The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Οἰκουμενικὸς Πατριάρχης Κωνσταντινουπόλεως) is the Archbishop of Constantinople — New Rome — ranking as primus inter pares (first among equals) in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which is seen by followers as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. He has been historically known as the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, as distinct from the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. The current holder of the office is His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. His title is not recognized by the Turkish government, who only recognize him as the spiritual leader of the Greek minority in Turkey, and refer to him only as the Greek (lit. Roman) Orthodox Patriarch of the Phanar (Fener Rum Ortodoks Patriği).
The Patriarch of Constantinople has been designated the Ecumenical Patriarch since the sixth century. The exact significance of the style, which has been used occasionally for other prelates since the middle of the fifth century, is nowhere officially defined, but the title has been attacked in the West as incompatible with the claims of the see of Rome.
In addition to being the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, he is the direct administrative superior of dioceses and archdioceses serving millions of Greek, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian and Albanian Orthodox in North and South America, Western Europe (where his flock consists mainly of the Greek, Slavic and other Balkanic diaspora), Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Korea and portions of modern Greece.
His actual position is Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, one of the fourteen autocephalous and several autonomous churches and the most senior (though not oldest) of the four orthodox ancient primatial sees among the five patriarchal Christian centers comprising the ancient Pentarchy of the undivided Church. In his role as head of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, he also holds the title Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome.
He should not be confused with the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, an office that is now extinct, and created after the Latin capture of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade and which became effectively redundant after the city was recaptured by the Byzantine Greeks, half a century later. Thus he is also known outside Orthodoxy as the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople. His official title is "His Most Godly All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch".
The Ecumenical Patriarch has a unique role among Orthodox bishops, though it is not without its controversy. He is primus inter pares ("first among equals"), as he is senior among all Orthodox bishops. This primacy, expressed in canonical literature as presbeia ("prerogatives"), grants to the Ecumenical Patriarch the right to preside at pan-Orthodox synods.
Additionally, the canonical literature of the Orthodox Church grants to the Ecumenical Patriarch the right to hear appeals in cases of dispute between bishops, though whether these canonical rights are limited only to his own patriarchate or are universal throughout the Orthodox Church is currently the subject of debate, especially between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate.
Historically, the Ecumenical Patriarch has heard such appeals and sometimes was invited to intervene in other churches' disputes and difficulties. Even as early as the time of St. John Chrysostom (5th century), Constantinople was instrumental in the deposition of multiple bishops outside its traditional jurisdiction. This still occurs today, as when in 2006 the patriarchate was invited to assist in declaring the Archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church incompetent due to his having Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, in 2005, the Ecumenical Patriarchate convoked a pan-Orthodox synod to express the Orthodox world's confirmation of the deposition of Patriarch Irenaios of Jerusalem. In 2006, the patriarchate was invited to hear the appeal of a Russian Orthodox bishop in the United Kingdom in a dispute with his superior in Moscow, though the result of that appeal and the right to make it were both rejected by the latter.
The Ecumenical Patriarch has no direct jurisdiction outside the Patriarchate of Constantinople granted to him in Orthodox canonical literature, but his primary function regarding the whole Orthodox Church is one of dealing with relations between autocephalous and autonomous churches. That is, his primary function is one of Church unity.
This unique role often sees the Ecumenical Patriarch referred to as the "spiritual leader" of the Orthodox Church in some sources, though this is not an official title of the patriarch nor is it usually used in scholarly sources on the patriarchate. Such a title is acceptable if it refers to this unique role, but it sometimes leads to a belief that the office is thus the equivalent of an Orthodox papacy, an impression sometimes given from unqualified references in the press.
In 381, the First Council of Constantinople declared that "The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because it is the New Rome" (canon iii). The Patriarchs refused to confirm this canon. Nonetheless, the prestige of the office continued to grow not only because of the obvious patronage of the Byzantine Emperor but because of its overwhelming physical and geographical importance. In practice, the Roman Patriarch eventually acknowledged this situation.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 established Constantinople as a patriarchate with ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Asia Minor (the dioceses of Asiane and Pontus) and Thrace as well as over the barbaric territories, non-converted lands outside the defined area of the Western Patriarchate (Old Rome) and the other three patriarchates, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, gave it appellate jurisdiction extraterritorially over canon law decisions by the other patriarchs and granted it honours equal to those belonging to the first Christian see, Rome, in terms of primacy, Rome retaining however its seniority (canon xxviii). Patriarch Leo I refused to accept this canon, basing himself on the fact that it was made in the absence of his legates. In the 6th century, the official title became that of "Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch."
The current Patriarch (since 1991) is Bartholomew I who has become better-known than any of his predecessors in modern times as a result of his numerous pastoral and other visits to numerous countries in five continents and his setting up of a permanent bureau at the EU headquarters, in addition to enhancing the long-established Patriarchal Centre in Chambesy, Switzerland and also his ecological pursuits which have won him the epithet of "the Green Patriarch."
When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Patriarchate had ceased to function. The office of Patriarch was eventually bestowed in 1454 to the illustrious Byzantine scholar-monk George Scholarius, who was well-known for his opposition to union with the Latin West and took the name of Gennadius II, by the conquering Islamic Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mehmed II, who wished to establish his dynasty as the direct heirs of the Eastern Roman Emperors, and who adopted the imperial title Kayser-i-Rûm "Caesar of Rome", one of his subsidiary titles but a most significant one. The Patriarch was designated ethnarch of the Millet of Rum (Turkish for Rome, i.e. Byzantium), which included all Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, regardless of their nationality in the modern sense. This role was carried out by ethnic Greeks at their great peril, in the midst of enormous difficulties and traps and inevitably with mixed success. Several incumbents of the patriarchal throne were summarily executed by the Ottoman authorities, most notably Patriarch Gregory V on Easter Monday 1821 as partial retribution for the outbreak of the last and only successful Greek Revolution.
In the 19th century, the rising tide of nationalism and secularism among the Balkan Christian nations led to the establishment of several autocephalous national churches, generally under autonomous Patriarchs or Archbishops, leaving the Ecumenical Patriarch only direct control over the Christians of Turkey, parts of Greece and the archdioceses in America, Asia, Africa and Oceania where growing Greek and other migrant communities have gradually constituted a significant orthodox diaspora.
The monks of Mount Athos form an autonomous monastic community that recognizes the Ecumenical Patriarch as their only head and bishop. The EU treats this "Athonite Republic," or "Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain," as part of Greece, a member state.
Pro-religious Human rights groups and Christian governments have long protested against conditions placed by the secular government of Turkey on the Ecumenical Patriarch, a religious entity. For example, the Ecumenical status accorded him within Eastern Orthodoxy, and recognized by the Ottoman governments, has on occasion been a source of controversy within the Republic of Turkey, which under its laws regarding religious minorities officially recognizes him as only the "Patriarch of the Phanar" (Phanar is the district in Istanbul where his headquarters are located). Expropriation of Church property and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki are also cited by human rights groups. However in 2004 Patriarch Bartholomew, with the help of Turkish Government, succeeded, after eighty years, to alter the composition of the twelve-member Standing Synod of Metropolitan Bishops in Constantinople so that it can include six bishops from outside Turkey. He has also been convening biennially in Constantinople convocations of all bishops in his jurisdiction.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has been the target of bomb attacks (in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2004), desecration of patriarchal cemeteries and personal assaults against the Ecumenical Patriarch.