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Russians leave ecumenical talks in rift with Constantinople October 10, 2007

Russian Orthodox delegates have walked out of a joint session of Catholic and Orthodox theologians, highlighting the sharp disagreements among the world's Orthodox leaders.

A delegation from Moscow left the meeting, being held in Ravenna, Italy, after learning that a delegate from the Estonian Apostolic Church would be included in the ecumenical talks. The Estonian Apostolic Church has gained canonical recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but the Russian Orthodox Church, which still claims authority over the Orthodox community in Estonia, disputes that status.

The dispute calls attention to enduring conflicts over authority in the Orthodox world, with the Moscow patriarchate resisting the power of Constantinople. Although the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest of the Orthodox churches, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has traditionally been recognized as the "first among equals" of the world's Orthodox leaders.

This week's meeting of Catholic and Orthodox theologians, being held in Ravenna, is the second such meeting after a 6-year breakdown in the ecumenical talks. Since the talks have resumed, the main source of tension has been not between Catholic and Orthodox representatives, but between Moscow and Constantinople.

At the most recent meeting of the joint Catholic-Orthodox commission, held in Serbia in 2006, representatives from the Moscow patriarchate strongly criticized a statement which, they argued, implied that the Ecumenical Patriarch held a position analogous to that of the Roman Pontiff, as the acknowledged leader of the Orthodox world. The Patriarch of Constantinople, they said, has primacy of honor and some coordinating functions within the Orthodox world, but no authority over other patriarchs.

At those 2006 talks the delegates from Moscow insisted that they could continue the talks only if "an ecclesiological model in which the Patriarch of Constantinople occupies the place of an ‘Eastern Pope’ is not imposed on the Orthodox Church." This year's walkout similarly involves the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch: in this case, to grant canonical recognition to an Orthodox hierarchy.