In the spring of 1919, Meletios Metaxakis was the Metropolitan of Athens and primate of the Church of Greece. World War I had ended the year before, and the Great Powers were still sorting out what the world would look like going forward. On April 27, 1919, the Atlanta Constitution published a long article summarizing an interview that an American journalist had with Metropolitan Meletios, who, already in 1919, was being talked about as the next Ecumenical Patriarch. It’s a remarkable interview that reveals a lot about Meletios and about that very unique moment in history. Three weeks later, the Greco-Turkish War broke out, which would last for three years and ultimately lead to the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the deportation of almost all Greeks from Turkey, and the birth of a new Ecumenical Patriarchate. But that was yet to come, and Meletios spoke hopefully of the imminent return of the Hagia Sophia to the Orthodox, proposing that the Pope of Rome preside at the first church service. He thought that the city of Constantinople should come under the permanent control of the United States of America. In contrast with Meletios’s optimism about the Greek cause, he lamented the horrific persecution of Orthodoxy taking place in Bolshevik Russia. The entire article is well worth reading, and we’ve reprinted the full text below.
CHRISTIAN CREEDS INVITED BY GREEKS TO FIRST SERVICE IN MOSQUE
An Interesting Discussion of Religion and the Absorbing Human Drama of the Near East — Pope May Be Asked to Preside at Jubilee of Orthodox Church — Russian Prelates Slaughtered by Bolsheviks and Historic Treasures Stolen
By WILLIAM T. ELLIS
ATHENS, March 30 — How far the world has moved in the realms of religion since the war began was manifested when the Metropolitan of Greece said to me, with earnestness and enthusiasm, that to the first Christian service in the restored Church of St. Sophia, Constantinople — now a Moslem mosque — will be invited not only all the divisions of the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian, Roumanian, Servian, Syrian, Bulgarian, &c., but also the Bishop of Rome (by which title he designated the Pope), the various Eastern churches and all the Protestant churches of Christendom. Warming to his theme he declared that the Bishop of Rome would be invited to preside over this most momentous event in the history of modern Christendom.
All of which may sound natural and proper and simple to an American. Really, it is sensational. For it is to be remembred that the gulf which divides Protestants from Catholics is only a pleasant and friendly valley as compared with the chasm, black and bitter, which for centuries has yawned between the Greek and Roman churches, known as the eastern and western divisions of Christendom, or the Greeks and Latins as they are colloquially called in all the Near East.
Protestantism is numerically a negligible factor east of the Alps. Even the old Gregorian and Nestorian and Coptic churches, with at least fifteen hundred years of separate history to their credit, do not figure in the politics and life of this part of the world as do the Latins and the Greeks. In hundreds of villages and towns and even in Constantinople itself, this rivalry is recurrently expressed by armed conflict. Religion, even more than speech or nationality, figures in the Balkan problem. Religious tolerance is a new idea hereabouts.
Power of the Greek Church
Back of all the plans and activities of the Greek government is the Greek Church, keeping aflame the spirit of nationality and of ambition. To understand what Greece thinks, and whither she is bound, one must know something of the mind of the Church — the patient, pervasive, persistent and powerful Church which claims unbroken continuity of ecclesiastical life from the days of the apostles; and which still maintains four of the five patriarchates into which the early Church was divided, the fifth, the patriarchate of Rome, having developed into the great church of the West, claiming primacy over all others.
This separation, caused primarily by a technical doctrinal point, called by theologians “the procession of the Holy Spirit” — whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son — really represents two types of organization and though, which many have deemed as irreconcilable as the East and the West. To be an Orthodox churchman has been regarded as the heart and soul of being a Greek. Men have been willing to fight for the Church who were in nowise willing to practice her precepts.
Premier Venizelos suggested to me in Paris that I would find a new mood of broadmindedness and spirituality in the Church of Greece. He gave me a letter to the Metropolitan, or ecclesiastical head of the country, who has recently been in Europe and America, and who is a man of the new day.
Upon making inquiries locally, I hear that the Metropolitan is likely to succeed the late patriarch of Constantinople as head of the entire Orthodox Communion, who has been removed for pro-German sympathies. So when the Metropolitan talked in a vein that is fairly radical, considering precedents, I naturally had in mind that it was the potential patriarch of the entire Orthodox Communion who was speaking.
Hopes for Christian Unity
Metropolitan Meletius is a hale and vigorous man, between fifty and sixty years old, I should say, with bushy iron-gray beard and hair, whose eyes sparkle as he speaks, and whose face breaks up into lines of animation. He talks almost torrentially, and interviewing him consists merely of introducing a subject.
After the usual polite expressions, I broached the question of the effect of the war upon his Church, whereupon he straightway came to the theme which is bound to arise whatever phase of war or peace or world events is touched upon anywhere east of the Atlantic Ocean — the ideals of America and President Wilson. At home politicians may be cynical and critical, but abroad the simple sincerity of the confidence of people high and low in the utterances of the President move an American to a really solemn sense of the new place we have assumed in the world’s thought.
In substance — for no man can ever be exactly quoted who is speaking through an interpreter — the Metropolitan said that the ideals of President Wilson are simply the ideals of Christianity. They are what his Church represents and teaches. Now that they have triumphed in the war, they make a new era for religion, as well as for politics. Everything is now different.
