Orthodox Christian church leaders have come together for the first time in 1,200 years. But the landmark synod has been marred by division, with four autonomous churches including Russia boycotting the event.
Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, considered the leader of world Orthodoxy, led prayers on the first day of a weeklong council on the Greek island of Crete.
"This great and holy council will carry the message of unity ... it will help to escape the deadlocks of the present," Patriarch Bartholomew told local media.
However, deep-seated political and religious infighting has marred the historic event that is 50 some years in the making.
The Russian church - representing about a third of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians - as well as the Georgian, Bulgarian and Syria-based Antioch patriarchates boycotted the so-called Holy and Great Council.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said Friday he would not attend because more preparation was needed. He said he hoped religious leaders meeting in Crete could prepare for a full meeting at a later date.
World Orthodoxy is divided into 14 autonomous churches, many tied to the geography of modern nation states.
The seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is based in Istanbul, Turkey, formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.
Bartholomew is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox Church despite the fact that only a few thousand Greek Orthodox remaining in Istanbul.
The Istanbul-based church is often at odds with the Moscow-based church, which has restored much of its power since the collapse of communism.
Pope calls for reconciliation
Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has sought reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he called for reconciliation within the Orthodox Church. The two churches split in 1054 in what is known as the "great schism."
"Let us unite with our Orthodox brothers, invoking the Holy Spirit to help with his gifts the patriarchs, the archbishops and the bishops gathered together in council," he said, before reciting a Hail Mary with the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square.
The synod is to deal with issues such as the mission of the Orthodox Church; its relationship with the rest of the Christian world; fasting; marriage; how churches can acquire a certain level of autonomy; and the Orthodox diaspora, or members of the Orthodox Church living in non-Orthodox countries.
cw/cmk (AFP, AP)