Archbishop Christodoulos dies

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, passed away yesterday at the age of 69, less than seven months after being diagnosed with cancer. One of the most popular archbishops in Greece’s history, credited with opening up the Church to society and mending ties with the Vatican, Christodoulos died at home shortly after 5 a.m. He had rejected doctors’ attempts to transfer him to hospital following a sharp deterioration in his health over the past weeks. His body was laid out on public display in Athens Cathedral where it will remain until tomorrow ahead of his funeral which is to be held at the capital’s First Cemetery on Thursday. There was no discussion yesterday about a successor to Christodoulos, which will be decided next Thursday – February 7 – by the Holy Synod. Hundreds of black-clad citizens crowded around the cathedral yesterday to pay their last respects as authorities declared four days of public mourning. Flags flew at half-mast on all public buildings and schools as messages of condolence flooded in from politicians and other public figures in Greece and abroad. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis praised Christodoulos as an «enlightened» cleric and «a significant religious leader… who reinforced the role of Orthodoxy in the world.» Karamanlis was referring, in part, to Christodoulos’s efforts to mend ties with the Catholic Church following centuries of tension. In 2006, Christodoulos became the first head of the Greek Orthodox Church to visit the Vatican for talks on rapprochement. Prior to that, in 2001, the archbishop had welcomed the late Pope John Paul II to Athens despite vociferous protests by Greek Orthodox hardliners. Christodoulos broke with tradition in many other ways, welcoming youngsters to come to church «as you are, earrings and all.» This attempt by Christodoulos to open up the Church – in contrast with his predecessor Serapheim who was more private and reserved in character – received widespread praise yesterday. «He strove his whole life to bring people closer to the Church, to the unique ark of salvation,» said Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. Christodoulos had a strained relationship with Vartholomaios – the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox faithful, clashing several times over the management of several dioceses in Greece. The archbishop’s direct and open style also triggered disputes with politicians. The most famous occurred in 2001 when Christodoulos divided public opinion by calling for a crusade against the state over the – then PASOK – government’s decision to delete reference to religious persuasion on Greek citizens’ police identity cards. The archbishop’s initiative, which was ultimately unsuccessful, earned him strong criticism, particularly among liberals and left-wingers. But Christodoulos continued to express his opinion on political and social issues, causing waves. He suggested that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA had been provoked by «divine wrath.» In 2004, he upset gays by calling homosexuality a «handicap.» Christodoulos also criticized the European Union regularly, particularly as regards its accession talks with Turkey whose people he described as «barbarians.» Again his comments provoked protests. But criticism of Christodoulos faded after his illness became public and he received visits from prominent left-wingers. Many said this was largely due to the stoical way in which the ailing archbishop handled his illness. «The way he dealt with his disease and imminent death moved us, sending a unique message of courage and dignity,» President Karolos Papoulias said. This sentiment was echoed by Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis. «Up until the final moments of his life, he stood tall with unparalleled strength of soul, Orthodox spirituality and admirable dignity,» Kaklamanis said.