ISTANBUL – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, on Tuesday assembled for the first time a newly reshuffled council governing his church amid criticism in Turkey over the appointment of foreign nationals. 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, which went into effect last week, gave half of the seats to non-Turkish citizens. Members of the Synod, including newly appointed Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Gregorios, the Archbishop of Great Britain, held the first meeting on Tuesday. Talks are expected to last several days. The media and politicians here have complained that Turkish authorities didn’t approve the foreign appointments. Attorneys for the Patriarchate say that the Patriarchate did not need permission. Demetrios defended the move, citing the dwindling Greek population in Istanbul. «It’s a difficult time for the Patriarchate,» he said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. «It’s one thing to have the Synod that has to be composed by members selected from a very small number versus the possibility to go to a large pool of bishops from around the world.» Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but secular country, has long been suspicious of the Patriarchate, especially because of its ties with Turkey’s traditional rival Greece. «Our Patriarchate made the necessary arrangements to fulfill its responsibilities because the size of our congregation and, therefore, of our clergy is limited and because some are aged and sick,» Vartholomaios’s office said in a statement Tuesday. «It deeply saddens us that some people have interpreted the aim differently.» Fewer than 3,000 Greeks are estimated to remain in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which was the capital of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. The empire collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453, but the Patriarchate remained. Vartholomaios is considered «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. Critics say the decision was an attempt to emphasize the Patriarchate’s «ecumenical» role as the spiritual leadership of the world’s Orthodox Christians, which Turkey has long refused to recognize. «It’s a Turkish institution. There were efforts to make it ecumenical. It wasn’t accepted,» said Onur Oymen, an opposition member of Parliament and a former ambassador. «If they want to appoint foreign clerics, they have to apply to Turkish authorities.» 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.