Turkish Court Rules on “Ecumenical” Status of Greek Patriarch

From Reuters:

A court Tuesday backed Turkey’s long-held position that the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarch is only the head of the city’s tiny Greek Orthodox community and not the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.

The decision has no influence on the status of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I [No, I’m not related – RB] outside Turkey, where he is regarded as the so-called “first among equals” of the Orthodox leaders. But it bolsters Turkey’s strong resistance to acknowledge a wider role for Bartholomew and his ancient Christian enclave.

…”The Patriarchate, which was allowed to remain on Turkish soil, is subject to Turkish laws,” the appeals court ruled. “There is no legal basis for the claims that the Patriarchate is ecumenical.”

Today’s Zaman has further details:

“There is no legal significance in the court’s comments,” said Kezban Hatemi, the lawyer defending the Patriarchate. “The court has taken a political decision. The ‘ecumenical’ status is a spiritual and honorary title that has lain with the Fener Greek Patriarchate for 17 centuries, which has no legal status by nature of being a religious institution.” She underlined that it was both theoretically and practically impossible to make a “legal” statement concerning ‘ecumenism’.

…Officials of the Greek Patriarchate, including Patriarch Bartolomeos, were facing a people’s case on charges of “barring others from worship and rituals of a religion,” launched when Konstantin Kostoff, a priest of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church here, had his title of spirituality withdrawn by the Patriarchate. The prosecutor had claimed that the decision was a violation of Kostoff’s freedom of religion.

A 2003 report explains the background to the case:

Use of Greek as a liturgical language in the Bulgarian churches in Istanbul was discontinued by a Turkish court judgment in 1997. Incumbent Board of Trustees member Bozhidar Chipov has now filed a new lawsuit against Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew over alleged interference into the affairs of the Bulgarian Church. According to the latest official document, dated 1945, the Bulgarian Church in Istanbul is independent and the Oecumenical Patriarch’s competence over it is limited to certain spiritual matters.

The Board also fears that the last remaining Bulgarian Exarchate properties in Istanbul may be lost. In 1934, 49 properties in Istanbul were registered as owned by the Bulgarian Church. Re-registration is due on February 6, 2003. The Bulgarian Church Community has lost 40 properties, the Board said…So far Archbishop Kostov has been successfully protecting the interests of the Bulgarian church; he has been serving and issuing church documents in the Bulgarian language regardless of the pressure on the part of Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew…

According to reports, Kostov also “refused to refer to the patriarch in prayers”, as is required by the liturgy, and this was why he was demoted. Kostov’s subsequent complaint was treated as a criminal matter, and the Patriarch could have faced a prison sentence. Bartholomew was acquitted, on the grounds that having appointed Kostov in the first place he had the right to dismiss him, but with the caveat about his ecumenical status.

Meanwhile, the Turkish court’s decision will doubtless be of keen interest to the Russian Orthodox Church, where voices are suggesting that Russia is the more natural location for Orthodox leadership. Interfax-Religion reported in May:

Fr. Andrew Phillips from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia proposes a special inter-Orthodox consultative body – World Orthodox Council with the central office in Moscow or Novy Ierusalim near Moscow.

…The reviving Russian Orthodox Church, he opined, is not just ‘the only potential power able to bring to an end the steps’ towards liberalism in some Orthodox Churches, but also ‘a source of power and authority that could help to restore order and harmony in the currently chaotic ecclesiastical jurisdictions of the Orthodox diaspora.’

(Hat tip: Christianity Today Weblog)

Name variations: Konstantin Kostoff, Konstantin Kostov, Konstantin Kostof, Patriarch Bartholomew, Patriarch Bartholomeos, Patriarch Vartholomeos, Patriarch Vartholomaios

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