Orthodox Christian church holds first great council in 1,229 years despite Russia's absence

The Orthodox Christian church is holding its first Holy and Great Council for the first time since 787 AD despite the delegations from Antioch, Russia, Georgia, and Bulgaria not participating. 

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (R) in Istanbul November 29, 2014. | REUTERS/Osman Orsal

"This great and holy council will carry the message of unity," Patriarch Vartholomaios of Crete said, as quoted by The Independent. "It will help to escape the deadlocks of the present."

According to the report, the full meeting, which took 55 years to plan, opened on Sunday in Crete, Greece, the purpose of which is to discuss the church's place in these modern times as well as to unite its different branches. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Archbishop of Constantinople and the primus inter pares (first among equals), also said that the meeting aims to tackle fasting and other issues, such as its relationship with other religions, including the Roman Catholic Church.

It is supposed to be a meeting of leaders and representatives from self-governing Orthodox churches, but four decided not to participate. A dispute with the church's Jerusalem branch on who should be in charge of the church's contingent in Qatar has reportedly prompted the Antioch branch to not take part in the meeting. Also, disagreements on topics and logistics are said to have been the Bulgarian delegation's reasons for not joining. This was subsequently followed by Georgia's and Russia's decision to withdraw.

"We have made a decision that we will not be able to take part in the all-Orthodox synod if other churches do not go," Russian bishop Hilarion Alfeyev said. "All churches should take part ... and only in this case the decisions of the assembly will be legitimate."

According to Christian Today, at least 1,000 Orthodox scholars called for the meeting to push through despite the non-participation of some branches.

"We believe that there are no insurmountable difficulties to beginning the Council in June, despite the significant questions that have been raised regarding the drafts of the conciliar documents and conciliar proceedings," Christian Today quotes a letter as saying. "Nobody can expect the Council to settle all important questions and to heal all jurisdictional disputes in 10 days. But we hope that this Council will be a beginning of the healing process and that it will usher in a new era of global conciliarity and unity."

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill visits the graves of Russian soldiers who fought in the 1932-1935 Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia, at the Recoleta cemetery in Asuncion, February 15, 2016. | REUTERS/JORGE ADORNO

Russia's decision to not participate initially raised concerns on whether or not the meeting would push through, considering it is composed of around 43 percent of all Orthodox Christians. It has roughly 130 million members out of the worldwide estimate of 300 million, and it's leader Patriarch Kirill is considered as the second most powerful Orthodox see. There have been speculations that Kirill wishes to strengthen his own position by allegedly undermining Bartholomew. Observers have surmised that there is what a Russian newspaper called a "simmering religious war."

According to The Economist, Ukrainian politicians voted to ask Bartholomew to have a "unification council" and establish an independent Orthodox church in Ukraine, which would potentially mean that it would become independent of Russia. Kirill had reportedly warned Bartholomew that trying to detach the Ukraine branch from Russia would have a devastating effect on the relationship between them -- Constantinople's and Russia's church leaders.