Church News: December 2006 Archives

Intra-Orthodox Issues

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In the context of an analysis of Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey, the Economist goes into some of the tensions the Patriarch of Constantinople deals with. I have to say, I haven't seen many of these issues covered prominently anywhere else (though I guess there's not a huge demand for coverage of Orthodox controversies).

On the face of things, the papal visit is a much-needed boost to the morale of the patriarch, whose local flock has shrunk to only a few thousand, thanks to a steady exodus of Istanbul Greeks that started after state-sponsored pogroms in the 1950s. But extravagant gestures of fraternity between pope and patriarch still upset several other parties. The first of these are Turkish nationalists, inside and outside the state, who are always suspicious that the Orthodox prelate may compromise Turkish sovereignty by trying to establish a “Vatican state” on the soil of their republic. Also watching warily are devout Orthodox Christians around the world, who stand ready to denounce the patriarch if he appears to backslide on any doctrinal points.

Perhaps the wariest observers are the Russian authorities, both lay and clerical. As the pope has quickly found, his declared wish for rapprochement with Orthodox Christians has opened up an old fault-line in the Orthodox world between the Russians, who see themselves as top Orthodox dogs by virtue of numbers and geopolitical power, and the Istanbul patriarchate, which enjoys an historic “primacy of honour” among Orthodox sees.

In September, when senior bishops of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox world held their first formal encounter for many years, the Catholics were embarrassed to find themselves witnessing a big Greco-Russian squabble, laced with intricate arguments over the meaning of decisions taken 1,500 years ago. In a world where politics and religion inexorably overlap, such matters affect diplomacy too.

Take the thorny issue over whether the Istanbul bishop may style himself “ecumenical” or universal patriarch. The Turkish state says no: his followers, including an influential lobby of Greek-Americans, say yes. A fresh spat broke out only this week when the Turkish authorities declared that the patriarchate's security badges for the papal visit were invalid because they employed the E-word. Officials in Ankara admit that they are under pressure from Russia on this issue of Christian nomenclature. The message from Moscow is that Turkey's present policy suits them just fine. Pity the pope as he tiptoes around this many-cornered fight.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Church News category from December 2006.

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