Eastern Orthodox Leaders Tussle as Russian Power Ebbs

Article excerpt

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. …