ISTANBUL, TURKEY — On a recent Sunday at Aya Triada, the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul, a priest in a bejeweled white robe with gold trim leads the services in the incense-scented church. The walls of the 120-year-old sanctuary are lined with delicate icons, the ceiling painted with colorful frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible.
As the bearded priest chants in Greek, his voice echoes throughout the domed chamber. His chanting, though, goes mostly unheard. Sitting in the pews are barely more than a dozen gray-haired congregants, along with a tourist whose camera flash keeps going off during the service.
"Today we had a mass, but you see - there are not many people here. That is our situation," says the priest, a church leader known as Metropolitan Herman of Tranopolis, with a shrug of his shoulders.
It's not only the situation at Aya Triada, but citywide and in predominantly Muslim Turkey as a whole. Despite a 1,500-year history in Istanbul - and presiding over some 250 million believers worldwide, stretching from Russia and Romania to Greece and the United States - the Orthodox patriarchate tends a rapidly dwindling flock at home.
To make matters worse, Turkish law stipulates that the patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, which means the next leader will have to be picked from among this shrinking pool of people. If something doesn't change soon, the church's spiritual and historical headquarters risks sliding into irrelevance.
"This minority cannot provide another patriarch from its remaining members ... at least [not] after one generation," says Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia, chief secretary to the current patriarch, Bar-tholomew. "The patriarchate's survival depends on God and on its flock outside Turkey."
In many ways, survival is the main issue facing the church, as it tries to balance its worldwide mission with the domestic pressures it faces in Turkey, where its actions are often viewed with suspicion.
This became abundantly clear a few months ago when Bartholomew appointed six non-Turkish metropolitans (or archbishops) to be members of an advisory council called the Holy Synod, which is responsible for electing future patriarchs. It was the first time non-Turks had been appointed to the 12-member council since 1923, when Turkey began mandating that Turks head the church.
Church officials describe the move as an attempt to include Orthodox churches in other countries in its decisionmaking, but also as something born out of necessity. In the past year, two local metropolitans died and two others were sidelined with health problems, leaving only 16 aging Turkish church leaders qualified to be part of the synod.
But Turkish politicians and media strongly criticized the patriarchate's move, saying it had overstepped its bounds. The church defines itself as ecumenical - or global - but Turkish officials say that the laws that govern it limit its responsibilities to tending its flock in Turkey.
"We believe that the appointments are not in conformity with the Turkish system, and we expect the patriarchate to conform to Turkish regulations," says Onur Oymen, an opposition member of parliament and a former ambassador. "The church is a Turkish institution and we oppose its ecumenical nature."
Turkish historians trace suspicion of the church back to the tumultuous period after World War I, when Greece invaded the nascent Turkish state and the patriarchate sided with the invaders. As part of their peace agreement, Turkey and Greece implemented a massive population exchange, although the patriarchate was allowed to stay in Istanbul.
"There's an old trauma that there's a master plan to divide Turkey and revive the dream of Byzantium," says Rifat Bali, an Istanbul researcher who has written about Turkey's minority communities. "People still hold on to that and the Islamist and ultranationalist press still nurtures that."
"The patriarchate is seen as representing a community that betrayed the country," he adds.
But while suspicion of the church runs deep, Turkey could also see some major benefits by loosening its control over the institution. Turkey is enacting major legislative and political reforms as part of its bid to join the European Union and the country's treatment of its religious minorities is one of the areas that the EU has been monitoring closely.
The Europeans have been particularly insistent that Turkey reopen the Orthodox Halki Theological School, a seminary located on an island near Istanbul that was shut down in 1971 under a law requiring state supervision of university-level religious schools. The Turkish government has indicated it is willing to reopen the seminary, but observers here don't believe that it will change the citizenship requirement for the patriarch.
Still, the steps Turkey could take - such as opening up the Halki seminary and resolving disputes over patriarchate property confiscated by the government over the decades - "would resonate in Brussels and elsewhere," says a Western diplomat based in Turkey.