FaithWorld

Catholics and Orthodox report promising progress in latest round of unity talks

cathorth 1Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians reported promising progress on Friday in talks on overcoming their Great Schism of 1054 and bringing the two largest denominations in Christianity back to full communion. Experts meeting in Vienna this week agreed the two could eventually become “sister churches” that recognize the Roman pope as their titular head but retain many church structures, liturgy and customs that developed over the past millennium. (Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas (L) and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, 24 Sept 2010/Leonhard Foeger)

The delegation heads for the international commission for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue stressed that unity was still far off, but their upbeat report reflected growing cooperation between Rome and the Orthodox churches traditionally centred in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches,” Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon told a news conference. “If we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain.” Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity, said the joint dialogue must continue “intensively” so that “we see each other fully as sister churches.” cathorth 3(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI (L) with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel, October 18, 2008/Osservatore Romano)

The rapprochement of the Catholic and Orthodox churches must be the slowest “big story” on the religion beat. About 30 theologians meet in a joint Catholic-Orthodox commission about once every year or so to see how far they have come in reassessing Christian history so that the Great Schism can be laid to rest and the two churches can move forward to full communion. These talks produced their first joint declaration back in 1982 and have had ups and downs since then. The push towards unity has clearly gained momentum since Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill took office on February, 2009.  The goal is still far off –  hey, they have 1,000 years of division to get over — but they’re getting close enough now that an agreement now looks increasingly possible.

Kirill and Pope Benedict are both conservative theologians keen to work together to have Christianity’s voice heard in Europe, a continent they both think should return to its Christian roots. They’ve met in the past, including when Kirill visited Benedict at the Vatican in his former role as “foreign minister” of the Russian church. They haven’t yet held a summit meeting, so to speak, but religion reporters in Europe keep waiting for signs they will finally set a date for their first top-level talks. The Russians aren’t the only Orthodox in the game, but their size gives them a kind of veto power that has to be considered in this equation. The Vatican has good relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul and the new Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej has invited the pope to Belgrade.

Orthodox Christians flock to once-banned holy site in Turkey

sumela 4 (Photo: Orthodox Christians at Sumela Monastery, 15 August 2010/Umit Bektas)

Europe Papadopolous’s grandparents were children when they fled their village in northeast Turkey and settled in Greece almost 90 years ago, yet she still felt she was in exile.

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Papadopolous, 45, was one of thousands of Orthodox faithful who journeyed to Sumela Monastery, built into a sheer cliff above the Black Sea forest, on Sunday to attend the first mass here since ethnic Greeks were expelled in 1923. (Photo: Sumela Monastery, 15 August 2010/Umit Bektas)

“Being apart from this place feels like Ulysses: always searching for your home,” Papadopolous said, tears streaming down her face and adding that even though her grandparents are dead, she was sure they could see her “homecoming.”

Turkey offers citizenship to Orthodox archbishops to help patriarch succession

bartholomewTurkey has offered citizenship to Orthodox Christian archbishops from abroad to help the next election of the ecumenical patriarch, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox faithful, officials said.  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has quietly led the gesture to the Orthodox, who face a shortage of candidates to succeed Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 70, and serve on the Holy Synod, which administers patriarchate affairs. (Photo: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I leads the Easter service at the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, April 4, 2010/Murad Sezer)

Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen. But the Orthodox community in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, has fallen to some 3,000 from 120,000 a half-century ago, drastically shrinking the pool of potential future patriarchs.  There are now only 14 Greek Orthodox archbishops, including Bartholomew, who are Turkish citizens. Bartholomew himself is in good health.

Seventeen metropolitans from countries including Austria, France, the United States and Greece have applied for passports, said Rev. Dositheos Anagnostopulous, the patriarchate spokesman.  Another six may still apply, and the See hopes the first archbishops will receive their papers by Christmas, he said.

In Moscow, Orthodox Christian churches draw closer

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C), Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (R) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I meet in Moscow's Kremlin, May 25, 2010/Dmitry Astakhov

President Dmitry Medvedev warmly welcomed the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians Tuesday, hailing improving ties between Russia’s powerful church and its ancestor faith.  Relations among the Orthodox have improved after past strains when churches in former Soviet states such as Estonia and Ukraine broke away from the Russian mother church and tried to pledge allegiance to the patriarch in Istanbul.

“The visit of your Holiness is a significant event and, beyond all doubt, it will help strengthen the dialogue which always linked the two sisterly churches,” Medvedev told Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, according to a transcript published by the Kremlin.

Orthodox renew hope Turkey will re-open historic seminary

Empty classroom at the Orthodox Halki seminary, Sept. 2006The silent halls and empty classrooms tended by elderly priests at a former Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off the Istanbul coast belie the crucible the school has become in Muslim Turkey’s quest to join the European Union.

The EU has said re-opening Halki seminary, a centre of Orthodox scholarship for more than a century until Turkey closed it down in 1971, is crucial if Ankara is to prove a commitment to human rights and pluralism and advance its membership bid. (Photo: Halki seminary classroom, 18 Sept 2006/Tom Heneghan)

The pro-Islamist government, despite introducing other sweeping reforms to bring Turkey closer to EU membership, has thus far refused to re-open the 165-year-old school located on a pretty wooded isle called Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara.

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

Praying for news at the Vatican

You’ve probably seen on TV how reporters swarm around leaders coming out of closed-door meetings and the politicians step up to deliver their soundbites for the cameras. The Vatican held a big closed-door meeting on Friday and a wave of cardinals — the “princes of the Church” who rank among the most prominent leaders of Roman Catholicism — emerged at their lunch break to find a pack of journalists eager to pounce on them with questions. I’m in Rome for a few days and was out there waiting for them in a parking lot between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope Paul VI Hall where they were meeting. The scene was quite different from those “normal” media scrums.

Cardinals leave closed-door meeting with Pope Benedict, 23 Nov. 2007The session was a rare meeting of cardinals from around the world who are here at the Vatican for a ceremony on Saturday when 23 men “get their red hats,” i.e. join the College of Cardinals whose members under 80 years old elect the next pope. They were discussing the Catholic Church’s sensitive relations with other Christians — Orthodox they want to get closer to, Anglicans who are drifting further away, Protestants who are increasingly divided and Pentecostals who are encroaching on their flocks. These sessions presided over by Pope Benedict are supposed to remain confidential. So the men who emerged from the meeting looked and acted like anything but a bunch of politicians hoping to make it on to the evening news.

Some strode past the waiting journalists flashing half a smile and a quarter of a wave. Others found polite variations of the old “no comment”, like one who offered the (weak) joke: “If anything important had happened, you reporters would know it already.” Another walked straight up to a reporter from his home town, said he knew there was no way he could leave without talking to him, and then confessed with a smile: “But actually, I have nothing to say.”