By Benjamin Harvey, Associated PressEcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I urged the world's Orthodox churches to minimize differences and seek solidarity as he met with the head of Armenian Apostolic Church on Wednesday.
Deep divisions are prevalent throughout the Orthodox Church. Although Bartholomew controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world, including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and is considered the spiritual leader of some 250 million Orthodox worldwide, relations with two of the largest churches, in Russia and Greece, remain tense. The Armenian Apostolic Church also operates independently and is not under his jurisdiction.
The two spiritual leaders met under heavy security and after a brief religious ceremony in Istanbul, the formerly Greek Byzantine city of Constantinople that is the seat of Bartholomew's Orthodox Patriarchate. Garegin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, was accompanied by clerics wearing long black robes and black hats. His hat bore a jeweled cross and he held a staff with a golden handle.
"We must always keep in mind that we aim only for the glory of God," Bartholomew said in a speech to Garegin II in which he touched on the ancient split between the two churches. "He himself taught us this: 'May they all be one.' It is a sacred goal." Bartholomew praised what he called the ongoing "unofficial theological meetings" between the two churches, saying the dialogue between them began in the fifth century.
Armenian Christians pride themselves on being descendants of the first people to adopt Christianity as their official national religion. The Armenian national church was established in A.D. 301. That predates the Roman Empire's edict of A.D. 313 tolerating Christianity, which was previously illegal, and was 94 years before it became the official religion of Rome and the Orthodox lands of the East.
Garegin arrived in Istanbul on Tuesday for a weeklong visit to the Armenian community here and to hold talks with Bartholomew. He is expected to visit several Armenian churches in Istanbul, as well as Armenian graveyards and other religious sites including the Haghia Sophia. Both Armenians and Greeks had huge roles in the history of the city, though their numbers have dwindled to just a few thousand combined.
Police tightened security to protect the visiting cleric from Turkish nationalists who protested his arrival on Tuesday night, prompting the police to accompany Garegin out of the airport through a separate entrance. Garegin has angered Turks by saying their ancestors committed genocide against Armenians around the time of World War I, an allegation vehemently denied by Turkey.
Turkey, which has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, denies that Turks committed genocide, saying Armenians who lived under the Ottoman Empire were killed in internal fighting among ethnic groups as the empire collapsed.