When State Rules, Church Dwindles

Article excerpt

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. …