A New Vision for Eastern Orthodoxy?

by Yishai Eldar and Thomas Idinopulos

Mr. Eldar is a senior editor of Israel Radio and editor of Christian Life in Israel, an International quarterly newsletter of the Israel Interfaith Association. Dr. Idinopulos is professor of religious studies at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and contributing editor of the Middle East Review.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 11, 1987, p. 995. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If Eastern Orthodoxy’s patriarch of Constantinople and the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem a can convince their fellow Eastern Orthodox that they belong together with Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in one family of faiths fathered by the God of Abraham, they will have awakened a church more that 500 years dormant.

Marking the first visit of an ecumenical patriarch to Jerusalem since that of Athenagoras in 1964, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Demetrios I, traveled to Israel and Jordan last May for a meeting with the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I. The trip was another indicator that some circles within Eastern Orthodoxy are now interested not only in greater pan-Orthodox unity, but in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as well.

Entering the Old City at the historic Jaffa Gate, Demetrios was ceremonially welcomed by the bishops and priests of the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, Israeli government and municipal officials, a police honor guard, six bemedaled consuls-general, representatives of the Roman Catholic, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian churches, two uniformed Dragomen, a baton tossing drum-major, the Arab Orthodox Boy Scout drum and bugle corps, uniformed schoolgirls, scores of monks, nuns, reporters, cameramen and a smattering of curious tourists. Even the regulars of the Lido Cafe left their card games to join the crowd, and the ever-present hawkers of flavored ices and soda pop did a brisk business on what was a typical hot, bright Jerusalem afternoon. Here and there, identifiable by their little earphones, were the security men scanning the buildings overhead as rose petals rained down on the distinguished visitor.

Amid a cacaphony of applause, cheers, booming drums and blatting bugles, the procession made its way through the narrow alleys of the Christian Quarter. Slowed repeatedly as old peasant ladies in black broke through the security cordon to kiss Demetrios’s hand, progress (measured in inches) was brought to a complete halt when a group of Arab Orthodox schoolchildren were led up to the patriarch for a blessing. Demetrios, sweating, exhausted, smiling, bent low to kiss the children, only to be nearly toppled when several tugged at his robes.

Two hundred yards from Jaffa Gate and 30 minutes later, the procession came at last to the great wooden door of the Jerusalem patriarchate where Diodoros awaited his guest. They met with hugs and kisses, these old, white-bearded men representing two of the oldest ecclesiastical sees in Christendom. Diodoros read his words of greeting; Demetrios responded, saying he had come "in the search for Orthodox and ecumenical unity."

Seeing them together in their robes -- large jeweled pectoral crosses, long ebony shepherd staffs in hand, the golden double-eagled symbol of Byzantium topping each staff -- one was reminded of the civilization that shaped the Christian East for 1,000 years. Byzantium at its most sublime was a wedding of spirit, light, form and flesh still observable in old ikons and fragments of mosaics scattered throughout Asia Minor; in the architecture of Hagia Sophia and the monasteries of Mount Athos, Mar Saba and St. Catherine; and in the thoughts of the Eastern church fathers, Athanasius, Irenaeus and the Cappadocians. The source of that civilizing light was Constantine’s city on the Bosphorus, Christian until 1453 (when the conquering Ottoman Turks renamed it Stambuli because they couldn’t pronounce the Greek word, Constantinopoli)

For those familiar with the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the meeting of Demetrios and Diodoros was also touched with sadness. In 1054 Rome and Constantinople parted in acrimonious mutual misunderstanding, and during 400 years of Ottoman rule the "one, holy, catholic, apostolic" Orthodox church of the East fragmented into a host of ethnic-national churches: Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Romanian. In the 20th century all these communities save the Greek fell prey to communist governments, which, like the Turks before them, closed the monasteries and made museums of churches.

