Latest News

Pope's meetings with patriarch highlight rift between religions

ISTANBUL, Turkey—Much of the news coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey this week has focused on his clashes with Islam and with Turkey's Muslim leadership.

But his meetings in Istanbul with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Christianity's Eastern Orthodox wing, may say more about how difficult it might be to resolve disputes among the world's Christians, Muslims and Jews.

While the pope's Roman Catholic followers and the followers of the Orthodox churches aren't openly hostile, the schism that broke Christianity apart has lasted centuries—since the earliest Christian councils—and has defied resolution despite numerous pope-patriarch meetings since the 1960s.

"Both churches are now convinced this division is a scandal; it's not what the Lord wants," said the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald, the dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. "That doesn't mean I expect reconciliation by the weekend. But it is fair to say that my grandparents never would have dreamed the churches would be as far along as they are now."

Still, Nigel Yates, a church historian at the University of Wales, said he was skeptical that anything would be resolved soon, and said the Christian split was a cautionary tale for those who believed that tensions among Muslims, Jews and Christians could be overcome swiftly.

"I do believe such meetings help build friendship, but whether they can actually lead to any concrete change, I'm dubious," he said.

The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split in 1054, when their leaders excommunicated each other, moves that were rescinded in the 1960s. Still, lasting differences remain.

But Yates said he thought that the schism should be dated to the fifth century, when the Roman Empire dissolved and left its pieces to argue about whether Rome or Constantinople, now Istanbul, was the rightful heir.

The Catholic Church represents a billion people and is based in Vatican City, in Rome, a remnant of the Roman Empire.

The Eastern Orthodox churches have about 300 million members and consider the patriarch in Istanbul to be the "first among equals" in a hierarchy that includes the patriarchs of other Orthodox churches, headquartered in the ancient seats of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and more modern ones in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Power, of course, was one reason for the schism. The Eastern patriarchs refused to accept the pope as the head of the church, and thrived in the Byzantine Empire and its leading city, Constantinople, while Rome remained the seat of the Catholic Church.

Other disputes are doctrinal, and, for the uninitiated, obscure.

One such issue is the nature of the trinity, the Christian belief in a three-in-one God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Catholics and Protestants focus on the unity of the three, while Orthodox Christians focus on the distinctive natures of the three.

"It's not so much opposing beliefs as different emphasis," Fitzgerald said.

The growth of the two churches has had very little in common. While Western Europe remained largely a Christian bastion where the pope was influential, the Byzantine Empire gave way to the Ottomans, Muslims who made life difficult for the Orthodox church, taxing it heavily and regulating its businesses.

Even today, Turkey doesn't recognize any special position for the patriarch, seeing him as a threat to the country's secular nature.

The place where the two leaders met Wednesday evening and will meet Thursday says much about the differences between the branches.

The patriarch no longer is housed in the Hagia Sophia, the massive Byzantine cathedral that served as the symbol of the Eastern Orthodox church until 1453. That building became a mosque, and is now a museum.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, where the pope is to worship Thursday, is a modest neoclassical structure rebuilt in the 1700s, tucked into a crumbling neighborhood that was once called the "navel of the world." It's a far cry from Vatican City, the imposing and majestic center of Catholicism.

The surrounding skyline is spiked with Muslim minarets, and the chanted calls to prayer are loud enough to drown out the traffic on surrounding streets, as if to point out that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim. Only about 4,000 Orthodox remain in Istanbul today.

The pope is far better known in the West than Bartholomew is, even though Bartholomew has been in office far longer than the pope's 19 months.

Born in 1940 in what's now Turkey and named Demetrios Archondonis, Bartholomew was elected to his post in 1991, officially the 270th archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and ecumenical patriarch. He's known for his work against racism and for ecology and interfaith cooperation.

On Wednesday night, Benedict visited two chests containing church relics that Catholic crusaders had taken from Istanbul after a crusade in 1204. The relics were returned two years ago, a positive sign, experts said, though not one likely to lead to a reconciliation after this week's meetings.

Fitzgerald, who's met often with Bartholomew, said he had no idea what a unified church would look like. He doubts that either church would abandon central beliefs, and noted that there would have to be some compromise on a church leader.

But the Rev. Jean-Marc Balhan, a Catholic priest in Ankara, said he believed that the split wasn't hopeless. He noted that Christian services in the Turkish capital attract adherents of both branches.

"There isn't much choice," he said. "Everyone gets along, and worships together. Some of the words people say may be different, but we're in the same building."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC