Pope and Patriarch: All Is Forgiven?

Something quite amazing occurred at the installation of Pope Francis in Rome eight weeks ago.  It had to do with one of the guests. His All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, was present. This was the first time in history that an Ecumenical Patriarch was in attendance at a papal inaugural mass.  In recognition of the Patriarch’s presence there, the reading of the Gospel at the installation was sung in Greek rather than in Latin. The Ecumenical Patriarch, in turn, gave an address to the new Pope, expressing, for one thing, the hope that the two churches might work collectively on issues of mutual concern, like social justice and poverty.  The unprecedented steps taken towards reconciliation by Pope and Patriarch at the inaugural mass made headlines around the world.   


The Ecumenical Patriarch’s presence at the Pope’s installation has been taken as a sign of just how strongly committed the two leaders are to repairing the longstanding rupture between the two churches.  And history reveals just how longstanding that rupture has been! The drift apart began well before the East-West, or Great Schism, of 1054. One could even say that the breach began to develop as early as AD 285, when the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) partitioned the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves for administrative purposes. That process accelerated when the Emperor Constantine, in 330, moved the main capital city of the Empire from Rome to ancient Byzantium (which he named ‘Constantinople’ after himself, ‘the city of Constantine’).  The reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) was the last time that a Roman emperor controlled both eastern and western halves of the Empire.  After his death, each half had its own emperor. When the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, the Roman Empire continued on in its eastern half.  Significantly, citizens in the eastern half continued to refer to their territory as ‘the Roman Empire’.

With the end of political unity in 476 came the end of linguistic and cultural unity as well. Latin became the dominant language of the church in the former Western half of the Empire, and Greek in the East, making communication nigh impossible. The two churches developed different rites and theological understandings as well.  As might be expected, disputes arose, slights were taken. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as ‘Holy Roman Emperor’.  This was interpreted as a “slap in the face” by the Byzantine Emperor who regarded himself as the rightful Roman Emperor.  Many of the disputes concerned papal authority. The Pope claimed he held authority over the four Eastern patriarchs.  The Eastern patriarchs, in their turn, averred that the primacy of Rome was honorary and that the Pope had authority over Western Christians only. The Patriarch of Constantinople took on the title ‘ecumenical patriarch’ which Rome interpreted as meaning ‘universal’, and therefore unacceptable.  Tensions between the two churches reached the breaking point in 1054, when the Pope inserted the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, seen by the Eastern branch of the church as a violation of the command of the Council of Ephesus. In what came to be known as ‘The Great Schism’, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius I excommunicated each other. [In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus held simultaneous ceremonies revoking the excommunication decrees.] 

After a millennium of hostility, even longer, it was no small thing for the Ecumenical Patriarch to be present at and participate in the recent papal inaugural mass. The efforts at rapprochement between the two leaders have been welcomed as a positive development by most people. And they are, in many ways. In his address to the Pope at his inauguration, the Ecumenical Patriarch expressed a desire to work with the Pope on world problems like social injustice and poverty. Just think of it: 1.3 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and 300 million members of the Orthodox Church working together to tackle society’s ills, a truly formidable force for good.

A united front by the Pope and the Patriarch could offer persecuted Christian minorities better protection, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Ecumenical Patriarch knows firsthand what it’s like to be part of a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim country. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the Patriarch as the spiritual head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.  In the eyes of the government, he is merely the leader of Turkey’s small Greek minority. The Ecumenical patriarchate, established in the 4th century in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and once with holdings as vast as the Vatican, has been reduced in size to a small enclave. Whenever the Patriarch ventures beyond his walls, he finds out time and again how unwelcome his presence is in the country. A plot was uncovered a few days ago, in fact, to assassinate the Ecumenical Patriarch. The would-be assassins planned to kill him on May 29, the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks. This was the second foiled plot to assassinate him.  It is significant that Pope Tawadros II, spiritual head of yet another Christian minority, Egypt’s Copts, has recently travelled to Rome to meet with the new Pope. 

