Orthodox church leaders from around the world called for the protection of Christian minorities in the war-torn Middle East at the end of the first major international gathering of Orthodox Christian leaders to take place since the year 787 CE.
In a statement released at the end of the week-long Holy and Great Council meeting in Heraklion, Crete in Greece on Sunday, church leaders expressed their concern for “the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East."
The council, which was led by Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, appealed to governments in the region to “protect the Christian populations - Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians - who have survived in the cradle of Christianity."
Among a range of topics discussed by the church leaders were issues including wedlock, fasting, united representation in dioceses around the world and "negative consequences of scientific progress" in areas such as genetics and biotechnology.
"Man is experimenting ever more intensively with his own very nature in an extreme and dangerous way. He is in danger of being turned into a biological machine, into an impersonal social unit or into a mechanical device of controlled thought," the statement said.
The church leaders further encouraged the Orthodox community to work more closely and "promote a new constructive synergy" with their respective secular states.
The aim was also set out "for the Holy and Great Council to become a regular institution to be convened every seven or ten years."
The summit was attended by approximately 170 church leaders including Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and All Africa, Archbishop Rastislav of Czech Lands and Slovakia, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania and Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus.
But Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who represents almost half of the estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, notably stayed away from the meeting, as did the patriarchates of Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch.
The Syria-based Antioch Patriarchate also stayed away due to an ongoing dispute with the Jerusalem Patriarchate over the jurisdiction of Orthodox Christians in Qatar.
Kirill criticised the lack of organisation behind the meeting despite 55 years of preparation. He said he hoped to attend a better-organised meeting at a later date that will include all Orthodox Christian churches.
Unlike Roman Catholics, Orthodox churches are not united around a central power. All of the 14 Orthodox Churches are independent from each other and considered equals, although Bartholomew enjoys an extra degree of respect due to being based in Istanbul, the traditional centre of Orthodoxy.
However, Istanbul has been under Muslim control since 1453 and Orthodox Christianity has since shifted its stronghold to Russia.
Relations between the churches in Moscow and Istanbul are frequently strained by a range of differences and disagreements.
One concern for Moscow is Bartholomew’s support for the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is on the verge of splitting from Moscow.
The Ukrainian congregation and priesthood published a petition on June 17 urging Bartholomew to clear the way for the unification of Orthodox churches in the country.