ROME – Because the papacy is by far the biggest bully pulpit on the religious landscape, the pope – any pope, really, but especially Francis – tends to overshadow other spiritual leaders in terms of news coverage and celebrity status. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other interesting characters, only that sometimes you have to pay careful attention to notice.
On any such list, a slot right now would have to be reserved for Theophilus III, officially “His Most Godly Beatitude, the Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, Israel, Syria, Arabia, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Holy Zion.”
Not only does Theophilus, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, thus straddle the Israeli/Palestinian divide, but increasingly he’s also a player in an equally pernicious intra-Orthodox rupture.
On Wednesday, Theophilus wrapped up a “pan-Orthodox summit” he’d convened in Amman, Jordan, to discuss the crisis within Orthodoxy set off last June when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, traditionally seen as the primus inter pares, or “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, recognized the independence, or “autocephaly,” of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
That decision was taken as a provocation by the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims Ukraine as part of its “canonical territory.” Moscow severed ties with Constantinople, which means, in part, that priests from the two churches aren’t supposed to serve together and faithful from one church aren’t supposed to take communion in the other. Some observers have described the split as the gravest crisis to rock Orthodoxy since the split in 1054 between Eastern and Western Christianity.
To be clear, while Theophilus’ summit was billed as a chance to overcome those divisions, in reality it basically confirmed them.
While the invitation came from Jerusalem, many Orthodox observers saw the summit as a ploy by Moscow. Several Orthodox churches boycotted, including Greece, Bulgaria and Georgia, so in the end the line-up was composed of just three primates and lower-level delegations from two other churches out of the 15 self-governing churches that make up the Orthodox world.
Especially notable among those missing was the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox immediately spun the summit as a de facto repudiation of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople’s line on Ukraine.
According to the deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, speaking to the official Russian news agency Interfax, the summit demonstrated that the dispute over Ukraine “is far from being settled – contrary to what the Constantinople patriarch thinks.”
Despite the acrimony, the fact remains that Theophilus would appear to be the lone Orthodox leader with the wherewithal to at least attempt to bridge the divide, and he may well be key to any future resolution. That’s despite the fact that the Jerusalem patriarchate has never been seen as especially significant by the other branches of Orthodoxy, including the Greek Orthodox.
Born in Greece in 1952 – his given name is Ilias Giannopoulos – Theophilus’s family moved to Jerusalem in 1964. He speaks both Arabic and Hebrew, and he’s long moved between the Israeli and Palestinian communities in his adopted home.
Late last month, for instance, Theophilus played a role in the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American arrested in 2019 in Russia and charged with drug-smuggling. The case became a cause célèbre in Israel when Russia linked her fate to a Russian national pending extradition from Israel to the U.S. on charges of cyber-crimes, creating the impression that Issachar was a pawn in global power games.
In the end, Putin freed Issachar one week after a meeting with Theophilus and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marking the first time any Russian president had ever pardoned a convicted foreigner.
“Our joy today springs from love,” Theophilus said when the news broke. “The Issachar family are our neighbors, and as such we love them as we love ourselves,” in language clearly intended to move past traditional Arab/Israeli divides. (The vast majority of Theophilus’s flock is composed of Arab Christians.)
Here too, his friendly relations with Israelis and Jews are hardly uncontroversial. Last month, a group of Palestinian protestors tried to block him from entering the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the Orthodox Christmas, objecting that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem sold some church property to Israeli Jews in 2017 to try to reduce debt. Demonstrators called Theophilus a “traitor” and “unworthy,” chanting, “Shame on us for receiving him!”
Still, it’s hardly surprising that a Christian leader wading into such troubled waters is likely to make some waves. What’s perhaps more relevant is that in the galaxy of major Christian figures today, Theophilus is part of a small circle who could even theoretically try.
All this merits a spot on the Catholic radar screen for two reasons.
First, in ecumenical efforts to engage Orthodoxy, Pope Francis and his Vatican team have worked hard to maintain good relations with both Constantinople and Moscow, but it’s difficult when the two aren’t even talking to each other. In that regard, Rome may find Theophilus an interesting conversation partner.
Second, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have shared interests in many places, but perhaps nowhere more so than the Middle East, where a rising tide of jihadist-driven persecution threatens the very survival of Christianity in the land of its birth.
In that context, making common cause is an existential imperative, and knowing who the potential change-makers are is critical.
However flawed, in other words, Theophilus is a potential force, both in a region and in a church in which Catholicism is deeply invested … and that, by a short route, means he’s a “need-to-know” kind of guy.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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