Understanding the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Appreciating the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Patriarchate, in Turkey, may help one understand the life of this Orthodox Church in its jurisdictions around the world, especially the ethnic Greek ones.

The Patriarch is basically the leading member of an ethnic/religious minority in Asia Minor/Turkey that has been oppressed and devastated under both religious and avowedly-secular Turkish regimes increasingly for 700 years. In fact, since WW2 alone the Greek Orthodox population of the Turkish Republic has plummeted from a quarter million to just a few thousand due to genocidal political, social, economic, and violent pressures – in violation of internationally-“guaranteed” agreements – inducing massive migration into Greece and beyond. As this biased (and frequently misinformed) Turkish academic complains, the Patriarch is a religious civil rights leader. (And for the record, here’s the text of the Lausanne Treaty, in which I can find none of the religious restrictions he believes are there [Can you?] – in fact quite the opposite.)

In this light, “Hellenism” in the Greek Church is as understandable as, say, “Afrocentrism” in the American Black community. And it’s not just Greeks with roots in Asia Minor or Constantinople who follow these matters closely; the Greek government takes a keen interest in Greeks in other countries, in their religious as well as political and cultural affairs, as do the Greeks in other countries themselves.

Some observers in fact consider the very survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be in jeopardy – Orthodoxy’s First Church (among Equals).

FYI: A note about “ecumenism/ecumenicity/universality”: (1) In most people’s minds – apparently of both Orthodox (of most ethnicities, in fact) and Turks – the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” and the role “First Among Equals” have become conflated. But the Church of Constantinople was first among equals (at that time only in the East [second overall, behind Rome]) some time before its Bishop received the title Ecumenical Patriarch. The EP could unilaterally drop the title tomorrow, with no change in its role among the world’s Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, nor with respect to its jurisdictions around the world – the qualities in which most people feel its “ecumenicity” lies. IMHO, it’s almost like the title has become analogous to Pope, in the Roman Catholic sense, even if almost nobody in the Orthodox Church invests the EP with Roman-Papal powers or reverence.

(2) There is no way the EP could acquire the place in international law that the Roman Papacy holds. The Pope of Rome – “the Holy See,” i.e., the Latin Bishopric of Rome – is a legal person under (Western-European-rooted) international law, equivalent to a sovereign entity like an independent country. This status is rooted in medieval Western legal tradition and the Pope’s role in Western society since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Orthodoxy traditionally adamantly insists on leaving the actual handling of civil affairs to the laity – emperors, governors, etc. The Ottoman ethnarchy, and Archbishop Makarios’ Cyprus, were exceptions to the rule. It’s too late to invent medieval tradition! Before the European institutions, the UN, or anybody else, the Ecumenical Patriarch is just a religious leader, or the Ecumenical Patriarchate a Non-Governmental Organization.

(As Wikipedia points out, the EP *is* the Ruling Hierarch of Greece’s autonomous Monastic Republic of Mt. Athos. But the Holy Mountain has never been an independent entity, it’s always belonged to some other Sovereign entity. And even its traditional exclusion of females is protected by Greece’s EU accession treaty, Euro Parliament protestations notwithstanding!)

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