Our great Church … in captivity

Alexander Billinis believes the Ecumenical Patriarch should "exile" himself from Turkey to truly be free in this actions

Forgive me for borrowing from the title of Byzantine historian Sir Steven Runciman’s inimitable book on the Patriarchate during the Ottoman era, but the term is apt, I fear, when describing today’s Ecumenical Patriarchate. As diaspora Greeks, we are under the jurisdiction of this ‘captive’ Patriarchate. While the Patriarchate’s state of thrall to the Turks is not the direct cause of the numerous problems occurring in Parishes around the US and, from what I am hearing, in Australia, there is certainly some causal connection.

What do I mean by captivity? Well, just that. As in Ottoman times, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to which Greek America (and Greek Australia) belongs, is under the effective control of the Turks. The Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, and given that the Orthodox community in Turkey today is well less than ten thousand (the size of a smallish Greek American community), to choose the titular spiritual leader of nearly a quarter of a billion Orthodox from such a pool is absurd. Further, given that all of the assets of the Patriarchate are essentially the property of the Turkish state, and that, as in the Ottoman period, the Turkish authorities have an effective veto over the choice of Patriarch, I do not think that captivity is an unfair characterisation. Perhaps another description is hostage.

When I explain this situation to the non-Orthodox, that the authorities of a Muslim country have an essential veto in the governance of a Christian Church, they find the logic hard to follow. Orthodox churches have followed a tradition where the head of state is the head of the national church, which was not a problem in Byzantium or successor states where the head of state was the same religion, but it became a problem when the Church was in ‘captivity’, either to the Ottoman Sultan, or, in Communist Eastern Europe, to Communist dictators.

Church historians might say that compromise – either with Sultan or Commissar – was necessary to preserve the Church under less than ideal circumstances. There is, in fact, merit to this contention, but while the Church may have survived difficult circumstances, collaboration distorted and corrupted the Church, then as now. It is difficult to be a moral authority when in a captivity which requires collaboration.

While I have presented my interpretation of the problem, the question is: “What to do?”

This is a difficult answer, fraught with dilemmas. My short answer is – go into exile. This is a painful choice, but it is not without precedence in Orthodox history. When the brutes of the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, the Byzantine Patriarch went into exile, in Nicea, until the city was recovered. The Antiochian Patriarch resides in Damascus as testimony to the inability to function in Antioch (today’s Antakya, Turkey), though Damascus currently may end up being too dangerous as well. The point is, there is a tradition of exile when the circumstances simply prohibit functioning in freedom of action and of conscience.

In suggesting this as a possible solution, I seek not to break from tradition, but rather to continue it. The idea of abandoning Constantinople, to me the truest centre of gravity for anyone of Byzantine heritage, is wretched, but I suggest that the humiliation of continued captivity, after more than half a millennium of it, is enough. This captivity, moreover, damages the Church and her people.

Think about it; if we had followed the Patriarchate’s admonitions during the Greek War of Independence, there would be no Greece, as the Greeks of 1821 rebelled against their sovereign, ruling by the grace of God, the sultan, for which they were excommunicated. Think about the irony. A Christian rebellion is anathematised by its own Christian hierarchy to uphold the rule of a Muslim sultan.

The Turks talk about change, about opening the Theological School of Halki, about a periodic liturgy held in historic sites, such as Panagia Soumela in Pontos, or churches in Smyrna or Cappodocia. These are sops that do not change a fundamental fact: the Patriarchate is not free, and therefore neither are we, as its flock.

I am not anti-Turkish, I have many Turkish friends and I am the first to advocate stronger ties between Turkey and Greece, regardless of the Patriarchate issue. However, I am sure that my Turkish friends would not particularly like their Muslim religious organisations effectively controlled by a government that is overwhelmingly Christian. Why should we?

There are a number of places an exiled Patriarchate could go, but my choice would be Thessaloniki. Her credentials are impressive, from a historical, geographical, and cultural perspective. Thessaloniki was always the second Byzantine metropolis, after Constantinople. It was the birthplace of the Apostles of the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius, and is dear to the hearts of every Bulgarian, Serbian, Russian, and Ukrainian. Every time I go there, I see tourists and clergy from other Balkan countries. Further, Thessaloniki is about 40 minutes away from Mount Athos on the Egnatia Freeway, and Mount Athos is an Orthodox Monastic Republic with monasteries and cells representing all major Orthodox nationalities.

In Thessaloniki, the Ecumenical Patriarchate could be ‘ecumenical’ in ways that it has not been for hundreds of years. Further on this, why shouldn’t a Russian, Serb, Bulgarian, or, for example, a Kenyan convert to Orthodoxy not have the possibility of being Ecumenical Patriarch? That is, after all, what ecumenical connotes. The economic infusion into Greek Macedonia, reeling from the crisis, would not hurt at all either.

I know that this position is highly incendiary to some people, and the obstacles to an exile in Greece’s second city are considerably larger than meet the eye. However, perhaps even the threat, backed by the willingness to move, may force the Turks either to create a truly pluralistic environment for the Patriarchate to function, or if not, to expose the fraud in the Turks’ democracy. Faced with the current captivity, I see no other way for the Church to break free, and it matters to all of us.

* Alexander Billinis is a Greek American with a lifelong interest in Byzantine history. He has worked at global banks in the US, Athens and London and has written books and articles for various diaspora Greek and Serbian publications in the US, Canada, Greece and Australia. He currently lives in the USA.