Leaders of 15 of the world's 16 Eastern Orthodox churches have vowed to work more closely together in ways that are likely to raise their international profile on moral and ethic concerns. At a meeting on December 24 at the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomeos I, in Phanar, Istanbul, leaders of 15 autocephalous (self-governing) and autonomous Orthodox churches vowed to increase co-operation, including: the establishment of regular summit meetings to deal with current Orthodox issues; the setting up of an inter-Orthodox federation of theological schools around the world; and the foundation of an inter-Orthodox committee on bioethics.

Patriarch Bartholomeos, who is regarded as the primus interpares—first among equals—of the world's Orthodox leaders, has built a strong reputation internationally for his support for ecumenism and environmental concerns. The new moves will reinforce his primacy within the Orthodox world. However, the head of the numerically biggest Orthodox church in the world, Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow, was not present at the meeting, nor did he attend an historic liturgy the same week in Iznik, Turkey, at which heads and representatives of the 15 other Eastern Orthodox churches were present. The liturgy in Iznik marked the end of celebrations for the Christian millennium.

Patriarch Alexei's absence is linked to simmering conflict between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, particularly over the jurisdiction of Orthodox Christians in former Soviet nations such as Estonia and Ukraine. However, observers suggested that the Russian church's failure to attend the meeting would isolate it further.

The liturgy at Iznik on December 26 was hailed as one of the most important events in recent Orthodox history, not only because of the attendance of so many Orthodox leaders, but also because of its location in the ancient church of St Sophia, in the city once known as Nicaea, where the first and seventh ecumenical councils of the undivided Christian church took place in the years 325 and 787 respectively.

The church is now a museum controlled by the Turkish government which took the highly unusual step of granting special permission for a Christian liturgy to be held there at Christmas. This is being interpreted by church officials as the possible sign of a new openness of the Turkish authorities towards the Orthodox Church, which often experiences grave difficulties in Turkey, whose citizens are mostly Muslim. Turkey is eager to gain entry to the European Union, and greater tolerance of local churches is one of the ways in which it could demonstrate willingness to accept Western democratic principles.

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At their meeting in Phanar, the 15 church leaders also signed a seven-page Christmas statement addressed to "the Orthodox faithful all over the Earth, our Christian brothers and sisters in the whole world, and every person of good will, with a blessing from God and an embrace of love and peace."

The statement endorsed ecumenism and dialogue with other churches, but most of it focused on the need for unity among the world's Orthodox community, expressing particular concern about splits in the church. While not naming any particular country, it is apparently aimed at old-calendarists in most Balkan countries, the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, and dissident groups in countries such as Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Montenegro where there are now rival churches, most of them created for political reasons.

"Out of concern then for the unity of all those who believe in Christ, indeed agonizing and striving for such unity, we—the ones entrusted with the leadership of the Most Holy Orthodox Church—in no way ignore the necessity and obligation to care also for the preservation and increase of unity within our own Orthodox Church," the church leaders state.

The statement also expresses concern about the political abuse of church allegiance. In some countries of the former Soviet bloc, allegiance to the local version of Orthodoxy has been exploited by political leaders who are keen to drum up anti-Russian sentiments. The statement may also be a warning for the Russian Orthodox Church not to align itself too closely with nationalist interests. But, again, no country is mentioned in the document, which states: "The diversity of nations and cultures is beneficial and blessed by God. Our Holy Orthodox Church blesses and sanctifies it. Nevertheless, of its very nature the Church cannot constitute a vehicle for the facilitation or propagation of political, nationalistic or racial interests."

The message is also an indirect call for unity on the issue of jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in the small Baltic country of Estonia. In the 1990s this proved to be the most troublesome issue within Orthodoxy and, in 1996, it prompted the Moscow Patriarchate to announce a "break in communion" with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The breach was later repaired. But after Patriarch Bartholomeos visited Estonia last October, the Russian church's synod announced in a critical statement on 8 November that it was breaking off relations with Patriarch Bartholomeos and would not be represented at important events at Phanar. However, unlike 1996, there was no break in communion. Russian sensitivity over Estonia is particularly acute because Patriarch Alexei is of Estonian birth and served as a bishop there before his election to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1990.

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The issue at the heart of the dispute—the jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in Estonia—is complex, because while many ethnic Russians there want to retain links with the Moscow Patriarchate, native Estonians would prefer to be autonomous under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

It was agreed in 1996 that Estonian parishes had the right to choose, but in the Moscow Patriarchate accused the Ecumenical Patriarch of breaking the 1996 agreement during his October 2000 visit.

In a nine-page statement issued in November, Patriarch Bartholomeos rejected claims by the Russian synod that he had infringed the 1996 agreement by visiting Estonia. He said that as Estonia now had parishes under his jurisdiction, he was entitled to visit them, as he had done in October.

Patriarch Bartholomeos also raised a complex issue for Estonia, which is the Orthodox principle that each region can have only one Orthodox bishop. While stressing the importance of this Orthodox canon, the patriarch expressed a willingness to tolerate some variation in Estonia until more definitive solutions could be found.

The patriarch also rejected Russian criticisms that he was blocking claims, by the Estonian parishes under Moscow's jurisdiction, to church property in Estonia. Patriarch Bartholomeos pointed out that such issues depended on Estonian government decisions, and urged Russian-linked parishes to register with the Estonian government to pursue their claims for property.

The patriarch concluded his comments by suggesting that the Moscow Patriarchate appoint a delegation to discuss the matter with officials from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A meeting of officials from both patriarchates is to take place soon in Zurich, Switzerland. Informed observers say the display of unity with the Ecumenical Patriarch shown by the 14 other church leaders at Phanar last month is likely to pressure the Moscow Patriarchate to be more cooperative.

Related Elsewhere

Visit the Russian Orthodox Church's official site.

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Visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate's homepage.

Read more about Eastern Orthodoxy from the Orthodox Church in America or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sites.

Previous Christianity Today stories about the Orthodox Church include:

Russian Orthodox Church Approves as Putin Decides to Sing to a Soviet Tune | Once wary Moscow Patriarchate now supports resurrecting former national anthem. (Dec. 8, 2000)

The Case for Compassion in Serbia | A year after NATO bombing, Yugoslav Christians discover unity in caring for the poor. (March 7, 2000)

'Thorny' Issue Proves to be an Obstacle for Catholic-Orthodox Commission | Fate of Eastern Catholic Churches in post-communist Europe and Russia still unresolved. (July 26, 2000)

Orthodox Leaders Closer to Unity | (Feb. 25, 2000)

Orthodox Condemn Milosevic | (Oct. 4, 1999)

Orthodox, Evangelicals Push for WCC Reforms | (Jan. 11, 1999)