Rifts Divide Orthodox World Ahead of Historic Summit

TBILISI - Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II announced Tuesday that his church would not take part in a planned summit of the world's Orthodox churches on the Greek isle of Crete on July 19-26.

Known as the Holy and Great Council of Orthodox Patriarchs - the first of its kind since 747 AD - the summit is set to include 350 clerics from the world's 14 autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox churches.

In an open letter addressed to the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and posted on the patriarchate's website, Ilia II said, "the unity of the Orthodox Church must first be achieved before holding an event of this scale."

The Georgian church's decision to skip the summit mirrored that of the Moscow Patriarchate, which also announced Tuesday that the Russian Orthodox Church would join their Serbian and Bulgarian counterparts in boycotting the council due to a lack of unity amongst the participating branches of the church.

"In a situation when councils of this level have not gathered for many centuries, more time is required to prepare for such an event," Russian Orthodox official Vladimir Legoyda said in an interview with state-run television station Rossiya 24.

Rifts Divide the Orthodox World

Though Orthodoxy has no central authority in the same vein as the Holy See for the Roman Catholic Church, Bartholomew's position as 'the first amongst equals' stems from the Byzantine tradition when Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was the ecumenical center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity .

In accordance with tradition, Bartholomew has the power to convene a pan-Orthodox Council but can not order other patriarchs to attend the meeting.

Any decision made by the council must be carried out by consensus. The absence of a single branch of the church undermines the legitimacy of the summit.

Several observers have noted that the Russian Orthodox Church is leading an alliance that includes the Georgian, Serbian and Bulgarian patriarchates which aim to curb the traditional influence of Orthodoxy's Hellenic ecumenical roots in favor of a church that looks to Moscow for guidance.

"The rivalry between the exceedingly powerful Russian Church, which makes up two-thirds of the Orthodox world's population, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, with less than 3,000 parishioners in Istanbul but primacy of honor over all of Orthodoxy, has been one of the most serious conflicts in Eastern Christianity in recent years, "journalist and religious scholar, Sandro Magister, wrote in a column for Italian weekly L'espresso earlier this year.

Church observers, including Magister, have noted that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has taken steps to strip Bartholomew of his exclusive status as the symbolic representative of Orthodoxy by capitalizing on growing discontent in the church.

Bartholomew's friendly overtures to his Western counterparts in the Vatican and the numerous branches of Protestantism has angered many of Orthodoxy's most powerful players - including the Georgian, Russian and Serbian churches - whose more anti-Western and xenophobic policies are in direct conflict with Bartholomew's policies of rapprochement with the rest of the Christian world.

The Georgian and Serbian churches renounced the pan-Orthodox summit earlier in June after the council adopted a document signed in January that defined the relation of the Orthodox Church towards the rest of the Christian world.

Both the Georgian and Serbian patriarchates vehemently rejected the notion that the Orthodox Church must define its role in the Christian world or be mentioned in the same context as the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

In an interview with Italian daily La Stampa last week, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos Savatos attempted to ease concerns that the council would fail to meet or take on a far more reactionary tone in order to placate the deeply nationalistic and ultra-conservative faction led by the Russian contingent.

The controversy over the council is the latest in a series of crises that have plagued the unity of the Orthodox world in the last two years. 

Rival patriarchates in Kyiv and Moscow have been locked in a bitter dispute over their respective authority in Ukraine after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea Peninsula and backed a separatist uprising in the country's eastern Donbass region.

The churches of Antioch and Jerusalem - under threat from the political and security instability in the Middle East - have been embroiled in a bitter spat after the Jerusalem Patriarchate ordained an archbishop in Qatar without consulting Patriarch Ioannis X of Antioch, though the priest's appointment fell within his jurisdiction. The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch H as historically governed the historic Orthodox Christian communities on the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region.

Both cases have underscored the belief amongst MANY officials in the Orthodox world Bartholomew That IS Powerless when it Comes to inter-CHURCH Settling disputes.

The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has been swift to read the growing discord as a potentially fatal blow to the traditionally Greek-centered views of Bartholomew. The Moscow Patriarchate is positioning itself to gain from the possible collapse of the summit by encouraging close allies in the Caucasus and Balkans to follow its lead in boycotting the council altogether and encourage further disunity amongst the respective Orthodox churches.

By Nicholas Waller

15 June 2016 00:00