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World churches pledge solidarity with Orthodox Patriarch

Christian groups have offered support to Patriarch Bartholomeos I, seen by many of the world’s Orthodox Christians as their spiritual leader, after he was called to testify in a Turkish court for allegedly violating an order barring him from using his traditional title of "Ecumenical Patriarch".

"Please know that amid these troubles you have our firm support in the fulfilment of the Patriarchate’s important religious ministries," the Rev. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said in a letter to the patriarch released on 30 August.

A Turkish court ruled in June that the Istanbul-based patriarchate was authorised to perform religious functions only among Turkey’s 6000-strong Greek Orthodox community. It stated that it had no right under Turkish law to call itself "ecumenical", a Greek word meaning "universal".

Istanbul was once the Byzantine Christian capital of Constantinople but now belongs to Muslim-majority and politically-secular Turkey. The use of the term "ecumenical" for the Patriarch of Constantinople goes back to the 6th century.

Turkey regards the title as having political overtones that could undermine Turkish sovereignty. The Patriarchate says the term is purely an internal church designation and has no political implications. The Ecumenical Patriarch has what is called a "primacy of honour" among the world’s Christian Orthodox leaders.

On 21 August, Bartholomeos was summoned to testify before a prosecuting authority after giving a speech at a world conference of Orthodox youth in July, during which he defended his office as "a historical title" recognised by the "whole world".

In his letter to Patriarch Bartholomeos, Kobia said the term "ecumenical" has "a unique and historic importance to the world’s 300 million Orthodox believers".

The Geneva-based WCC groups 347 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries.

Support for Bartholomeos has come also from the Conference of European Churches, which referred to the his "pivotal role amongst the Orthodox churches".

"We recall too that the title ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’ is one which goes back more than 1000 years," CEC’s general secretary, Archdeacon Colin Williams, stated in a letter to the Orthodox leader.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented government has promised to safeguard religious freedom as part of its bid to become a member of the European Union.

Church leaders and human rights groups have expressed concern, however, at recent anti-Christian incidents in Turkey, including the shooting dead of a Roman Catholic priest and the killing of three members of a Protestant publishing house.

(c) Ecumenical News International