(Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (R) leads a special Sunday mass after the Synaxis at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

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.