Magazine article The Christian Century

Politics Threaten Plans for Historic Gathering of Orthodox Churches

Magazine article The Christian Century

Politics Threaten Plans for Historic Gathering of Orthodox Churches

Article excerpt

A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago is now in jeopardy because of Syria's civil war.

The world's Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity with 14 autocephalous (independent) member churches, had scheduled their first major council since 787 for May in Istanbul. Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church will be held.

The chain of events now threatening to affect the council began in November when Turkey, which opposes Syrian president Bashar Assad, shot down a Russian bomber that it said had strayed into its air space while attacking Syrian rebels. Moscow, which supports Assad, demanded an apology, and Ankara refused to give it.

The Kremlin reacted with a full range of diplomatic punishments, suspending a joint energy project, banning imports of some Turkish products, and canceling visa-free travel for Russians to Turkey. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the incident "a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists" and threatened serious consequences for Turkey.

Out of the media spotlight, the Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin, also became active. Within days, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of external relations for the church, called off a trip he was about to take to Turkey for preparatory talks about the council.

Then another senior Russian cleric asked whether, under these political circumstances, the summit could be held as planned in Istanbul, which has been the center of the Orthodox world since it was known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, before the Muslim conquest of 1453.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, headquarters of the loosely tied Orthodox family, is based there, as is Orthodoxy's spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The plan was to hold the council in Hagia Irene, a church-turned-museum in the Topkapi Palace complex where the Council of Constantinople confirmed the Nicene Creed in 381.

In early December, Igor Yakymchuk, secretary for inter-Orthodox relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, hinted to RIA Novosti news agency that the council might be postponed.

"It is not known when it will take place," he said. "If the situation deteriorates, it's quite possible the council will be held elsewhere. It's difficult to talk about. …

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