Eastern Orthodox leaders tussle as Russian power ebbs

The Holy Land is rolling out its red carpets for former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, ostensibly on hand to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas today.

But his country's church leaders hope he can also lend a hand in their bid to recapture some lost prestige and power.

In an attempt to rise above the rivalries that mark the church, which broke from Roman Catholicism in 1054, 14 of the 15 heads of the world's Eastern Orthodox churches gathered in Jerusalem on Wednesday for their biggest-ever synod in the Holy Land - and the first in 60 years.

But even amid a rare show of unity at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which sponsored the synod - Greek for meeting - as well as the millennial celebrations, a mounting power struggle over how the church should be run permeated the tenor of the celebrations.

What has been lost in Russian political muscle since the fall of the Soviet Union, church leaders hope to make up for in religious hegemony.

Of utmost concern to the Russian Church is the threat of more countries that were once part of the former USSR breaking away and forming their own independent national churches, diminishing the influence and centrality of Moscow.

The struggle is embodied in the tussle between the Russian Patriarch Alexy II, and Bartholomew I, the Turkey-based Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Tensions between the two church leaders arose after Bartholomew I agreed to recognize the autonomy of the Estonian church when it declared its independence from Moscow.

Now, Alexy II fears that Bartholomew I might bestow recognition on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has also been pressing to break away from Russia and appoint its own patriarch.

Meanwhile, the attempts of Bartholomew I to consolidate church powers has spurred accusations that he is exhibiting neo-papist tendencies, inching closer to the Catholicism the Orthodox Church rejected almost a millennium ago.

Some clerical sources say that Bartholomew I, who is designated as "first among equals," wants to streamline the Orthodox Church under one ecumenical leader so that it can show a more unified team of churches to compete with the Vatican's near-omnipotence in the Catholic world.

Disagreements over the pope's powers was what drove the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to break away from each other in the Great Schism of 1054. Today, Eastern Orthodoxy is structured into 15 independent branches defined primarily by national and ethnic differences, unlike the borderless conceptualization of Catholicism.

Four other Orthodox national churches, the Armenian, Coptic (Egyptian), Syrian and Ethiopian church, are Monophysites - those who argue that Jesus has only one, divine nature, not two - a human nature and a divine nature. They have maintained their distance from the rest of the Orthodox world by saving this year's Christmas celebrations until Jan. 19.

The wide diversity of churches that has traditionally stretched from the Holy Land to Greece, Turkey, Russia, and much of Eastern Europe has seen a sort of renaissance. Since the unraveling of communism, which officially discouraged religion, churches have more freedom.

But with rekindled freedom for religious worship has come a reemergence of old rivalries that had become almost invisible during an era in which governments expected fealty to party manifestos, not pulpits.

Church officials in Jerusalem acknowledged that there were palpable differences among the churches, but said it was merely a process of discerning what would be best for the future of Orthodoxy.

"There is a kind of imbalance, so it is very easy to speak of violence, of contests, but the problem is to see what is just and right with the churches," Father Alexander, a spokesman for the Russian Church, told The Associated Press.

"There is an internal fight between the Russian patriarch and the ecumenical patriarch over who will be senior in the church, which was repressed at the time of the Communists," says a local church relations official who asked that his name not be used.

"This is a power game. They want to be able to show the Vatican who is more powerful. It's a very big international contest under the guise of religion."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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