Power Plays by Patriarchs Widen Rift Between Orthodox Churches

In a US visit that began Sunday, a globe-trotting patriarch works to bridge split with Russian church.

Such a spectacle had never been seen in the Deck 9 coffee bar aboard the Greek luxury ferry Eleftherios Venizelos.

Sipping coffee at separate tables were the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the president of Moldova, and the vice president of Ukraine, each surrounded by a flock of bishops, retainers, and bodyguards in mixes appropriate to their positions.

Receiving them in turn in an adjoining conference room was their host, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of some 250 million Orthodox Christians.

It was the latest round in a series of genuinely Byzantine political struggles over the future of the Orthodox Christian world, the majority of which only recently emerged from years of Communist dictatorship.

At stake is both the unity of the Orthodox Church and the relations among its adherents in newly independent nation-states spread across the rubble of the old Soviet empire.

The struggle pits the financially weak Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew - the titular head of the Orthodox Church who lives under difficult circumstances in Istanbul - against the seemingly all-powerful Alexi II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which also controls Ukraine, Moldova, and a sizable share of the Orthodox diaspora in the US and around the world.

As Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholmew is the leader of the Eastern (or Greek) Orthodox Church, which separated from the Western (or Roman Catholic) Church in 1054 after centuries of disputes over the papacy and other matters. The pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated one another during the schism, but the acts were mutually abolished in 1965.

"It is a blessing that these nations are free and sovereign again, but it also means that there are some growing pains in the pan-Orthodox world," a source within the Ecumenical Patriarchate says. "Russia is trying to reassert its authority. It was very strong before, but now it's even stronger. From time to time we have to point out to them in a motherly way that they are getting too big for their britches."

Alexi does have big ambitions. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest by far of Orthodoxy's "autocephalous," or self-governing, churches. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, Russians and Ukrainians have been returning to the fold by the millions while church-state relations have done an about face; persecution stopped and politicians were so eager to establish ties with Alexi that he was able to engineer passage this fall of a law limiting missionary work by most other religions in Russia.

He's also been throwing his weight around the Orthodox world in an effort to maintain or increase the financial and political power of the Russian Church. Patriarch Alexi has tried to maintain control over areas annexed by the Soviet Union, such as Estonia and Moldova, as well as the more than 6,000 parishes of now-independent Ukraine. All three countries are suspicious of Russia but have large Russian minorities; worshippers on each side often fear being under the ecclesiastical control of the other.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew - who began a month-long US visit Sunday - has sought to resolve each crisis as dictated by canonical law, which reserves for his office the right to create new autocephalous churches. It's an effort to restore harmony between the competing Orthodox churches and bodies by strengthening the moral authority of the mother church in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Since Christianity came to Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans from Constantinople, only the mother church has the right to grant autonomy or Patriarchate-status to its "daughter churches." Or so tradition dictates.

Last year the Orthodox world teetered on the edge of its greatest schism since the break with the Roman Church in 1054 over tiny Estonia, which has fewer than 100 parishes. The Ecumenical Patriarch recognized the restored independence of the Estonian Orthodox Church from Moscow, enraging Alexi, who broke communion with the mother church for a time. A compromise is still being worked out.

Sources say Estonia dominated the two-hour shipboard meeting between the patriarchs, the first since the crisis. But the precedents it set for Ukraine must have been foremost in their minds. Here there are three competing Orthodox Churches - two self-declared Ukrainian patriarchs (who don't get along), and an archbishopric beholden to Moscow, which has official recognition.

Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi was also present, eager to resolve the dispute between pro-Russian and pro-Romanian branches of Orthodoxy in his country, which belonged to the Romanian Patriarchate before the Soviets' wartime annexation.

Bartholomew declined to comment on the content of his meetings, which took place on the sidelines of a shipboard symposium he was hosting on how religion and science can work to address the environmental problems of the Black Sea and other regions. But they appear to have been constructive. Later, the patriarchs presided over a joint service in Odessa at which both spoke on the importance of unity.

The ecumenical patriarch is increasing his profile both inside and outside the church. The 10-day shipboard symposium he was hosting provided a politically neutral platform on which to tour much of the former Byzantine Empire, collecting fellow patriarchs in each port along the way. He was met by heads of state, ministers, and crowds of worshippers eager for their first chance to behold their spiritual leader.

But in Trabzon, Turkey (where the conference began), a small crowd of Islamic fundamentalists at the airport greeted him with jeers and obscenities, and a stone was thrown at his bus. Border guards hassled conference participants, which included some of the world's leading scientists, to the embarrassment of the Turkish government.

It was a reminder that while the mother church has substantial legal and moral authority, its position is quite precarious. Constantinople is now Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, a country where Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Greek feeling run strong. In his native Istanbul, Bartholomew administers to a shrinking Greek community of less than 3,000. Despite tithes from Greek diocese in the US and other countries, the Patriarchate is in constant financial duress.

This may be part of the impetus for the patriarch's US tour. In addition to meetings with President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and other academic, diplomatic, and political leaders this week, Bartholomew will be visiting Orthodox diocese across the US for the first time. Perhaps there, his supporters hope, he will shore up the political and financial support he will need on the road ahead.

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