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The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

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Paul Nathanail

The Vatican is the heart of Roman Catholic Christianity. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, is the heart of Orthodox Christianity. Ever since the first centuries of the Church, the importance of Constantinople became evident. As soon as Constantine the Great declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire and moved its capital from Rome to Byzantium (New Rome), which later became Constantinople (Constantine's City), it was obvious that the city at the junction of Europe and Asia was destined for great things.

As capital of an Empire which was first known as Eastern Roman and remained in history as Byzantine, for eleven centuries it was the center of the world and the most brilliant and rich city of the time. In 1453 it fell into the hands of the Turks and became the capital of another Empire that dazzled the European world. The Ottoman Empire emulated its predecessor, the Byzantine Empire, in may respects, but it was above all a strong state that relied on the Moslem religion. Despite that, Constantinople remained the seat of the Patriarchate.

Today, the great city that was once Constantinople is called Istanbul by the present-day Republic of Turkey, and it is no longer the capital of any Empire. However, it is still one of the most fascinating cities in the world. And the Patriarchate, although it cannot compare with its glorious past as the center of the world, is still the seat of the leader of Orthodox Christianity, the Church which proclaims it is the authentic expression of the original united Church, and which commands the loyalty of about 250 million faithful all over the world.

Rome, the pole of the other basic branch of Christianity, namely Roman Catholicism, has clashed with Constantinople in religious terms but a mutual respect has always been present beneath the division, even enmity, that marked certain periods in the history of relations between Eastern and Western Christianity.

Throughout the entire history of the Byzantine Empire (from the 4th to the 15th century), relations between the Patriarchate and the Emperor, as the head of the secular authority, were based on mutual respect and on the basic principle: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's'. But this did not, in any way, mean total isolation of the one from the other. The Emperors were officially blessed by the Patriarchs and were described as defenders or protectors of the Church, but did not interfere with its administration.

Laws regarding the property or other matters concerning the Church were sometimes issued by Emperors but always in consultation with the Patriarch. Some Emperors even mediated in cases of internal ecclesiastical disputes, but they did not do so as a Higher Authority but merely in the interest of unity.

The Byzantine State relied on Orthodoxy, in other words on a common religion of its citizens. The modern notion of nationality did not exist at the time. This is the main reason why the various heresies that cropped up from time to time were not protected in any sense by the State and were considered as undermining factors.

The great Schism of 1054 made existing differences official and the repercussions of this permanent division of Christianity (into two Churches) have been felt ever since. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, immediately after the Schism, was not only the top religious authority of the Byzantine Empire, which by now had shrunken considerably in terms of territory, but had also become a national institution because, though its faithful came from various ethnic groups, the culturally predominant element were Greeks, or at least Greek speakers.

The Patriarchate gradually acquired its dual character as the Head of Orthodoxy on the one hand and as a supreme expression of the Orthodox Greek Nation on the other. This second role became more pronounced later on during the Ottoman Empire. However, certain historical developments in the meantime strengthened its anti-Catholic positions.

The Fourth Crusade, instead of reaching the Holy Land, remained on Byzantine territory and the knights captured Constantinople in 1204. The looting of the imperial city and the atrocities that were committed, together with the oppressive measures taken against the Orthodox Church all over the areas that remained for a period under Frankish' rule, strengthened the views of those who always believed that the West desired its religious subjugation to the People. "Franks" was the term used as a general description of all Western Europeans at the time.

After 1261, when Constantinople was liberated and once again became the capital of the restored Byzantine Empire, the Patriarchate regained only part of its former glory since the Empire was only a mere shadow of its past magnificence both in terms of territory as well as strength.

During the two centuries between 1261 and 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the Patriarchate became more Greek in its character and its relations with the last Emperors were extremely close. The coming of the Ottoman Turks changed the history of the Patriarchate. A last minute attempt at reuniting the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches during the last few years before the fall of Constantinople failed dismally.

The Ottoman Turks turned the city into the capital of their Moslem Empire and since then the Patriarchate has operated under different conditions. It continued to be the head of the Orthodox Churches all over the world, but its seat has since been in a State which is not Christian. This awkward position needs further explanation.

