Orthodox Church divided over Istanbul Patriarchate

A dangerous disagreement between the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul and the Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow has arisen in recent days over the schism between the Ukrainian Orthodox church and the Russian Orthodox church. The Moscow Patriarchate reacted angrily when the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul approved the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s request for autocephaly (autonomy) from the Russian church.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Istanbul Bartholomew, recognised as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox faith, made the decision after a three-day meeting with leaders of the 12 metropoles. Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill threatened a separation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

If Moscow makes good on its threats, it would be the greatest schism in Christianity since the Reformation and the split between Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054.

The Istanbul Patriarchate’s ecumenical title, meaning spiritual leadership, is a relic of the Byzantine Empire. After Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the Byzantine Empire’s capital Constantinople in 1453, he made a declaration in support of this right. The Istanbul Patriarchate is the first of the nine orthodox patriarchates – often qualified with the Latin phrase primus inter pares, or first among equals.

But the Istanbul Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot interfere with the administration of other patriarchates or their dependent churches and can only make recommendations as to whether or not a decision adheres to the rules of Orthodox Christianity.

Unlike the centrally administered Catholic Church, the Orthodox patriarchates are independent and only tied on the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul in spirit. But the Ukrainian Church still needed the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s approval to split from the Moscow Patriarchate.


The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s autocephaly and split from the Moscow Patriarchate also led to a reaction from Russia’s political leadership. While the Russian Patriarch Kirill referred to the Great Schism of 1054, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Washington had a hand in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision.


Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced his satisfaction at the result, saying it was an important part of Ukraine’s efforts to cut ties with Russia and establish total independence.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow played an important role in the Russian state. The Patriarchate of Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin’s support, has become more assertive towards the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

The Patriarchate of Moscow sees itself as more deserving of the title of ecumenical, citing pressure on the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul from Muslim Turkey and the fact that while 150 million Orthodox Christians live in Russia, the Orthodox population in Istanbul has fallen to some 2,000.

Despite being the oldest religious institution in Turkey, the power and importance of the Patriarch in Istanbul is little known inside the country. As the Pope is the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians. It has been that way since 1054.

However, even though the patriarch in Istanbul is the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians all around the world, Turkey does not officially recognise title ecumenical. Calling the institution only the Fener Istanbul Roman Patriarchate, Turkey has tried to minimise its importance as one of the pillars of Christianity.

While the patriarch is always a Turkish citizen of Anatolian Greek descent, the Patriarchate has never been seen as belonging to the Anatolian Greeks alone. Patriarch Bartholomew, just like his predecessors under the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, has often emphasised that Orthodoxy does not belong to the Greeks, nor the Russians, nor any other nation. That has led to some dissatisfaction along more conservative factions of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Internationally, the Pope recognises the Istanbul patriarch as ecumenical and addresses him as an equal. U.S. presidents and other world statesmen never neglect a visit the patriarchate if they come to Turkey, but Turkish leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, dislike the Istanbul Patriarchate using the title ecumenical and say that it would not be right for Turkey as a Muslim country to interfere in disputes between Christians.