Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians, is hoping a meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem this month will help bring the churches together after being apart for nearly a milennia.
In an interview with The Associated Press in his Istanbul office, the Patriarch said that, “We shall say through our meeting and our prayer that it is the intention of both of us to work further for Christian unity and reconciliation.”
Bartholomew last year became the first Patriarch to attend the installation of a Pope and is acting on trying to develop closer relations between the two religions.
Bartholomew said the road to unity remains long, but that Pope Francis’s acceptance of the invitation to meet in Jerusalem demonstrates that both leaders want to end the divide.
“When it will take place, we don’t know; how it will take place, we don’t know. Only God knows,” he said.
The two leaders will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried, and issue another declaration. Bartholomew said it had not been finalized.
Although the Orthodox and Catholic churches remain estranged on key issues, including married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican, there have been moves toward closer understanding, beginning with the 1964 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. It was the first encounter between a Pope and Orthodox Patriarch in more than 500 years.
Following the meeting, mutual excommunication edicts were dropped, and a Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965 called for greater harmony.
Bartholomew also praised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for improving rights for Christians but said pointedly, “it is not enough,” and called again for the closed Halki Seminary on an island off Istanbul, what Greeks call Constantinople, to be reopened.
The meetings between the ecumenical patriarch and the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics on May 25-26 will commemorate the historic visit of their predecessors 50 years ago that launched a dialogue aimed at ending the two churches’ schism in 1054.
“These are hopes which are not fulfilled so far,” Bartholomew said. “It is a matter of human rights and especially of religious freedom.”
Erdogan has said Halki’s reopening depends on reciprocal measures from neighboring Greece that would improve the rights of Muslims there. Asked about that demand, Bartholomew threw up his hands.
“Are we responsible for that?” he asked. “I am in favor of a mosque and even more mosques where there are Muslims, in order to give them the possibility to pray according to their own faith. But what can I do?”