History was no kinder to the Greek-held Jerusalem Patriarchate. Constantine’s Basilica of the Anastasis ("Resurrection") , built over the traditional site of Christ’s tomb, was burned by the Persians in 614, restored and then totally destroyed by the order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim ("the Mad") in 1009. Later came the Latin Crusaders, Mongols, Mamelukes, and Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, who reduced the Greek bishops of the Patriarchate to mere custodians of holy place and shrines. In that custodial role a handful of Greek bishops continue to exercise authority over a community almost entirely Arab Orthodox in membership (today numbering about 40,000 in Israel, 120,000 in Jordan) , whose constant complaint is of episcopal intolerance and the spiritual and organizational impoverishment of the "indigenous church." The fact of increasingly strained relations between Greek and Arab Orthodox in the Holy Land these past 200 years added an element of irony to the meeting between Demetrios and Diodoros.

The first sign of Arab discontent with the Greek hierarchy occurred in the early 18th century when Arab Orthodox parishes in Galilee split from the Patriarchate to join with a number of Syrian churches as the new Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church in union with Rome. Thereafter Greek Catholics actively sought to attract co-religionists dissatisfied with the Hellenic domination of the local Orthodox church; and during the 19th century various Catholic groups engaged in missionary work among the Arab Orthodox. They were led by Jesuits who constructed schools for an education-starved population throughout Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Smaller numbers of Arab Orthodox found new homes with the Anglican, German Lutheran and Presbyterian missions which had been established in the hope of proselytizing Muslims and Jews.

The root of Arab dissatisfaction was the neglect of the Arab congregations by the Greek bishops. The Arab laity complained that their churches were allowed to deteriorate and that no new ones were built; that the Greeks ordained illiterate Arab priests, forbade them to preach, and limited their duties to the performance of the Sunday liturgy; and that the Greeks encouraged Arab deacons to marry prior to ordination, so as to render them ineligible for promotion to bishop or appointment to the celibate Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, which governs the Patriarchate.

At a time when the Patriarchate paid Arab priests a subsistence salary which forced them to rely on fees from baptisms, weddings and funerals to feed their families, it was charged that monies sent from Imperial Russia and other Orthodox countries for the welfare of the Arab Orthodox went directly into the pockets of the bishops and the patriarch. Charges of personal corruption were added -- for example, that "mistresses are kept in the monasteries." And the monasteries themselves, once the centers of the Orthodox faith in the Holy Land, had become empty shells, staffed by a caretaker monk or two.

The response of the Greek Patriarchate to the challenge of missionaries and domestic critics alike has not varied for 200 years. Today, as in the Ottoman period, the attitude seems to be that the primary responsibility of the Patriarchate is to safeguard the preferential status of the Greek Orthodox Church in the holy places, with the needs of the indigenous Arab Orthodox population coming second.

Well before the Ottoman conquest, Greeks had to fight Franciscans, Armenians and others for control of the holy places. Orthodox-Catholic relations throughout the Ottoman period were a history of unremitting and often bloody combat for possession of shrines, rights and privileges -- a competition encouraged by the Turks, who took away rights from one church and bestowed them on another whenever it suited Ottoman interests, or whenever an adequate bribe was proffered. By the middle of the 19th century the Greeks had largely won the battle, and the 1852 Agreement on the Status Quo of the Holy Places secured Greek rights in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Since then, successive British, Jordanian and Israeli governments, guided by their own self-interests, have maintained the Status Quo Agreement, upholding Greek pre-eminence.

After World War I, Greek Patriarch Damianos and his successor Timotheos were pressured by British Mandatory officials to propose reforms in the administration of the Patriarchate, but ways were found to avoid any implementation. It was not until the election of Patriarch Benediktos in February 1957 that certain changes occurred, initiated by the Hashemite government at the insistence of the Arab Orthodox laity in Jordan and the then Jordanian-administered areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Benediktos’s election was unique in that both Arabs and Greeks participated in it; and because the see was now politically divided, Jordan and Israel could both for the first time claim the prerogative of prevailing political authority. Only two months before the election, the Jordanian Parliament introduced draft legislation for new rules of governance for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The proposals gave the Arab Orthodox laity a role in the financial affairs of the Patriarchate, and required that candidates for the office of patriarchate be Jordanian citizens, able to read and write perfect Arabic. The election of Benediktos was approved by Jordan King Hussein because the nominee supported the proposed changes. But no sooner was the Greek installed in office than he began lobbying Jordanian politicians, with the result that the "reforms" died in committee.

