The planned trip to Turkey by Pope Benedict XVI has rattled both secularists and Islamists in Turkey. Coming on the heels of the Pope's controversial use of a Byzantine Emperor's less than complimentary remarks about Islam, this visit is not only perilous, it is timely. Manuel II Paleologos (1350-1425) was one of the last Christian rulers of Byzantium. He was the father of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, who is revered by Greeks. During Manuel II's reign, the Turks had conquered most of the Byzantine provinces, devastated and pillaged Greek cities, and enslaved thousands of Christian women and children. In 1394, the sultan laid siege to Constantinople, inflicting hunger and suffering on the Christian residents of the city for eight years. Naturally, the emperor had a rather jaundiced view of Islam. So why did the pope quote Manuel II as an authority on "jihad"? The real purpose of the Pope's visit to an overwhelmingly Islamic country like Turkey is not to confront Islam in its own backyard as much as it is to attempt a reconciliation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I and the whole of Eastern Christendom.
Since its earliest days, the Church recognized the special positions of three bishops, who were known as patriarchs: the Bishop of Rome, the Bishop of Alexandria, and the Bishop of Antioch. They were joined by the Bishop of Constantinople and by the Bishop of Jerusalem, both confirmed as patriarchates by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The patriarchs held both authority and precedence over fellow bishops in the Church. Among them, the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople were deemed to hold a higher status; Rome, because of its imperial status (or because it was regarded as the seat of St Peter), and Constantinople by virtue of its importance as the "New Rome" and capital of the Byzantine Empire.The Western Church and Eastern Church began to drift apart and finally separated some one thousand years after the birth of Christ. The primary causes of the Schism were disputes over papal authority, the Pope claimed he held authority over the four Eastern Greek-speaking patriarchs, and over the insertion of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed. Eastern Orthodox today claim that the primacy of the Patriarch of Rome was only honorary, and thus he had authority only over Western Christians and does not have the authority to change the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.
The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the "Ecumenical Patriarch," ranking as the "first among equals" within the Eastern Orthodox Church. He has also been historically known as the "Greek Patriarch." In addition to being the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, he is the direct administrative superior of millions of Greek, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, and Albanian Orthodox in North and South America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and Korea, as well as portions of Greece such as Mt. Athos. The modern Turkish state still requires the Patriarch to be a Turkish citizen (though nearly all Orthodox now live outside the Turkish republic) but allows the Standing Synod of Metropolitan Bishops to elect the Patriarch. Since the establishment of modern Turkey, therefore, the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch has been filled by ethnic Greeks, who must be Turkish citizens by birth. Human rights groups, EU governments, and the U.S. government, have long protested the restrictions placed by the government of Turkey on the Ecumenical Patriarch. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan has publicly taken the US government to task for referring to Bartholomew I as the "Ecumenical Patriarch." The Turkish government only recognizes his jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians still in Turkey, now down to 2500 elderly residents. If Turkey were to recognize the Patriarch it would risk establishing an Orthodox "Vatican" on Muslim territory. Any loosening of government controls over the Patriarchate by Turkish secularists might also require reciprocal measures vis a vis Islamic clergy, something that the Turkish government avoids. Turkey's repeated attempts to curtail the power of the Patriarchate include expropriation of approximately 75% of Church property and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki, effectively destroying the source of future Patriarchs.
When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Patriarchate ceased to function.The office of Patriarch was eventually bestowed in 1454 to an illustrious Byzantine scholar/monk who was well-known for his opposition to union with the Latin West. George Scholarius who took the name of Gennadius II by the conquering Islamic Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mehmed II, who wished to establish his dynasty as the direct heirs of the Eastern Roman Emperors. The Patriarch was designated spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, regardless of their nationality in the modern sense. This role was carried out by ethnic Greeks at their great peril, in the midst of enormous difficulties and traps and inevitably with mixed success. Several incumbents of the patriarchal throne were summarily executed by the Ottoman authorities, most notably Patriarch Gregory V on Easter Monday 1821 as partial retribution for the outbreak of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman oppression.
Pope Benedict is seventy-nine years old and in poor health. When he was elected, many said openly that he was an interim pope. He knows that he won't live to see his dream of a re-evangelized Europe come true. But the first step in that agenda, unity with the Eastern Orthodox Church, appears within his grasp. His reference in the Regensburg lecture to the beleaguered Byzantine emperor Manuel II, may have angered Muslims around the world, but it will have been understood by the world's 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians as a dramatic gesture of solidarity. The obstacles to union of the Western and Eastern churches are substantial and the include the continued proselytizing of Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, the doctrine of papal infallibility, and the decentralized nature of Eastern Orthodoxy. Only time will tell if the Pope's efforts will bear fruit.