When Mahomet II, the Conqueror, triumphantly entered Constantinople, he decided to guarantee the existence of the Patriarchate and to acknowledge its spiritual authority over all Orthodox subjects in his Empire. This was a shrewd political decision because its deeper aim was to turn the Patriarch into a kind of guarantor that the Greeks and the other Orthodox peoples who had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks would remain loyal, while at the same time their local customs both in the social and religious fields would be respected.

During the centuries of Ottoman domination these arrangements were mostly in operation. However, there had been periods when, due to political events, the equilibrium was temporarily upset and oppression occurred. In general, however, the role of the Patriarch as Head of "the nation of the Orthodox" was a factor of stability and moderation.

The role of the Patriarch during those centuries should be further analyzed. He was in a way considered almost as being responsible for the behavior of the Orthodox subjects. In other words, whenever there was some form of uprising or unrest in a predominantly Orthodox area, the Patriarch at the time was subjected to immense pressure and sometimes arrested, imprisoned and, in extreme cases, executed. Therefore, the Patriarchate enjoyed privileges that on paper seemed to be generous, but all that was subject to preconditions that were at times extremely difficult for the Patriarch to comply with.

The 17th century was a particularly difficult period during which two Patriarchs were assassinated or executed, the correct term depending on historical facts that are not absolutely clear. The first case was that of Cyril Loukaris, one of the wisest and most educated prelates that ever assumed the Patriarchal seat of Constantinople. It happened in 1638 when he was accused of being an enemy of the State' and was strangled and his body thrown into the Bosporus. The second case was that of Parthenios III who was accused of having contacts with enemies of the State and was hanged by the Sultan's order in 1657.

The jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was gradually extended over more areas where there were Orthodox majorities or minorities. Another interesting development was that laymen who assumed high posts in the Ottoman administration were included in the various organs of the Patriarchate. The Greek aristocracy of Constantinople was known as Phanariots, from the area of the city (Phanar) where most of them lived and where the seat of the Patriarchate was also located. Thus, during the 18th century, the administration under the Patriarch included both clerics and laymen who collectively formed an important institution within the Ottoman state.

Another aspect of the authority of the Patriarchate is the juridical setup. This authority extended beyond the spiritual field, even into cases covered by the penal code. The ecclesiastical courts at all levels dealt with all sorts of cases and their verdicts were officially accepted and implemented. However, it should be noted that gradually the authority of the ecclesiastical courts was weakened and their verdicts became merely consultative, though this change was not carried out by law but by the new balance of powers within the Ottoman state.

The economic life of the Patriarchate during the Ottoman Empire was rather different from what it was under Byzantium. A tax was levied from all areas but the financial position of the Church was far from satisfactory. The result was that the Patriarchate was not in a position to assist the education of the Greek Orthodox subjects, not even that of the clergy. However, the few schools of higher learning that were functioning under the auspices of the Patriarchate were the best available at the time. The "Great School of the Nation" (Megali tou Genous Scholi) next to the actual seat of the Patriarchate was almost a University in modern terms. The vast majority of the educated clergy and most teachers were graduates of that famous school.

The end of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th were a period of educational and cultural revival among Greeks and the Patriarchate obviously played an instrumental role. This revival finally culminated in the 1821 uprising and the War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the modern Greek state. The position of the Patriarchate was extremely difficult and the Patriarch Gregory V was accused of being in contact with the Greek Revolution fighters and was hanged at the central gate of the Patriarchate. His body was then thrown into the Bosporus but was recovered a few days later some miles down the coast.

Following the establishment of an independent Greek state, the Patriarchate retained its role regarding the Greeks and other Orthodox people who remained within the borders of the Ottoman state, while at the same time it never ceased being acknowledged as Ecumenical, i..e. the top ecclesiastical authority for the entire Orthodox world all over the planet. It should be recalled that during the centuries of existence under Ottoman rule, the Patriarchate had to deal with all the problems arising from the coexistence with Moslem secular authorities while at the same time acting as a major religious authority on an international level. Relations with the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches that emerged in the meantime went through various phases. There were times of crisis whenever the activities of the Uniats became provocative or when the Protestant missions attempted to proselytize among the Orthodox populations. The Uniate Churches were an attempt to attract previously Orthodox communities into accepting the supremacy of the People while retaining traditional Eastern liturgies and the other appearance of the clergy.

In the case of the Protestants, relations were generally better because Orthodox theologians saw their churches as a movement of reforming Roman Catholicism by returning to principles and ideas that were common during the first centuries of a united Christian Church. In fact, for a time, certain Patriarchs had come to the conclusion that Orthodoxy and Protestantism could be united. But this aim was not achieved and the theological disputes continued, sometimes connected to political undertones.

