Ecumenical patriarch Dimitrios, spiritual leader of world orthodoxy, was greeted in Athens Nov. 13 with a fanfare that belied the difficulties that the Orthodox Eastern Church faces. Tens of thousands of Athenians lined the streets as Dimitrios's motorcade drove from the airport to the city's central Syntagma Square. It was the first trip to Athens by an ecumenical patriarch in 24 years.
Athens was his latest stop in a six-month tour of Orthodox churches, during which he is seeking to unify a church torn by centuries of war and political demarcation. He was received here with state honors, testimony to the reverence in which he is held by Greeks, 98 percent of whom are baptized Orthodox.
That reverence was also on display before his arrival, when the autocephalous (self-governing) Greek church and the government of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou hurriedly worked out a compromise to settle a fierce church-state battle over the expropriation of church lands. Dr. Papandreou and Greek Archbishop Seraphim finally agreed to a compromise plan whereby the church ceded to the state 325,000 acres of rural monastic lands but retained its valuable urban properties, which include wide areas around Syntagma Square.
The church plays a vital role in the lives of Greeks of all political stripes (except the Moscow-oriented Greek Communist Party). Thus, Papandreou had risked the loss of significant political support with his government's proposed land grab.
With that rift apparently healed, Dimitrios was able to focus his efforts here on mediating decades-old Greek-Turkish disputes over Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean. The latter brought the two countries to the brink of war last March. Such secular statesmanship on the part of Dimitrios harkens back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, when under the Turkish sultans the patriarch was the head of the Greek ``nation'' as well as the spiritual head of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Perhaps Dimitrios's most daunting task is his mission to bring about church unity, observers say. The Orthodox Church from its inception has been decentralized, and each bishop in theory has had equal standing. The patriarch of Constantinople has been viewed as first among equals. Part of the reason for Orthodoxy's break from Rome in 1054 was in fact its refusal to accept the Vatican Pope as anything more than the patriarch of Rome. Papal infallibility has never been recognized by the Eastern Church.
In a sense, Dimitrios symbolizes many of Orthodoxy's problems - clerical and laic - in his role as patriarch of Constantinople, which the church and many Greeks still call Istanbul in a throwback to when the city was the spiritual center of the church and the capital of the Byzantine Empire. An ethnic Greek, he remain a Turkish national with a Turkish passport.
Dimitrios' current tour is taking him to many of the other patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) and auto- cephalous churches (Russia, Romania, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Poland, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and the Sinai). He will also advance ecumenical dialogue with visits to the Vatican in December and to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
A key obstacle to the advancement of Orthodox unity is the fact that some 90 percent of its followers live in the East bloc, where religion is subject to state control. Even in Turkey, the patriarch faces political pressure from the government and Orthodox clergy are forbidden to walk the streets in clerical garb.
But ecumenists see some bright light in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, or restructuring. Although Soviet authorities have been more tolerant of the church ever since its contribution to the war effort during the 1940s, the winds of change today appear to be more favorable. Dimitrios's visit to Moscow in August was the first by a Constantinople patriarch in 600 years. Russian patriarch Pimen, with his flock of perhaps 50 million, is orthodoxy's single largest ethnic representation.