The gold patriarchal crown of Jerusalem has passed to the head of Diodoros, elected patriarch upon the death of Benediktos in 1981. Today Arab Orthodox continue to complain about the indifference of the Greek bishops of Jerusalem, and the bishops continue to defend the priority of their custodial rights over the holy places. The Patriarchate has also been involved in continuing scandals, including recent charges of gold and drug smuggling (Patriarch Diodoros being cleared of personal involvement).

It was, therefore, an occasion tinged with the ambiguities and quirks of history when Patriarchs Demetrios and Diodoros -- the former in search of ecumenical unity, the latter preoccupied with preserving Greek tribal hegemony in a scandal-ridden church -- embraced in Jerusalem. After exchanging greetings the two old men, both suffering from diabetes and the afternoon heat, walked arm-in-arm past rug shops, falafel stands, vendors of rosaries and frankincense, into the massive Crusader-built Church of the Holy Sepulchre (constructed on the ruins of Constantine’s Anastasis) where a Byzantine liturgy of thanksgiving was conducted to mark the event.

It is uncertain what the two church leaders discussed; they issued no bulletin or report concerning their meeting. But the exact content of their conversation is distinctly less important than the meeting’s symbolic value. Unable to preach, write or travel without the permission of the Turkish government, Demetrios could not have come to Jerusalem without the influence of the American Orthodox primate, Archbishop Jakovos, leader of the free, rich and powerful Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America. A somber presence at the Jerusalem meeting he is said to have engineered, Jakovos kept a cool distance from the hoopla. Yet if there is a new vision of "pan-Orthodox and ecumenical unity" in the Eastern church, no one is more responsible for it than this man, whose desire for an open church is matched only by his love for American baseball.

Consider his remarkable career. When the Church of Greece and the Jerusalem patriarchate turned against dialogue with Protestants, Jakovos unilaterally enrolled the American Greek Orthodox Church in the National Council of Churches, and sent Greek Orthodox theologians to the Protestant-dominated Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland. When the bishops of Athens and Jerusalem turned deaf ears to struggles of social and moral importance, Jakovos committed the American Orthodox church to the black civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama. When Eastern Orthodox leaders throughout the world defended village priests who at Christmas and Easter routinely anathematized the Jewish people for "rejecting their King," Jakovos’s openness to Jews and Judaism earned him awards from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee. When "Muslim" continued to be a pejorative in the mouths of Orthodox laity and clergy, the American archbishop (born of Greek parents on the Turkish-held island of Invron) convened a conference for Orthodox-Islamic dialogue, the first of its kind.

Perhaps encouraged by the example of Pope John Paul II’s tireless journeys in search of a new church order, Jakovos and Demetrios have embarked on a series of visits to ecclesiastical capitals, ancient and modern. Jerusalem was the second stop on an itinerary that began with Alexandria, and was to have included Antioch (that visit being canceled at the last moment because of political unrest in Syria). In the effort to build bridges with sister churches under communist rule, trips are planned to Moscow, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. To open a new dialogue with Catholics and Protestants, visits will be made this December to Rome, Canterbury and Geneva.

The Roman pontiff heads a monolithic institution, and what he says, like it or not, is heard and usually heeded throughout the Catholic world. In Eastern church tradition, however, the patriarch of Constantinople is merely "first among equals," taking his place alongside the patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. And the Greek Orthodox archbishop in North and South America, however influential, is only one prelate in a Byzantine world church known for its pluralism (some would say chaos) and resistance to change. If Demetrios and Jakovos can convince their fellow Eastern Orthodox that they belong together with Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in one family of faiths fathered by the God of Abraham, they will have awakened a church more than 500 years dormant.