While the signs of rapprochement are viewed positively by most, I confess that I regard these overtures of reconciliation with some reservation.  Reconciliation, after all, usually involves admission of guilt, repentance, concession, change of attitude, etc., and I have seen nothing to indicate that either side has done that.  Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church still believes itself to be “the True Church.” And supreme authority still resides with the Pope, “Christ’s vicar on earth and Peter’s successor.” Are we witnessing genuine reconciliation or merely the return of “schismatics” to the fold of the True Church?          




Black Flags, Red Flags

When the images of the Boston Marathon bombers first appeared on TV, one of the things that caught my attention was their hats.  The one alleged bomber was wearing a black baseball cap with white markings; the other, a white baseball cap worn backwards with black markings.  The white baseball cap, in particular, seemed an odd choice to me.  If I had wanted to blend in with a crowd, the last thing I would have put on my head would have been a white hat!  The bomber’s white baseball cap practically glowed.  I don’t know if I’m the only one to experience this, but seeing the black and white baseball caps of the two bombers brought to mind the black banners with white Arabic writing that frequently form the backdrop in jihadist videos.  We now know the identity of the bombers:  two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Muslims of Chechen descent.  As I watched the recurring images of the bombers on TV, I wondered (pure speculation, I know): Could it be that the Tsarnaev brothers were making some kind of statement with their black and white baseball caps? Or did the two bombers pull the two caps in question out of their hallway closets without a thought as they headed out the door to the Boston Marathon?

Black flags with white Arabic letters have come to be called “al-Qaeda flags.” The Arabic inscription on the flag is Islam’s shahada: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”  Sometimes there’s a white disc on the flag as well which represents the Seal of Muhammad; at other times there are crossed swords. On some flags, the Arabic inscription and disc are yellow.

Although we’ve come to associate black flags with today’s jihadists, black flags go back to the earliest days of Islam.  When Islam’s Prophet Muhammad went into battle, he carried a black woolen banner known as ar-Raya. The Quraysh tribe from which Muhammad was descended had as its flag a black banner with an eagle in the centre.  Perhaps influenced by this, Muhammad chose a black banner, minus the eagle, as his standard.  Muhammad and his men also used a white flag that they called al-Liwaa.  The type of raid or battle in which he and his followers engaged seems to have determined which colour of flag, black or white, Muhammad carried.  For instance, Muhammad and his men carried a white flag when they conquered and entered Mecca. After Muhammad’s death, some of his successors continued to fly a black flag. The flag of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) was black.

Black flags feature in a hadith (reported saying of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad) that has been embraced by jihadists.  This particular hadith, believed by many Muslims to be prophetic, reads, “If you see the black flags coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi, and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.”  Khurasan, sometimes spelled Khorasan, refers to modern-day northeastern Iran, parts of Central Asia, and Afghanistan.  The appearance of warriors from this region bearing black war flags is a sign that the appearance of the long-awaited Mahdi is imminent. 

The belief in the coming of an end-time saviour-figure, the ‘Mahdi’, is almost universal among Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, although Sunnis don’t identify the Mahdi with the hidden Twelfth Imam of the Shias. The Mahdi’s arrival, Muslims believe, will usher in an age of social transformation.  The Mahdi will be a direct descendant of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.  He will be the final caliph, i.e., Allah’s vice-regent on earth.  He will lead a world revolution that will establish a new world order, an Islamic order, throughout the entire earth.  Some will submit willingly to his authority. Those who don’t will be conquered by the Mahdi aided by the warriors with the black flags.

Did the Tsarnaev brothers see themselves as part of the Mahdi’s army?  This would seem to be the case with the aspiring bomber, Chiheb Esseghaier, the Tunisian national recently arrested in Canada for plotting to bomb the railway line between New York City and Toronto.  Esseghaier had posted a black flag with the shahada on his Linkedin page.  For us in the West, the sight of a black flag should set off a red flag, for it announces:  The warriors with the black flags from the east are here.  And some of the warriors even wear baseball caps.