point about our differences was the Filioque. Very interesting to say the least.

  • thomas tucker

    When I’ve been around Orthodox, I’ve regularly heard snide comments about the Pope, and Catholicsm in general, even though they have known that I’m Catholic. When I’ve been in Catholic cricels,and and Orthodox person happens to be there, I’ve only heard welcoming and genuine questions asked of the orthodox person. My take is that the Orthodox simply have a huge chip on their shoulder, especially here in the West where they are such a minority faith.

    • Thomas R

      The Greek Orthodox I’ve met are usually fairly friendly. One even kind of acted like we were “about the same”, but the others were a bit more critical of the differences. Still they didn’t strike me as exactly hostile, just defending why they dislike “scholasticism” or Thomism or whatever. (Although I am aware of some very Anti-Catholic Greek Orthodox)

      It seems like Russian Orthodox are a tad more hostile. Russia and Poland had mutually hostile relations. Tsarist Russia occupied Eastern Poland for a time, but I think before that the Poles also attacked the Russians at times. In some of his works Fyodor Dostoyefsky was almost like deranged in his Anti-Catholicism, which makes his popularity among Catholics interesting to me. While in Yugoslavia many Catholic Croats, alas, even sided with Hitler because they disliked the Serbian Orthodox so much. And the Serbian Orthodox had their own violent element as the war in the 1990s shows.

      Albanians, Bulgarians, and Greek history is more Christian-Muslim issues as I recall. (And in Albania Religion vs Hoxha’s Stalinist “atheist state”) So I wonder if that makes some difference. Although I haven’t had any experience with Albanian or Bulgarian Orthodox. I get the vague sense Albanian Orthodoxy is comparatively “nice”, but I’m not sure if that’s valid.

      Note: For Orthodoxers I’m not saying these are separate religions. As I understand it most of the national churches are in inter-communion, but I think the cultural differences among them are real and may affect how they view other societies.

  • Evelyn

    I almost never trust an outsider’s perspective. This author thinks that we only receive the Eucharist under one species, and that the Sacrament of Anointing is only used as extreme unction. I get solid info from a convert friend who has spent time in both camps and can speak both languages.

  • In my 25 years of adult life as an Eastern Catholic, it has been my observation that while many Orthodox are obsessed by history, most RCs are woefully ignorant of it.

    If one were to examine the unfortunate history of the Fourth Crusade, one would find that it was a time when Western Franks and Germans, a largely barbarous lot, sacked Constantinople and the Holy lands, disenfranchised Orthodox clergy and hierarchy, and replaced them with Latins. The ultimate result of this sack was the weakening of the Byzantine empire, and its ultimate destruction by the Turks, and a subsequent four centuries of rule of Greek-speaking lands by those Turks. When the Greeks finally obtained their independence, it was at the cost of genocide by those Turks, and the loss of much of their lands to the Turks. This in turn led to the poor economy of the Greeks, which has lasted to the present day.

    It should be no wonder, at least, not to the historically literate, why Greek Orthodox, and Orthodox in general, might be a bit miffed at the West, especially when most of those Westerners seeking reunion don’t seem to have the slightest clue as to why they might have caused to be miffed.

  • amanda

    If I could hijack this thread a little I would ask: My understanding is that the R.C. Church is in full communion with one (or a couple ?) of the orthodox churches. Does this mean it is permissible for a R.C. to attend mass and receive Communion in their church? and would it be allowed for a R.C. to join their parish?

    • Thomas R

      You might be meaning the “Eastern rite” Catholics. I think a Roman-rite Catholic can attend an Eastern-rite Mass or at least I don’t see why one couldn’t. My Dad said you can even attend an Eastern Orthodox Church, as they have valid apostolic succession, but I’m not sure on that.

    • Dear Amanda:

      I would recommend that you read the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, particularly paragraph 15, which states in part:

      “These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged.”

      One can find the whole document on the Vatican website, here:


      My understanding is that most RC dioceses readily permit their members to attend Orthodox services.

      On the other hand, I would suggest caution before attempting to receive Communion at Orthodox services. To put it both as charitably and as accurately as I can, most Orthodox ‘have issues’ about the whole idea.

    • By the bye, Amanda, as the Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, there is no problem with you both attending and receiving communion there. And you are certainly welcome at my home parish of St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church in L.A.

  • Julia

    I find the pervasive use of RC in this thread very grating – it’s a certain type of Anglican that insists on using this, it’s not how Catholics speak of ourselves. Why not just call ourselves Catholics and Orthodox? Eastern Rite Catholics are just as Roman as Latin Rite Catholics; all are united with the Bishop of Rome.

    It seems to me as the Roman Empire declined, the West lost its facility with Greek and the Greeks lost its facility with Latin. A lot of this misunderstanding and animosity started before the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome excommunicated each other. It’s mainly cultural.

    I’ve read widely about the Byzantines and our debt to them for preserving the wisdom of the Greeks (it wasn’t the Arabs). And I’ve also read about the Eastern Emperor’s entreaties to the Pope to send help against the Turks who had taken over the Levant and much of Anatolia. There was no CNN in those days and each side saw what it saw without much, if any, input from the other side. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I hope the divisions can heal before this century is out. In a time of galloping secularism, we need each other.

  • Julia

    It is also my understanding that it is possible to be much more specific in describing fine points in Greek than it is in Latin. Would this not have been more of a problem back when people thought and spoke in either Greek OR Latin? Today most theologians are expected to be fluent in both and would more readily note the problem areas, no?

    As per a comment that the Patriarch of Constantinople isn’t considered in first chair any more – why would it move to Russia and not Greece or the Levant? As I recall Russia was not converted until at least 1,000 years after the founding of Christianity.

    • Thomas R

      I think some Russians take the view that Russia is the “Third Rome” because after the Fall of Constantinople one of the Byzantines fled to Russia and married a tsar or some such. Also some Russians are just intensely nationalist and place themselves central.

  • thomas tucker

    Bernard- I think it’s pretty ridiculous for anyone today to be “miffed” about an event that happened over 500 years ago. Seriously. But maybe that’s just me.

    • Thomas R

      Religions often have long memories. Jews still have celebrations or holidays about how the Pharaohs or Hellenistic Greeks mistreated them. The Shiite bewail how they were persecuted by Sunnis in the 7th or 8th century.

  • thomas tucker

    Long memories are one thing.
    Treating someone rudely, or violently in some cases, because of something their forebears did centuries ago is nuts.

  • Euegene

    You dare to use the most famous Russian Orthodox icon on your blog and rant about “lots of Orthodoxys”. Go do your homework before your start writing about things you don’t know anything about. Roman Church chose to separate itself from the Universal Church that is know today as Orthodoxy. The reason for that was the Roman change of the Creed, little knowledge of the history of the Church, use of false documents to prove Pope’s superiority, denial of facts and desire of secular power. All that combined with the Crusades led to the Western Schism.
    I have no desire to argue about interpretation of the history but at least I would expect somebody who starts talking about it to know the historical facts.