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
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
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. …