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Turkey Strikes a Blow against the Patriarch of Constantinople

Sandro Magister

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The supreme court denies him the title of "ecumenical." And with this, it reinforces the suffocating of the freedoms of the patriarchate and of the other religious minorities. The repercussions of the sentence on relations between Rome and the Churches of the East.

ROMA, July 6, 2007 -- In proclaiming a special jubilee year dedicated to the apostle Paul, Benedict XVI wanted to give this "Pauline year" a distinctly ecumenical purpose, for unity and harmony among all the Christians of West and East, Catholic and Orthodox.

The pope pointed out this ecumenical goal in the homilies for vespers and for the Mass of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, celebrated in the presence of delegates from the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the metropolitans Emmanuel and Gennadios.

Every time that the pope mentions Bartholomew I, he never fails to call him the "ecumenical patriarch."

In Orthodoxy, every Church governs itself autonomously. But according to ancient tradition, the patriarch of Constantinople is accorded primacy of honor, in that he is at the head of the Church of the ancient Christian capital of the East. It is the primacy indicated by the description "ecumenical," meaning universal, extended to the entire "ecumene," a Greek word that indicates the world inhabited by man.

Benedict XVI went to visit Bartholomew I in Istanbul-Constantinople last November 30, the feast of Saint Andrew, patron of the Eastern Churches. And the patriarch repaid the visit by sending his delegates to Rome for the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the patrons of the Roman Church.

But a few days before this latter meeting, a judgment from Turkey's supreme court struck a hard blow to the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. It denied juridical value to his title of "ecumenical."

The sentence, naturally, applies only within the borders of Turkey and for the juridical sphere. It does not affect the theological foundation of the patriarch's authority, or the recognition granted to him by the other Christian Churches.

Nevertheless, the decision produced "profound displeasure" in the patriarchate, expressed in an official statement that reads in part:

"The primacy of the patriarchate has been, for seventeen centuries, a spiritual, historical, and honorific title of Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox Christian world, primacy establishes hierarchical relationships and expresses a purely religious status; that is, it has theological relevance."

The supreme court of Ankara handed down the sentence on June 26. It established that the patriarchate is simply a Turkish body set up for the Greek Orthodox minority, and therefore cannot claim the title of "ecumenical" for the entire Orthodox world.

The occasion of the verdict was an appeal from an Orthodox Turkish priest of Bulgarian origin, whom the patriarchate had removed from his parish because of "behavior not in keeping with his functions." The supreme court sided against the priest, but took the occasion to issue a political judgment on the juridical status of the patriarchate.

In support of its sentence, the supreme court cited the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which classified the patriarchate of Constantinople as a religious minority, and nothing else.

Because in Turkey the maxim holds true that jurisprudence makes law, the June 26 sentence was received by the patriarchate with serious alarm, considering the precedents. For example, in 1974 the same supreme court denied the religious foundations of the Orthodox, Catholic, and other minorities in Turkey the right to possess buildings or land, as had been granted to them by a 1933 law. This law confirmed the real estate property these groups possessed at the time, and moreover granted them the right to acquire new property. With the 1974 sentence, the religious foundations were arbitrarily stripped of all the assets acquired after 1933.

In Turkey, the Orthodox community, just like the Catholic community, continues to have no juridical personality; the bishops and religious authorities are not recognized, the seminaries are closed -- including the theological school of the patriarchate on the island of Chalki -- and the patriarch of Constantinople is required to be a Turkish citizen.

This withholding of the most basic rights from religious minorities is in clear contrast with Turkey's desire to be admitted into the European Union. On Pentecost, one month before the sentence from the supreme court, Bartholomew I again asked for complete freedom:

"We want not only the freedom to celebrate our rites within our churches, but also the recognition of all of our civil rights, as these are recognized for our Muslim brothers and countrymen in Turkey. The same rights that our Muslim brothers enjoy, rightly, in Europe."

On June 11, he added:

"We feel the presence and the support of all of our predecessors, the great Fathers of the Church and all the saints of the great land of Cappadocia. And because of his love for Christ, the martyrdom of patriarch Gregory V draws us onward."

Gregory V, patriarch of Constantinople under Ottoman rule, was hanged in 1821 in retaliation against the movements toward independence for the Greeks.

Representatives of various Orthodox Churches have expressed their solidarity to Bartholomew I, following the sentence of the supreme court.

Next October 21, in Naples, on the occasion of an ecumenical meeting organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, Benedict XVI will again meet with Bartholomew I and the other authorities of the Eastern Churches, including the second highest authority of the patriarchate of Moscow, metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk.

And the pope and Bartholomew I will probably meet again in the fall, to inaugurate the next session of the mixed Catholic-Orthodox theological commission, to be held in Ravenna.

But the Russian Orthodox Church seems more chilly and divided toward Bartholomew I. Unlike metropolitan Kirill, other representatives of this Church -- including bishop Hilarion of Vienna -- have expressed reservations about the openness of Bartholomew I toward dialogue with the Church of Rome. They believe that this openness is excessive, and that the patriarch of Constantinople does not represent all of Orthodoxy.

At the root of these reservations is the age-old rivalry between the "Second Rome," Constantinople, and the "Third Rome," Moscow, for the effective -- and not honorific -- direction of Orthodoxy.

The many tens of millions of faithful of the patriarchate of Moscow, compared to the few thousands of the patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey, tip the advantage to the Russian Church, despite patriarch Bartholomew's "ecumenical" primacy of honor: a primacy not recognized even by the laws of his country, Turkey.

Read the entire article on the Chiesa Expresso website (new window will open).

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