Thereupon he pointed out, at great length, that the Greek Church has always stood for democracy, in its dogma and in its practices, and that its essential disagreement with the Roman Church is that the latter is imperialistic, whereas the Orthodox Church has always represented popular rule. Much that he said on this point need not be quoted, for it would savor of religious controversy. To my astonishment, the Metropolitan declared that the Greek Church had sent emissaries to the support of Luther, Calvin, Huss and the other Reformation leaders; because it saw in them messengers of the spirit of democracy and enlightenment.
Now, in this new day, he hopes for a coming together of Christians of all names, and it is his belief that the Greek Church may be the meeting place for the Roman Catholics and Protestants of all the world as friends and brothers.
World Church Council
He does not contemplate organic union. Just as in America, he remarked, the various Protestant bodies are united in a Federal Council of Churches, so there should be a federal council of the churches of the world, no one claiming supremacy over the other. He has received assurances from Protestant leaders in America that there will no longer be sectarian propaganda conducted by them amid the members of the Orthodox Church.
With tragic earnestness the Metropolitan recited (and his Greek, with its occasional familiar words, reminded one of a classroom quotation from Homer by an impassioned schoolmaster) how his Church has had, above all others, the grace of martyrdom. From the days of Nero until now, with only occasional periods of surcease, it has been under the edge of the sword. Of all the persecutions it has suffered the worst, incomparably, has been at the hands of Turkey.
As I listened to this passionate tale from a burning-eyed spiritual father of a whole people of the cruelty and oppression visited upon wearers of the Christian name and symbol by the sons of Othman, I recalled conversations with dilletante diplomatists who would retain Turkey as an entity and permit her still to wield sovereignty over disciples of Christ. Clearly a key to the whole Near Eastern situation is the bloody past that has been recorded over all this region by Turkey. Whatever else they may desire or fear, the Balkan peoples and the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire seek the overthrow of this terrible power and fear its continuance in sovereignty.”
When the Cross Comes Back
Inevitably on the walls of the Metropolitan’s room, as in the homes of most cultivated Greeks, hung pictures of St. Sophia, Constantinople, the central shrine of eastern Christendom, erected by Justinian in the sixth century, but since 1453 occupied by the Moslems. He alluded to these in our conversation when touching upon the supreme ambition of all orthodox Christians to see the cross replace the crescent above this matchless dome. When the first Te Deum is sung in the restored church he promised to save for me, as he has also promised the Bishop of London and others in the west, a special seat.
As we talked of that forthcoming greatest ecumenical gathering of Christendom since the Middle Ages there inevitably arose the question of the political control of the city of Constantinople.
The Metropolitan had not heard the reports from Paris that America might be asked to assume this responsibility, but he commented that in his own continual consideration of the subject he had come to the conclusion that this is the only permanently satisfactory solution of the matter. No other nation could exercise the mandate of the League of Nations at this pivotal place without incurring suspicion and jealousy; but “everybody trusts America.”
He little knows how slight is the interest of the average American in Constantinople, St. Sophia or the problems of the ages that centre at the Golden Horn.
Importing American Religious Agencies
Popular education and liberalism are to come to the Greek Church now that the incubus of Turkey is to be lifted. To that end the help of America is needed. The Metropolitan himself suggested the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association as agencies that are to come to Greece. He has been in conference with the leaders.
Since these bodies are not churches and have no ecclesiastical ambitions they would arouse no antagonism or suspicion while promoting the moral and spiritual welfare of the young men and women of the Greek Church. I later learned that Mr. Venizelos himself has accepted the honorary presidency of the Y.M.C.A. in Greece.
Likewise I heard authoritatively, though not from the Metropolitan, that American missionary leaders have been asked to establish a university in Athens on the lines of Robert College in Constantinople and the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, the Greek government agreeing to pay all the expenses if the Americans will take entire charge of the enterprise and select the personnel.
Black News from Russia
Even the foreign offices of governments are not better informed upon conditions in Russia than the higher authorities of the Greek Church, so I asked the Metropolitan for news. As I have already cabled, he told me that the Bolsheviks are devastating the church, profaning, pillaging and slaying.
The historic edifices in the Kremlin, such as the Church of the Assumption, where the tsars used to be crowned and where the patriarchs are buried, with its matchless collection of jewelled and golden icons, have been sacked. I asked about the Church of the Resurrection in Petrograd, which also has priceless decorations and jewelled icons, but the Metropolitan had no details concerning it save that the robbery of the churches where the Bolsheviks rule has been general.
Worse yet! Loss of property is not irreparable. But more than a hundred bishops have been slain by the Bolsheviks and more than a thousand of the clergy. The enormity of the crime against a class of leaders usually exempt from physical harm is one of the heaviest indictments against Bolshevik rule. The patriarch of the Russian Church, Tichon, liberal, who once was in America and whom I knew in Moscow, is now a prisoner in his residence.
My host himself is desirous of going to Russia with a spiritual message, persuaded that the wandering sheep of the church may be recalled and Russia rehabilitated as a Christian nation.
Altogether my long interview with the Greek Metropolitan convinced me that he is a forward looking man, who will be a factor in settling the turbulent conditions of the Near East.