Measuring the power of a religious leader is never easy. In 1935, when the French foreign minister urged Stalin to make some concession to Catholics in Russia, he received the mocking reply: “How many [military] divisions has the Pope?” Little did the Soviet leader imagine that half a century later, the moral influence of a Polish pontiff would help to end Moscow’s domination of Eastern Europe.
When Joe Biden confers with the ecumenical patriarch later this month, the world’s strongest earthly leader will be facing a spiritual figure who presents a unique combination of powerlessness and moral authority. When the White House staff prepare a briefing paper for the president, they will have a hard time describing, in a few words, the reasons why this visitor is so important. It is an elusive question.
His All-Holiness has, of course, no military divisions whatsoever. For a spiritual guide of global importance, he lives in a modest wooden building by the Golden Horn and presides over services, in all their complex beauty, where the local congregation is small to nonexistent.
His very survival in his home city has always been precarious. Indeed, over the past century the staying power of his ancient office – one of the oldest institutions of any kind in the world – has been a kind of diplomatic and political miracle.
And yet his personal standing – as an advocate of interfaith understanding, and a defender of the natural environment, among other causes – has been widely recognized, inside and outside the world of religion. Neither Time magazine nor Britain’s Guardian newspaper is known for having an interest in arcane theological matters, yet both have recognized Patriarch Vartholomaios as one of the world’s most benignly influential figures.
It is still worth remembering how the miracle of the Patriarchate’s survival in Istanbul unfolded, because its consequences remain palpable.
As of December 1922, as Greek and Turkish peace negotiators got down to business in Lausanne, the victors were adamant that the Patriarchate, tainted by association with the Greek war effort, must leave its home city. Greece and Britain strongly resisted. Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary who was chairing the conference, said the conscience of the entire world would be affronted if this ancient religious office was removed from its historic headquarters. In this he was strongly backed by the Anglican Church, which may have seen the Patriarchate as a counterweight to the influence of the Vatican over the Christians of the East.
In the first week of January 1923, a careful compromise was reached. Ismet Pasha declared that as an act of supreme goodwill, his country would allow the Patriarchate to remain – but only if it confined itself to purely spiritual activities and renounced the administrative role (which had included considerable influence over the lives of the empire’s Orthodox Christians) which it had exercised in Ottoman times. Riza Nur, who had the sharpest tongue among the Turkish delegates, concluded sourly that letting the Patriarchate stay might be a way of “keeping the snake in his hole.”
At least in spirit, the bargain over the Patriarchate helped to pave the way for a wider Greek-Turkish compact under which each country formally exchanged religious minorities, with the carefully defined exceptions of Ottoman Muslims in Western Thrace and Greeks who were established in Istanbul as of 1918. That agreement, in turn, became part of the Lausanne peace treaty, which included promises to respect the educational and cultural rights of religious minorities on both sides of the Aegean.
But as soon became clear, exceptions to the population exchange were more politically contentious than the population exchange itself. The exchange had devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people but its implementation hardly disturbed the diplomatic atmosphere between Athens and Ankara. The destiny of those who stayed on – including the patriarch – was another matter.
Within two years, Greek-Turkish tensions over the Patriarchate were at boiling point. In December 1924, a patriarch was elected who, in the Turkish view, did not qualify as an “established” resident of the city and was therefore subject to compulsory deportation under the population exchange.
The following month, Patriarch Constantine was arrested and packed off to Greece, where he was met by angry crowds and demands for an immediate rupture of relations. Renewed war with Turkey seemed possible. Headlines in Kathimerini on January 31, 1925 reflect the high emotions: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate has been overthrown. The Turks have arrested and expelled Patriarch Constantine. Maintaining diplomatic ties is impossible.”
Greece prepared to raise the issue in the League of Nations, which was the guardian of the Lausanne settlement and its implementation. Turkey angrily retorted that the presence of the Patriarchate was not part of the Lausanne agreement, but an entirely domestic matter, flowing from a unilateral gesture of goodwill.
In the end the two governments backed off from confrontation. A new patriarch was elected whose legal entitlement to remain in Turkey was not in question. But a deep difference over the status of the Patriarchate had been exposed, and remains unresolved to this day.
From the Turkish viewpoint, the Patriarchate was a domestic institution, responsible only for the local Greek community. A decree of December 1923 spelled out the requirement that candidates for the Patriarchate must be Greek Orthodox clerics with Turkish citizenship.
For Greece, the ancient office is a matter of keen and legitimate concern in bilateral discussions with Turkey, not least because so many Greek citizens feel passionately about its survival. The Patriarchate’s welfare is also, in Greek eyes, an international question, given the “primacy of honor” (“proteio”) which the See of Constantinople holds in the wider Orthodox world. The precise consequences of that primacy are keenly disputed, but the primacy itself is not in question.
(Indeed, the international status enjoyed by the Patriarchate can at times be a headache, as well as a source of pride and prestige, for Greece. Precisely because the Patriarchate has an international role – at times purely symbolic, at times very substantial – its actions and pronouncements may not always coincide precisely with the national policies of Greece.
That dilemma has existed since the late 19th century. When the great ecclesiastical statesman Patriarch Ioakeim III took office, politicians in Athens expected him to take the hardest possible stance in the emerging ecclesiastical dispute with the Bulgarians. To their disappointment, the patriarch took a more conciliatory line, taking the broader interests of Orthodoxy into account. But later generations of Greek historians have long forgiven him.)
During the lifetime of Vartholomaios I, which began on the island of Imbros in 1940, the fate of the Patriarchate has reflected all the murderous turbulence of the region and the wider world. The office of Patriarch Athenagoras (1948-72) began in a euphoric atmosphere of friendship between the United States, Greece and Turkey but was scarred by a series of devastating events which almost terminated the existence of his local flock: the anti-Greek riots of September 1955, the expulsions of 1964 and the closure of the Halki seminary in 1971. Patriarch Dimitrios (1972-91) worked quietly and diligently in the field of religious diplomacy but his activities were severely circumscribed by the Turkish authorities.
When Vartholomaios I was enthroned in November 1991, he took the most cautious view of the Patriarchate’s prospects. In one of his first pronouncements, he used the New Testament quotation “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
In objective terms, the worldly weakness and vulnerability of the patriarch remain as palpable as ever. And yet President Biden would not be meeting His All Holiness if he were not, in some more intangible sense, very strong.
Bruce Clark writes for The Economist on history, culture and religion.