Christian churches back patriarch

GENEVA (Reuters) – Two large groups of Christians in Europe and around the globe have voiced support for the Istanbul-based head of the world’s Orthodox churches against what they called pressure and attacks on him in Turkey, in a letter released yesterday. Speaking up only days before the European Union is due to decide on Turkey’s entry request, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) offered to rush a fact-finding mission to Turkey if it would help. The groups – which count most non-Catholic Christian churches among their members – also praised the support Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios has given to Ankara’s membership bid, due to be considered by the EU on Friday. Turkey, a secular country with a majority of Muslims, is under pressure from the EU, the United States and most Christian churches to ease restrictions on the Orthodox Church, for example by allowing the Halki Seminary near Istanbul to reopen. «We write to you to express our profound sorrow at the reports we are receiving of new pressures and difficulties being brought upon the Ecumenical Patriarchate,» said the joint WCC-CEC letter dated December 10. The letter decried «public criticisms and attacks being made upon yourself and upon the Christian community in Turkey.» Vartholomaios complained last month of «rapacious encroachments» on his church and said a «sword of Damocles» hung over its properties. He urged full respect for religious freedom in Turkey, an issue Christian churches in Europe say should be a condition for the EU agreeing to open entry talks with Ankara. The two councils referred to Vartholomaios as Ecumenical Patriarch, a sensitive term in Turkey since Ankara does not want to recognize his authority outside the country as it might make him a much more powerful figure with some real influence. The WCC represents 342 churches around the world, while the CEC includes 126 churches from across Europe. Both are based in Geneva. Europe’s Catholic bishops have also called on the EU to ensure Turkey respects religious freedom to qualify for entry.