World Orthodoxy meets in Istanbul

World Orthodoxy meets in Istanbul

The 14 patriarchs and archbishops who lead the world’s Orthodox Christians gathered in Istanbul for a three-day meeting last weekend upon the invitation of Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who hosted them at the See of Orthodoxy in the ancient neighborhood of Fener.

The “Synaxis,” or congregation of the heads of Orthodox Christendom, ended yesterday, coming at a time of strain and tension in the world, particularly the world close to us. The current events in Syria and Ukraine have demonstrated that the coexistence of different faiths and religions in one geographical area can be easily disturbed when the political equilibrium is broken.

The three day-meeting of the heads of the Orthodoxy discussed a series of issues regarding the organization and functioning of their autonomous churches all over the world where the See of Constantinople is accepted as the “First Throne.” But its main purpose was to have all the Orthodox fathers agree on the unity and the will to hold the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in 2016, a worldwide pan-Orthodox council of great importance for Orthodoxy, which counts over 250 million believers.

The Synaxis was not without problems. The initial insistence by the Russian patriarch for all the Orthodox bishops to have a right to vote on major ecclesiastic issues caused tension with Fener as it brought up once again the debate of whether the Russians should lead Orthodoxy as it is the most populous church. However, the tension was eventually settled through a compromise whereby it was decided that only 20 bishops from every church would have the right to vote and, on the other hand, Patriarch Bartholomew had to accept that every decision would not be taken by majority vote as he wished but unanimously as the Russians insisted.

A less serious but equally tense row broke out just before the Synaxis came to an end when the three bishops representing the ancient Church of Antioch in the absence of Patriarch Ioannes I insisted that they would not sign the final declaration if “the issue of Qatar” was not settled. The issue of Qatar involves two of the oldest Orthodox patriarchates, that of Jerusalem and Antioch. The recent appointment of a bishop by the Jerusalem Patriarchate infuriated the fathers in Antioch as they considered that Qatar was under their jurisdiction. The representatives acting on the orders of the patriarch of Antioch brought up the issue at the very end of the Istanbul meeting and refused to sign the final declaration. In the end, in spite of desperate efforts by several Orthodox bishops, the final text was issued without the signature of Antioch.

These are not peaceful times. These are also times for great disappointment for the Fener Patriarchate as it observes an old debate that has been recently revived in Turkey, either through statements by politicians or through the Turkish media: It is the issue of the conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque – a perspective repeat of what happened during the Ottoman period.

“If Hagia Sophia is to again become a place of worship, it should function as a church because it was built for that purpose,” said Patriarch Bartholomew during the Istanbul Synaxis. It was not the first time that the ecumenical patriarch expressed such views. One year ago, he had expressed the same wish: “We prefer Hagia Sophia to remain under the same status. It became a museum and thus it should remain. If it is to function as a place of worship, it should open as a Christian church. Because it was built as a church; it was not built as a mosque.”

One year ago, his words did not cause a reaction. But Turkey today is not the country it was one year ago. In an atmosphere of heightened political tension and polarization, the reaction by certain Turkish commentators reminded us of older times where the communities of different faiths living in this country were made to feel uncomfortable and ill-fitting into this society. We just hope that somehow tensions will be replaced by understanding and that the Orthodox Church will be able to hold its council in 2016 in Istanbul.