Orthodox patriarchs urge peace in Ukraine, plan first council in 1,200 years
Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East. Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold an ecumenical council of bishops in 2016, the first in over 1,200 years.
The Istanbul talks were called to decide on the council, which the Orthodox have been preparing on and off since the 1960s, but the Ukraine crisis overshadowed their talks at the office of spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As the prelates left a special service at Saint George’s Cathedral, a woman in the crowd called out in Russian “Pray for Ukraine!” Two archbishops responded: “You pray, too!”
In their communiqué, the patriarchs called for “peaceful negotiations and prayerful reconciliation in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine” and denounced what they said were “threats of violent occupation of sacred monasteries and churches” there.
One of the main questions facing the 2016 council will be how to balance relations among the Orthodox now that the Russian church, after seven decades of subjugation under communism, has reemerged as an influential voice in world Christianity.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who will meet Roman Catholicism’s Pope Francis in Jerusalem in May, is the senior-most Orthodox leader, but his Istanbul-based church is tiny, with none of the resources the large Russian church enjoys.
Despite the prestige of his post, he has no authority over other churches, unlike the power the pope has in Catholicism, the world’s largest church with 1.2 billion members. The communiqué stressed that all decisions at the council would be taken by consensus, a position the Russians strongly defended in preparations for the meeting.
The 2016 council will be held in Hagia Irene, a Byzantine church building in the outer courtyard of the Ottoman sultans’ Topkapi Palace. Now a museum, it has not been used as a church since the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453.