The first Synod of the world’s Orthodox churches in more than 1,200 years gets under way on Friday on Crete with the notable absence of Russian Patriarch Kirill, who cited the no-show of some of the other patriarchates and sent an observer instead.
However, the announcement of Moscow’s decision not to participate is seen by many as a show of defiance to Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based “first among equals,” who called for the gathering of the heads of 14 independent Orthodox churches and patriarchates in a bid to promote unity among the some 300 million Orthodox Christians spread around the world.
According to some officials, Moscow wants to challenge the “first among equals” status of Vatholomaios and render itself a “co-caretaker” on equal footing – even though the church of Moscow did not even exist when the last ecumenical council of Christian churches took place in AD 787, the last of seven that both Catholics and Orthodox recognize.
Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria bemoaned the absence of the patriarchs of Antioch, Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia, describing it as an act that calls into question the historical and accepted role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate based in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), which was the seat of the Greek-speaking Christian Orthodox Byzantine Empire, otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire, until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The Patriarchate, however, remained a focal point of the world’s Orthodox and retained its historic role as first among equals.
“It is inconceivable that at the last moment, and despite a unanimous decision to organize the Synod, some patriarchates are absent,” he told Kathimerini, and made a case for “cohesion” above “national and racial interests.”
The council on Crete is being attended by leaders and delegates of 10 churches, including the Patriarchate of Jersualem, the Patriarchate of Serbia – the only Slavic one to attend – and the independent churches of Greece, Romania, Poland and Albania.
Since the schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians in 1054, there have been several smaller councils among the Orthodox churches but none on a grand scale.
The council ends on June 27.