This June, the leaders of the world’s 262 million Orthodox Christians met in Crete at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (sometimes referred to as the Pan-Orthodox Council) to discuss the challenges facing their religious community. The council was the first of its kind in 1,229 years—the last was the Second Council of Nicaea in 787—and in an echo of the councils of antiquity, leaders addressed a church surrounded by conflict and riven by political and ideological disputes. Only a few hundred miles to the east of Crete, the Orthodox Christians of Syria and Iraq face extermination, just as their ancient communities were devastated by war and persecution. To the north, Orthodox believers are on both sides of the firing line in Ukraine. In Africa, Orthodox communities in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan face constant threats from militant Islamists. As it faces external enemies, moreover, Orthodoxy is increasingly beset by internal divisions.
In contrast with the Catholic Church, which is unified under the authority of the pope, Orthodoxy possesses no single leader. Each of the 14 Orthodox Churches is independent and equal within the faith’s hierarchy. Traditionally, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (now Istanbul) has been “first among equals,” a status that dates back to the origins of Eastern Orthodoxy in the Great Schism of 1054, when Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire. Yet that status has recently come into question due to the growing strength of the Russian Orthodox Church.
A RUSSIAN SYMPHONY
In Byzantium, the patriarch of Constantinople was so powerful that he was responsible for crowning the emperor. The Byzantine church and state were mutually entwined in what was called a “symphony” of secular and religious power. Now, a similar symphony can be heard in Russia, home of the world’s largest Orthodox community (officially numbered at some 100 million believers). Under the combined rule of the patriarch of Moscow, Archbishop Kirill, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has in recent years