Patriarch on trial over dismissal

ISTANBUL (AP) – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, went on trial yesterday after a Bulgarian church foundation accused him of preventing a Bulgarian priest from conducting services. [The patriarch is already engaged in a bitter dispute with the Church of Greece over control of Greek sees liberated from the Turks after 1912.] The case, being heard at a court in staunchly secular Turkey, calls into question the authority of the patriarch, who directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches but also has moral authority over the rest of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Vartholomaios was not present in court. The presiding judge demanded more information, and scheduled a new hearing for January which he said the patriarch must attend. Vartholomaios and 12 senior church officials could face up to five months in prison if found guilty of «preventing others from observing faith and conducting religious services.» The charges were brought by Bozhidar Chiprov, head of the Foundation of Bulgarian Orthodox Churches. According to the indictment, Vartholomaios ordered the dismissal of Konstantin Kostov, a Bulgarian priest, in October announcing in a written statement that he no longer had the right «to conduct religious services in any church.» Chiprov’s lawyer said Kostov was punished for refusing to refer to Vartholomaios in prayers and to conduct religious services in Greek. At the hearing, Vartholomaios’s lawyer argued that «in a secular country, no case can be based solely on theology,» and asked for the acquittal of the defendants. Turkey only recognizes the patriarch as the head of Greek community in Turkey and not as head of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

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