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NewsThe EU and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a fortress under siege

The EU and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a fortress under siege

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Willy Fautre
Willy Fautrehttps://www.hrwf.eu
Willy Fautré, former chargé de mission at the Cabinet of the Belgian Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament. He is the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), an NGO based in Brussels that he founded in December 1988. His organization defends human rights in general with a special focus on ethnic and religious minorities, freedom of expression, women’s rights and LGBT people. HRWF is independent from any political movement and any religion. Fautré has carried out fact-finding missions on human rights in more than 25 countries, including in perilous regions such as in Iraq, in Sandinist Nicaragua or in Maoist held territories of Nepal. He is a lecturer in universities in the field of human rights. He has published many articles in university journals about relations between state and religions. He is a member of the Press Club in Brussels. He is a human rights advocate at the UN, the European Parliament and the OSCE.

East of the European Union, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, 84, courageously holds a vulnerable fortress defending the historical presence of Christianity in Turkey, which has been under threat for centuries and more particularly under President Erdogan’s rule.

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

From 26 to 29 May, the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of America, Australia, Canada and Europe organized their 4th International Conference on Religious Freedom in Athens, with a special focus on the situation in Turkey. The previous ones since 2010 had been held in Brussels, Berlin and Washington.

Anthony J. Limberakis who has been the National Commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1998, had invited prestigious speakers, such as

  • Michael R. Pompeo, Former U.S. Secretary of State
  • Despina Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis, Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)
  • Evangelos Venizelos, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2013-2015), Professor of Constitutional Law at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
  • U.S. Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic, George J. Tsunis
  • Mayor of Athens Haris Doukas
  • Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vilnius Gintaras Grusas (Lithuania)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, elected in October 1991 as the 270th Archbishop of the 2000-year-old Church, addressed the audience in Athens by video from Istanbul. A wide range of hierarchs, archbishops and metropolitans from various EU countries, the UK and the United States also contributed to the debates about religious freedom with the audience.

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The EU and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a fortress under siege 5

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a devoted group of passionate leaders, relentlessly focused on protecting religious freedom for everyone and ensuring the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – the historical spiritual center of the world’s 300+ million Orthodox Christians. Most archons are Greek-American and constitute a sort of Praetorian Guard committed to the defence of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Churches in Turkey against President Erdogan. Their number is voluntarily limited to dedicated influential philanthropist leaders: currently about 290 members from 22 countries.

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was founded on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, 10 March 1966 to support the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as to contribute to its advancement and welfare.

Christianity under threat of suffocation in Turkey

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During the conference in Athens, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) in Brussels condemned the recent decision by the Turkish authorities to convert the Church of Saint Savior in Chora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul, into a mosque, saying in a statement “This step further dilutes the historical roots of the Christian presence in the country. Any interreligious dialogue initiative promoted by Turkish authorities loses credibility.”

The Church of Saint Savior in Chora, built in the fourth century, is an emblem of Eastern Christianity and a significant historical marker of the Christian presence in Turkey. It was converted into a mosque in the 16th century during the Ottoman Empire. It was designated a museum in 1945 and reopened for public display in 1958 after extensive restoration efforts by American art historians.

The inauguration ceremony of the Chora church as a mosque, held remotely by President Erdogan from Ankara, was broadcasted nationally. The event included prayers led by local worshipers and speeches by prominent religious figures, such as Istanbul’s mufti, Safi Arpaguş.

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The U.S. State Department expressed deep concern about this new stroke of strength.

In 2020, President Erdogan and hundreds of worshipers participated in the first Muslim prayers held at the Hagia Sophia in 86 years, marking its redesignation as a mosque despite widespread international disapproval.

The COMECE in Brussels had then called the change of status of the Hagia Sophia “a blow to interreligious dialogue.” On that occasion, the bishops also pointed out Turkey’s ongoing issues with hate speech and threats against national, ethnic and religious minorities.

The conversions of churches into Islamic places of worship are viewed as strategic efforts by the Turkish president to consolidate support from his conservative and religious base amid the country’s ongoing economic challenges.

