'60 Minutes' visits a persecuted patriarch

There is much to praised in the "60 Minutes" profile of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his tiny, yet historically significant, flock of persecuted Orthodox Christians in Istanbul. It's worth watching, if only for the remarkable videos taken at St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai in Egypt and the remarkable city of churches and monastic cells carved into the mountain cliffs in Cappadocia (video link here) in Eastern Turkey. The report by correspondent Bob Simon also contains crucial details -- with many missing, alas -- about the political framework that surrounds the crushing of the ancient Orthodox Christian community in modern Turkey. The story covers the efforts to expel Christian believers from Turkey, but avoids issues linked to massacres and, yes, decades of verbal warfare about the use of the term "genocide."

So, by all means, watch the report and then carefully read the text as it appears on the "60 Minutes" website.

However, please know that for most Orthodox believers this report is a good news-bad news situation. There are errors in the opening section that are painful -- something like hearing very long, stiff fingernails scraped across a blackboard. Even though much of the content is solid, Simon and his writers have made a series of very basic mistakes, which I will underline shortly.

Here are some crucial pieces of the text:

(CBS) Would it surprise you to learn that one of the world's most important Christian leaders, second only to the pope, lives in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim? His name is Bartholomew, and he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, the latest in a line of patriarchs who have resided there since before there was a Turkey, since the centuries following the death of Jesus Christ.

That's when Istanbul was called Constantinople and was the most important city in the Christian world.

But times change, and in modern Muslim Turkey the patriarch doesn't feel very welcome. Turkish authorities have seized Christian properties and closed Christian churches, monasteries and schools. His parishioners are afraid that the authorities want to force Bartholomew and his church -- the oldest of all Christian churches -- out of Turkey.

His official title is impressive: "His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, Ecumenical Patriarch." "Ecumenical" means "universal," and worldwide, 300 million Orthodox Christians look to him for spiritual guidance.

OK, let's start with that "second only to the pope" phrase, attached to the word "important" -- a term that is vague to the point of being meaningless. All kinds of historical issues swarm around this statement, but the basic problem is one that runs through the whole report, which is a ongoing attempt to equate Patriarch Bartholomew with the pope.

The big problem is the article "the" in that statement, "he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians." For the world's Orthodox Christians he is certainly "a" patriarch. He also is a first among equals, when it comes to gatherings of the world's Orthodox patriarchs. He is definitely a significant spiritual leader, a symbolic leader in many ways, but he is not "the" patriarch of the Orthodox.

It cannot be stressed too strongly: Orthodox Christianity is a conciliar church and Bartholomew is the symbolic first among equals, equals who would make ultimate decisions as a council and part of a larger community of faith.

And what about that claim that he leads the "oldest of all Christian churches"? That would make him the Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem, correct? All kinds of issues swirl around that throne. And which came first, Antioch or Constantinople? Meanwhile, Roman Catholics would certainly believe that, since they claim the pope is truly the universal patriarch, Pope Benedict XVI is the leader of the "oldest of all Christian churches," including the churches of the ancient Middle East.

So the basic problem with the "60 Minutes" report is one of storytelling as Simon & Co. try to find a way to let readers relate to the Orthodox crisis in Turkey. Note this statement:

60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon first met him in Istanbul. It was Easter, and worshipers from throughout the Orthodox Christian world had come to celebrate Christ's resurrection on the holiest day of their calendar with the man who they see as their pope.

Phanar2That final blunt statement is simply wrong. There needed to be language added stressing that Patriarch Bartholomew is not the pope of the Orthodox, but he is a very important figure on the Orthodox world scene and that, yes, millions of Orthodox Christian believers are deeply concerned about his fate and the fate of his tiny besieged folk in Istanbul.

That isn't hard to grasp, is it? Reporters -- me included -- have often resorted to the "spiritual leader of the Orthodox" language, to capture that "first among equals" reality. But Bartholomew is not the literal leader of the global church, in the same way as the pope is for Catholics.

So the report offers a fine picture of a large, important story. But the basic frame around that picture is warped, and that is sad. As you watch it, you will see that very little has changed since 2004, when I visited the Panar and wrote about some of these same, unchanging issues. I wish that Simon had mentioned the painful symbol of the two gates into the complex. The gates say it all:

ISTANBUL -- There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar's main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: "We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. ... Patriarch you will perish!"

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older. What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process.

As I said, very little has changed. That is a tragic reality for the ancient church in Turkey.

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