A bribe of chocolates and candies
He may be the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christians all over the world; he may have received most religious and political leaders at the Phanar Patriarchate in the ancient district of Fener in the Golden Horn, including his friend Pope Francis; he may have been received by many prime ministers and heads of state and was offered numerous awards and honorary titles from respectable academic and state institutions. Nearing the eighth decade of his life and completing his twenty seventh year as head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew has become a highly recognized and respected international figure.
Yet, despite all the above, if you ask an Istanbul Rum, i.e. a Greek Orthodox Turkish citizen from Istanbul, who is Patriarch Bartholomew for him or her, they would tell you simply “he is our father”. There a very interesting and unique relationship between Bartholomew’s flock that further exceeds his status or reputation. It may be the sad fact that the number of the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul has fallen dramatically since the latter part of the previous century and now hardly exceeds two thousand souls, many of whom long passed retirement age.
But whatever the reason, the relationship between Patriarch Bartholomew and his Istanbul Rums could only be compared nowadays to a father-family affair; he knows each one, he calls them by their first name, he is interested in their family life, in their children, their education, their schooling. In spite of his busy schedule of meetings and trips abroad you could still see him attending most of the community’s special events, often delivering speeches reminding his people of the long history of their presence in the City.
This has been a turbulent year for the Orthodox Patriarch of Phanar. He had to weather several storms which had his Ecumenical status challenged by the Russian Patriarchate for his decision to grant the autocephaly (independence) to one of the three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine as requested by the President of Ukraine Peter Poroshenko.
The ensuing crisis saw the historical link between the Phanar and the Moscow Patriarchate broken. His move infuriated Putin, who in his end of the year press conference in Moscow claimed that the Phanar Patriarch had received money for granting independence to the Ukrainian Church.
As if that crisis was not enough, almost at the same time, the Greek government decided to “redefine” the relations between the Church and the State by introducing a series of amendments in the country’s constitution.
While the debate on the constitutional amendment is still going on, the prospect that a change in the status and finance of the Greek church created uneasiness and nervousness in the Phanar, despite the repeated visits by the responsible Greek minister to convince the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church about the good intentions of the Greek government.
As it has been the tradition for the last eight years, the “father” of the Istanbul Rums, received a large group of the members of his community on Christmas Eve earlier in the week. He welcomed them in the “Throne Room” and listened to the “kalanda,” the Orthodox Christmas carols sang by the children of the historic Zografeion Lyceum.
This resembled a family tradition where not only the children but most of the Istanbul Rums make sure to visit Phanar and receive the blessings of their Patriarch.
Actually, Patriarch Bartholomew is not strictly an Istanbul Rum. He was born in a village on the island of Gökçeada (Imbros). In spite of his long life in Istanbul as a religious leader, he has never forgotten his roots; and most of all, he has never lost his humour.
Which was the reason probably behind his comment to the people crowded in the Throne Room that made headlines in the international press; replying to Putin, he said that his “bribe” consisted of “many candies and chocolates from the factory of President Poroshenko.”
It is not often that we get to see through the character of prominent personalities, but Patriarch Bartholomew’s sarcastic comments on the occasion of this year’s Orthodox Christmas showed that he had enough stamina to weather any upcoming storms.