Orthodox churches to meet after 1,000 years, beset by divisions
Orthodox churches from around the world will meet in Greece from Sunday for the first such council in a millennium, but deep divisions and key absences already threaten to mar the gathering.
Just days before the historic council, the Russian Orthodox church, which represents some 130 million faithful, around half the global total, announced it would not participate.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew called the so-called Holy and Great Council on issues including wedlock, fasting, and united representation in dioceses in countries such as the United States and Australia.
Over a dozen churches representing some 250 million faithful were originally invited to the week-long council to be held on the island of Crete starting on Sunday.
The last such meeting was in 1054 when Christianity split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in the so-called "great schism" -- and working out the details of the new council has taken over 50 years.
But even before it starts, the council has been marred by controversy.
Aside from Russia, the Orthodox churches of Bulgaria and Georgia will also be absent, while that of Serbia is likely to attend as just an observer, according to Greek reports.
All three are considered close to Moscow.
The Patriarchate of Antioch is also staying away because of a spat with Jerusalem over the appointment of clerics in Qatar.
The Russian church said Monday the council should be postponed until differences could be resolved, and that, in the absence of the churches of Antioch, Bulgaria and Georgia, it would not take part.
- 'Miracle' -
"Perhaps there will be disputes but getting them together in the same place for the first time in (a millennium) is... a miracle," Father John Chryssavgis, spokesman for the council, told AFP.
"At least half the topics on the agenda would be considered rather minor by the broader public," counters historian Antoine Arjakovsky, who characterises relations among the Orthodox world as "ailing."
There are also political realities that cast doubt on the churches' religious goals.
One of these, notes Arjakovsky, is the council's condemnation of war when the Russian church has recognised Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Russian Patriarch Kirill has also declared Moscow's military campaign in Syria a "defensive war" to protect Russia from terrorism.
The Orthodox communion is divided up into what are basically national churches, such as Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Syria, Egypt and others.
The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholemew I, based in Istanbul, is considered their spiritual head and "first among equals".
But on the strength of its own numbers, the Russian church has been contesting that position for some time.
- 'Selfie council' -
Kirill scored points when he held a highly-publicised meeting with Pope Francis in Havana in February.
Bartholomew countered by meeting Francis on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they jointly prayed for the hundreds of migrants who drowned in the Aegean trying to reach Europe.
"There is an arm-wrestling match going on with Moscow," one priest who declined to be named told AFP, adding that Bartholomew could count on the support of churches in Albania, Greece, Cyprus, Jerusalem and Alexandria in this struggle.
"Sometimes it is said that the main agenda item is the group photo," says Orthodoxy expert Jean-Francois Colosimo, citing the possibility of having a "selfie council".
"But we can't expect much of an Orthodox world coming out of the rubble," he adds, noting the instability in the Middle East and post-Communist upheaval in eastern Europe, two of its traditional areas of support.
© 2016 AFP