Read First Part I: The Theology
For some one outside of the two ancient faiths, the power game between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is interesting as a case-study in politics: the longest continuing political struggle in human history.
Why did all the churches except for Rome accept the leadership of Constantinople? The reason is simple: Constantinople was the capital, and the Church there had the protection the Emperor. The Canons of the Church were decided upon at Councils organized by the Emperor in or around Constantinople.
The first Council was held at Nicea in 325 CE. (The town is now called Iznik, near the modern Turkish City of Bursa. Iznik now famous for is beautiful tiles.) The council of Nicea voted and decided on the basic canons. Thus it defined Christianity as we understand it today.
Nicea also established a hierarchy among the bishops of the church, changing its character from being a grass-roots movement to an instrument of power. The sixth canon of Nicea gives the Bishop of Alexandria a status in the hierarchy second only (and possibly equal) to the Bishop of Rome. Antioch and Jerusalem are listed after that. Rome and Byzantium came to interpret this most crucial sixth canon differently in later years. To a neutral observer, sixth canon reads as though Alexandria was being given equal status to Rome. But the Egyptian Church was riven by internal strife. Actually, the original purpose of the Nicean council was to settle a theological dispute within the Egyptian Church. Rome looks better at politics right from the beginning, already presenting a united front.
The Bishop of Constantinople was not important at Nicea, since Constantine had only just moved the capital to Byzantium and renamed it New Rome (later to be Constantinople). A later (381 CE) council at Constantinople recognized the Bishop there as a Patriarch as well. As time went on the power of the Bishop of Constantinople grew, under the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor, as the Western Roman empire fell apart. The canons adopted at the later councils that asserted equal status for the Bishops of Constantinople and Rome were contested by the Popes, but there was little they could do about it.
In a counter trend, as the Western Empire waned, the Pope stepped in to fill the power vacuum. What remained of the empire became Church territory. Even as the Eastern empire grew, the Eastern Church decayed in strength, being subservient to the Emperor. Later on, as the Eastern Empire too decayed, the Eastern Church was unable to fill that power vacuum, in no small part due to the machinations of the-by now powerful- Pope in Rome.
The looting and total destruction of Constantinople by the Western armies of the fourth Crusade, which began with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, is a trauma from which the city never recovered. The purpose of the Crusades was to retake the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims: Egypt was the original destination of the Fourth Crusade. But the Crusaders were a desperate and ignorant horde, who needed the help of the wily Doge of Venice. He essentially hijacked the Crusade and got them to redirect their efforts at conquering Constantinople, his main rival in the Mediterranean trade. The city was rich, but poorly defended and fell without too much effort.
The Patriarch escaped to Nicea. The Crusaders got a prostitute to sit on the Patriarchal throne to mock him, an act that shocked the Pope. The greatest Cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia, was stripped of its treasures. Relics of saints, former Patriarchs, were stolen. Ancient works of art were melted down for the gold. Women, including nuns, were brutally raped. A great fire set by the Venetians destroyed much of the city.
If you are rich but weak, beware of your friends.
The Eastern Church was so weakened that it could not stand up to the challenge from Islam. Most of the Holy Land was lost to Islamic armies. The Patriarchates of Antioch,Alexandria and Jerusalem all fell under Islamic rule. This loss which was not compensated by the later growth into Eastern Europe.
The lesson is that to be your own boss is a better position,for the long term, than to be under the protection of a rich and powerful emperor.
By the time the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the Eastern Church was a spent force. Following the principle of keeping `your friends close but your enemies closer’, the Ottomans allowed the Patriarch to continue in Istanbul.
However, they never let him forget who was boss. On Easter Sunday of 1821 the Ottomans publicly hanged Patriarch Gregory V, right after mass, still wearing his ceremonial robes, in full view of his congregation. Then they threw his body into the Bosphorus. This was to punish the Greeks for an uprising against Turkish rule, although it was not clear the Patriarch had incited it.
The Orthodox Patriarch regards himself today as the `spokesman of matryrdom and persecution’ of the Orthodox : first at the hands of the Romans, then the Crusaders, followed by the Ottomans, the Nazis (who massacred many Serbian Orthodox), the Communists and the modern Turkish State.
What rankles the Turkish Government is the title `Ecumenical’ that the Patriarch of Constantinople insists upon. Each of the national orthodox churches asserts dominion only over the local people and the descendants of immigrants from there: the Serbian Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox and so on. An Ecumenical Patriarch is a transnational figure who is claiming dominion over the Orthodox faithful worldwide. Words and symbols are powerful when dealing with religious beliefs. As Eastern Europe becomes integrated into the Europe Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be able to claim to be the `Vatican of the East’. It might some day be able to achieve the status of an independent country, as the Vatican is, within Italy. No nation wants to see an independent state develop within its borders.
The current Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has made a name for himself as a conciliatory figure. He has visited many Muslim countries and carried on a dialogue between religions as well as faiths within the Christian tradition. He has spoken up in favor of environmental causes and criticized the foreign policy of the Turkish Government.
Bartholomew I has found an ally in his traditional rival. Pope Benedict XVI visited him in December of 2006. The two have attempted to settle many contentious issues. Benedict attended mass conducted by the Patriarch, but did not receive communion. The Pope and the Patriarch excommunicated each other (in effect, condemned each other to hell) back in 1054 AD. Although the excommunications were withdrawn in the 1960’s, relations are not yet at the stage where each can fully participate in the other’s religious services. But the Pope apologized for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. In an earlier visit of Bartholomew I to Rome, Pope John Paul II had returned the remains of two Orthodox Saints that were plundered from the city back then. You can see them in their place of honor at the Patriarchate Church in Istanbul now. Maybe a new era in inter-faith harmony has begun. More likely, conflict will continue.