Patriarch Petros VII

Leader of the Orthodox Church in Africa
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The Independent Online

Petros Papapetrou, priest: born Sichari, Cyprus 3 September 1949: ordained priest 1978; Bishop of Babylon 1983-90; Metropolitan of Accra 1990-91; Exarch of Irinoupolis 1991-94; Metropolitan of Cameroon and West Africa 1994-97; Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa 1997-2004; died 11 September 2004.

Despite presiding over a Greek Orthodox community in Egypt which has dwindled over the past century from a quarter of a million to just a few thousand, Pope and Patriarch Petros of Alexandria and All Africa was highly conscious of his role as 129th successor to St Mark and as the second most senior hierarch in the Orthodox world after the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Yet, although Greek-controlled, the Patriarchate has a large black African membership of its 300,000 flock - indeed, as far back as 1972 it elected the first black bishop of any Orthodox Church (at least in recent centuries). Petros continued this commitment to missionary work across Africa, constantly travelling to Orthodox parishes (earlier this year he made the first patriarchal visit to Madagascar).

Petros was only 47 when elected patriarch by the Holy Synod in February 1997, with his enthronement at the headquarters of the Patriarchate in Alexandria the following month. He was the natural successor to Patriarch Parthenios III, who had died the previous year, having worked closely with him and accompanied him on official and pastoral visits.

On taking the helm, Petros modernised the administration of the Patriarchate, established five new dioceses, reinvigorated diocesan education and rebuilt the patriarchal palace, the monasteries of St Savvas in Alexandria, St George in Old Cairo, the museum, the patriarchal vicariate in Cairo and many churches in Egypt.

His knowledge of English and French, in addition to Greek and Arabic, helped him in important roles representing the Orthodox patriarchates in the Middle East Council of Churches and other inter-Church bodies.

Petros Papapetrou was born in 1949 in Sichari, a village 10 miles north of the Cypriot capital Nicosia and now in the Turkish part of the divided island. The eldest son of a devout Orthodox family and grandson of a priest, he decided early he wanted to serve in the Church, enrolling as a novice in the Monastery of Macheras at the age of 12.

Five years later he was sent to the Apostle Barnabas Seminary in Nicosia, from where he graduated in 1969. In August of the same year, he was ordained deacon in his home monastery.

In 1970, he was invited to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, where he served as a deacon to Patriarch Nicolaos VI while taking further studies at the city's Averof High School. In 1974 he gained a scholarship from the Greek Foreign Ministry to study at the Theological School in Athens, from where he graduated in 1978.

That August he was ordained priest at the monastery of Pentelis in Cyprus. Four months later, after his return to Egypt, he was elevated to the rank of archimandrite by Patriarch Nicolaos in Cairo's Cathedral of St Nicolaos. In a sign of the patriarch's trust, at the same time he was appointed Patriarchal Vicar in charge of the patriarchal offices in the Egyptian capital.

In 1980, Nicolaos sent him to South Africa, where the local metropolitan appointed him to a newly built church in Melrose, Johannesburg. He also became Vicar General of the Metropolis. The Church's Synod unanimously elected him Bishop of Babylon in July 1983 and he was also named Patriarchal Vicar in Cairo. His consecration one month later took place in the Macheras monastery which he had first joined in his early teens.

He served in this crucial post at the heart of the Patriarchate until June 1990, when he was elected Metropolitan of Accra and West Africa, with jurisdiction over Orthodox in 22 countries. He once again crossed the continent when, in October 1991, Patriarch Parthenios appointed him Patriarchal Exarch in the Archdiocese of Irinoupolis, covering Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He held this post until the Synod named him Metropolitan of Cameroon and West Africa in November 1994.

Always acutely aware that Christians in the Middle East are a potentially vulnerable minority in a largely Islamic society, Petros worked hard to build bridges to Muslims. "Communication and co-operation between religions make an essential contribution to the abolition of religious fanaticism," he insisted in a 1998 talk.

Unlike some involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue, he did not downplay the problems Christians face in the region. "For centuries, a large part of Orthodoxy lived in the Islamic world, although not always as an equal member of its society," he declared.

Despite difficult times, confrontations and misunderstandings, the bonds between them were never broken. Orthodoxy co-exists and seeks dialogue with Islam; dialogue which presupposes freedom of speech and equality between the two parties.

Petros was mindful of the harm a US-led war against Iraq could cause to inter-religious relations in the Middle East. "I call on Your Excellency to try and find a peaceful solution rather than that of war," he urged in a letter to President George W. Bush in January 2002.

The Middle East is a sensitive area that already is suffering greatly. Such a war would be seen as an attack against Islam. Such an impression, though false, would have unjust far-reaching and long-lasting consequences upon religions, their faithful and their reputations.

Petros was making his first visit to the monastic colonies on Mount Athos in Greece when the helicopter carrying his party crashed into the sea as it approached the peninsula. Petros had particularly asked for the helicopter to fly over each of Athos's monasteries.

Felix Corley