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Constantinople and Rome end fight for souls: Dialogue is helping to improve Greek Orthodox Church relations with the Vatican, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul

AN UNSEEMLY competition between the Vatican and Greek Orthodox churches for the souls of former Communist bloc citizens has begun to ease, according to the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.

'Things are getting better,' His All Holiness Bartholomew I said, in an interview amid the gilded icons of his sumptuous office overlooking the Golden Horn. A visit to Pope John Paul II is now planned for next year.

The Patriarch said the improvement was built on a meeting between the churches in Lebanon last year, which condemned an upsurge of Catholic proselytism among the Eastern Orthodox after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The meeting was part of the theological dialogue aimed at healing the Great Schism of 1054. The Patriarch said he was also satisfied by a recent agreement that the road to union would not be through 'uniatism' (wholesale poaching by Rome of Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe with almost no ritual changes).

Such discussions with Rome have been part of a revitalisation of Orthodoxy's international role since Bartholomew's 1991 enthronement as head of the 250 million Christians of the Eastern Orthodox rite. The lively 54-year-old speaks seven languages and busies himself with conferences and trips abroad. He is scheduled to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury in December next year.

The same applies inside the church. When about 20 monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece earlier this year began to claim 'a certain independence' from direct rule they were quickly brought into line by religious authorities in the city which Greeks still call Constantinople or the 'Second Rome'. 'The Mount Athos incident is closed,' the Patriarch said. 'They sent a letter asking for pardon and expressed their sadness for having saddened me. They came to ask for forgiveness and kissed my hand. All is okay now.'

He was more reticent about relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, saying the situation there was in transition. Outside observers says Russian Orthodox acceptance of the Patriarch as a first among equals has always been tinged with a sense that Moscow should be the 'Third Rome'.

The Turkish government rejects the idea that the Patriarch has any ecumenical role, but that is not a main source of pressure on the patriarchate. More worrying has been an upsurge of Islamic attacks on Greek schools, churches, cemeteries and even the patriarchate's newly-restored complex in Fener, a poor, increasingly Islamic district on the banks of the Golden Horn. On 28 May three time-bombs were found in the patriarchate garden. With them was a note threatening the Patriarch's life and signed by the 'Great Islamic Raiders of the East'.

'You can't have a feeling of security. It's very bad for our faithful few. They could also think of leaving the country,' said Bartholomew, noting that only 4,000 to 5,000 Greeks remained in the city of 10 million people, whereas 30 years ago there were still 100,000.

'We are loyal citizens. We never create problems for the Turkish state, and we are not trying to create a Vatican (state-within-a-state). We expect and demand greater government protection,' he said. But he dismissed rumours that the Greek Orthodox patriarchate was thinking of leaving the city.