The 19th century was a time when the various Orthodox nations of the Balkans gradually asserted their separate identities. Tensions between the nationalities created problems but the Patriarchate tried to remain above such disputes. The only major crisis in that respect was the Bulgarian Nationalist Movement which considered the Patriarchate as being biased in favor of the Greeks. In general terms, however, the Ecumenical Patriarch retained his role. The situation became delicate whenever there was a deterioration in Greek - Turkish relations.

In 1908 the Revolution of the so-called "Young Turks" boosted the hopes of those who believed that the Ottoman Empire could be transformed into a multinational Federation with a basically democratic Constitution. However, it soon became clear that the new situation was far more nationalistic in outlook than the previous one. Within the framework of this new image the Ecumenical Patriarchate was considered alien and its role was to be curtailed. In fact, the most extreme elements of the new regime argued that it should be expelled from Turkish soil altogether.

The period 1912-1922 was a decade of tension between Greece and Turkey. Successive wars and crises created an atmosphere of enmity which culminated in the mass exodus of Greek populations from Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace. As a result, the number of Orthodox in the new Republic of Turkey was drastically reduced and the Ecumenical Patriarchate's role was limited.

The last three quarters of a century (since 1923) have been a period of economic decline, while the number of the faithful remaining in Turkey has been reduced to a mere few thousand. The policy followed by successive Turkish governments created numerous problems for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, many of which still exist today . There are political forces within Turkey that would have preferred its abolition or transfer to another country. There are, however, some moderate forces as well that realize the international status of the Patriarchate and the fact that Turkey could benefit from that role.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate today has a relatively small number of faithful under its direct jurisdiction. Following the virtual disappearance of Orthodox communities within Turkey, it still tends the spiritual needs of the Greek Diaspora. Communities in the United States, Australia and other countries come under the administrative authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Also groups of Orthodox believers from other Orthodox countries who live in the Diaspora also depend administratively on the Constantinople Patriarchate. However, the bulk of the 250 million Orthodox in the world belong to autonomous Patriarchates or Archbishoprics. It should be noted that the Orthodox Church comprises national Churches with their own ecclesiastical heads. However, they all acknowledge the Patriarch as their supreme spiritual leader.

The Turkish authorities consider the Patriarchate a religious union which functions in Istanbul in accordance with Turkish law. Accordingly they insist that the Patriarch is to be a Turkish citizen, i.e. a member of the now small local Greek Orthodox community and not any Orthodox from all over the world. This limitation creates a serious problem for the future. Also, the Theological College on the island of Halki just outside Istanbul remains closed and is not allowed to operate. The result is that the Patriarchate is no longer in a position to educate its own clergy. The present Patriarch Bartholomew is trying to convince the Turkish authorities that they should allow the reopening of the College, which could become an international Theological Center.

Despite all these difficulties, the prestige of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is constantly growing mainly because of its activities as a center of unity not only among the Orthodox world but also within the framework of the Ecumenical movement which aims at bringing together the whole of Christendom. The fact that the bulk of the Patriarchate's clergy are ethnic Greeks does not in any way hinder its international, or, rather, supranational, mission, which is widely acknowledged by other, non-Orthodox, Churches. In addition to the above, the reemergence of Orthodoxy in Russia and other countries which had gone through a period of atheism calls for a strong center which would offer inspiration and guidance.

The present Patriarch Bartholomew has undoubtedly grasped the deeper meaning of this unique mission and has started visits to many countries. In particular, he realizes that the Ecumenical Patriarchate could and should play an important role in the field of European unity. His visits to the European Union headquarters in Brussels and his speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg have created an excellent impression among politicians and ordinary European citizens. His visits to individual European countries have strengthened this impression, and he is expected to pay an official visit to Athens in the very near future.

The Patriarch's presence on the island of Patmos last year during the celebrations marking the 1900th anniversary of the writing of St John's Revelations (Apocalypse) was one more excellent opportunity to emphasize the present role of the "Mother Church", while his visit to Rome and the dialogue with Pope Paul was yet another forceful demonstration of the wish for Christian unity.

Copyright: 1996

Source: Hellenic Ministry of Press (pegasus@compulink.gr)


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