ISTANBUL – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, has radically shuffled the council governing his church by appointing foreign clerics for the first time in more than 80 years, officials said yesterday. All 12 seats on the Holy Synod, based at the Patriarchate in Istanbul and responsible for leading the Church and electing future patriarchs, had been held by Turkish citizens since 1923, when Turkey became a republic. The new appointments give half the seats to foreign nationals, an official from the Ecumenical Patriarchate said. The appointments, which went into effect Monday, include Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Gregorios, the Archbishop of Great Britain. Four citizens of neighboring Greece were also named, the official said on customary condition of anonymity. Vartholomaios is considered the first among equals among Orthodox patriarchs and directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world, including the Archdiocese of America. Turkey only recognizes him as the religious leader of its tiny Greek Orthodox minority. The appointments come as Vartholomaios, an ethnic Greek and Turkish citizen, is faced with a dwindling pool of candidates with Turkish citizenship to fill key clerical posts in Istanbul. The announcement could spark criticism in this predominantly Muslim but secular country, where the activities of the Patriarchate are monitored with suspicion by the State. Turkish authorities keep close tabs on religious institutions in Turkey; the activities of the high-profile Patriarchate and its close ties with Turkey’s traditional rival Greece are of special concern. Turkish nationalists frequently criticize the patriarch’s claim to be «first among equals» of Orthodox patriarchs, his visits abroad, and relations with neighboring Greece. They also say it ignores the authority of the Turkish government. The church official said the Patriarchate had recently notified Turkish authorities about the new appointments, and that they had approved them. However, a Turkish official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that the Patriarchate had received permission for the foreign appointments to the Synod. Turkey faces pressure from the European Union to expand the religious rights of minorities such as Greeks and implement other human rights improvements as part of its bid to join the bloc. Vartholomaios has long sought to ease a requirement by Turkey that patriarchs be Turkish citizens, saying there were increasingly few in Turkey qualified to succeed him. That requirement has not been changed, the Patriarchate official added. Demetrios’s appointment also comes amid a church power struggle in the United States, with prominent parishioners demanding greater self-governance for the American Church from the hierarchy in Turkey. The Archdiocese of America welcomed the restructuring. «The important thing as far as we are concerned is that there will be a direct voice in the Holy Synod from outside Turkey,» said spokesman Nikki Stephanopoulos. Last month, prominent parishioners filed suit at the New York State Supreme Court, claiming the Church Hierarchy imposed a new governing charter last year without approval from delegates at a national Clergy-Laity Congress, as required. Vartholomaios is scheduled to pay a visit to New York and New Jersey later this month. The Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.