For more than 50 years, the Halki seminary, formally the Theological School of Halki, has been closed by the Turkish authorities. Founded on 1 October 1844 on the island of Halki (Heybeliada in Turkish), it was the main school of theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople until the Turkish parliament enacted a law banning private higher education institutions in 1971. An international campaign to reopen this theological school is ongoing but has remained unsuccessful.

The Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, security in Europe and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

Three religious capitals in Europe compete for leadership of Christianity: Rome (Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church), Moscow (Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church) and Istanbul (Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church/ Constantinople).

At the Archons’ Conference in Athens, Anthony J. Limberakis, the National Commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America, vividly condemned Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine, deplored that Orthodox fight against Orthodox and that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has blessed it as a holy war. “Nothing can justify a call to kill. Moscow Patriarchate violates God’s law and gravely discredits the Russian Orthodox Church in the eyes of the whole world and in history,” he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church is an accomplice of President Putin in the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the dismantling of the international order and the security architecture in Europe.

A collateral impact of such a policy is that a number of Orthodox churches in neighboring countries of Russia are trying to keep away from Moscow Patriarchate in various ways, though without breaking their canonical links, because they disagree with Patriarch Kirill or because their official status in other European states is under threat of being degraded or worse.

A window of opportunity for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

In Ukraine, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was established by a council under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople that convened in Kyiv on 15 December 2018 to sever all links with the Moscow Patriarchate. On 5 January 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew granted the OCU a tomos of autocephaly.

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The Ukrainian Orthodox Church still in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC/ MP) has institutionally distanced itself as much as it could from Patriarch Kirill but without making secession. The UOC/MP continues its activities but more and more parishes are joining the OCU and draft laws have been tabled in parliament for reducing its status and even banning it.

In Latvia, the Orthodox Church of Latvia (OCL) seceded from the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Latvian parliament approved the full independence of the Church in September 2022 for security reasons.

“The state established the status of our Church as autocephalous. The state has determined that the Latvian Orthodox Church is legally independent from any ecclesiastical center located outside of Latvia, maintaining spiritual, prayerful and liturgical communion with all canonical Orthodox churches of the world,” the Orthodox Church of Latvia said.

As to the Latvian Orthodox Autonomous Church (LOAC), it had declared itself a part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2011. 

In Lithuania, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has caused some stormy reverberations. Many priests have found adherence to Patriarch Kirill’s position in Russia’s war on Ukraine an impossible task.

A so-called “exarchate” is being created for the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople so that dissenting clerics can be integrated in this structure. This will act as an alternative to the existing Lithuanian Archdiocese of Vilnius, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. A scenario similar to the one in Ukraine.

In Estonia, the authorities decided in January 2024 not to renew the residence permit of Metropolitan Eugene, head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. His expulsion was justified by national security concerns as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church had consistently supported the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.

In April, Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Lääenemets and leader of the Social Democratic Party, announced on the ETV channel his intention to invite the parliament to recognize the Russian Orthodox Church as a terrorist organization in order to eventually ban its activities in the country.

Orthodox parishes will have the opportunity to join the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as it happened in Ukraine after creating the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Under Estonian law, the Orthodox Church of Estonia (independent from Moscow) is already under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as on 20 February 1996, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople had formally reactivated its 1923 canonical subordination.

Conclusions

The Orthodox Churches under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church/ Moscow Patriarchate are increasingly losing ground and influence in a number of countries along the Eastern EU border due both to deep internal theological disagreements with the support of Patriarch Kirill to Russia’s war on Ukraine and security issues by the concerned states.

While the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is under pressure in its historical lands, Turkey, it is expanding along the borders of the European Union as an increasing number of Orthodox Churches are severing their links with Russian Patriarch Kirill and looking for a safe haven in another Orthodox family. The geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe is providing a unique window of opportunity for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to attract more international attention and support.

Footnote: The author attended the 4th Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom” in Athens (26-29 May 2024)

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