Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East.
Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.
The Istanbul talks were called to decide on the council, which the Orthodox have been preparing on and off since the 1960s, but the Ukraine crisis overshadowed their talks at the office of spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
As the prelates left a special service at Saint George’s Cathedral, a woman in the crowd called out in Russian “Pray for Ukraine!” Two archbishops responded: “You pray, too!”
In their communique, the patriarchs called for “peaceful negotiations and prayerful reconciliation in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine” and denounced what they said were “threats of violent occupation of sacred monasteries and churches” there.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with 165 million members by far the largest in the Orthodox family, last month issued a statement along with Moscow’s Foreign Ministry about what they said were attacks on revered historic monasteries in Kiev and Pochayiv in western Ukraine.
Russia has used the alleged threat to Russian-speakers in Ukraine, including the faithful of the Moscow-backed church there, to argue it has the right to intervene to protect them.
Closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine policy, the Russian church has a partner Ukrainian Orthodox Church mostly in the Russian-speaking east of the country that is loyal to the Moscow patriarchate.
There are two rival Orthodox churches mostly in western Ukraine, both meant to be Ukrainian national churches. Neither is part of the global Orthodox communion and the patriarchs’ communique expressed the hope they would one day join it.
On the Middle East, the patriarchs denounced “the lack of peace and stability, which is prompting Christians to abandon the land where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.”