Archbishop Christodoulos dies at 69

Leader of 250 million followers of Greek Orthodox Church eased centuries of tension with the Vatican.

christodoulos 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
christodoulos 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Greece's Orthodox Church leader, Archbishop Christodoulos, who eased centuries of tension with the Vatican but angered liberal critics who viewed him as an attention-seeking reactionary, died Monday at his home of cancer, church officials said. He was 69. Regularly named Greece's most popular public figure in opinion polls, Christodoulos headed the church, with 250 million faithful, for a decade and reached out to opponents during his illness. He was first hospitalized in Athens in June before being diagnosed with cancer of the liver and large intestine. He spent 10 weeks in a US hospital in Miami, but an October liver transplant operation was aborted when doctors discovered the cancer had spread. He refused hospital treatment in the final weeks of his life. His condition began deteriorating rapidly in the past few days, and church officials said he died before dawn in his home in the Athens suburb of Psyhico. Senior clergy began arriving at his home as soon as news of his death early Monday was released. It is unclear who will succeed Christodoulos as head of Greece's Orthodox Church. A meeting of the Holy Synod, the church's top decision-making body, was called for Monday afternoon; a decision on when elections will be held to chose the archbishop's successor must be made within 20 days, Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakinthos said on Greek television before boarding a plan from the island of Zakinthos to Athens. Christodoulos was elected church leader in 1998 and was credited with reinvorgating the vast institution that represents 97 percent of Greece's native-born population. He helped create church Web sites and radio stations, and frequently issued detailed checklists on how black-clad Orthodox priests should conduct themselves in public. He made frequent televised appearances to weigh in on a variety of issues - in equal measure delighting the religious right and infuriating liberal and left-wing opponents. "Today we don't have the right to judge him," said Chrysostomos. "The historical position that we have a right to take will be done in time." In 2001, Christodoulos received the late John Paul II - the first Roman Catholic pope to visit Greece in nearly 1,300 years. They held the landmark meeting in Athens despite vigorous protests from Orthodox zealots. The archbishop followed up in 2006 with an historic visit to the Vatican, where he and Pope Benedict XVI signed a joint declaration calling for inter-religious dialogue and stating opposition to abortion and euthanasia. In one of his most vociferous campaigns, Christodoulos led a petition drive against the introduction of new state identity cards which stopped recording Greeks' religion. The church maintained its petition had gathered some 3 million signatures, or more than a quarter of the population. "They are trying to take away our society's Christian and Orthodox identity, using various groundless arguments, because they hate God and want to marginalize the church," Christodoulos had said during the dispute, claiming he was fighting the "forces of evil." His campaign ultimately failed, and Greeks' identity cards dropped the religion entry. Politicians accused him of meddling in their affairs, angered by his vocal criticism on everything from homosexuality and globalization to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. "Clergymen are above kings, prime ministers and presidents," Christodoulos once said. He insisted the church had an obligation to comment on public policy and popular social issues, and claimed critics ignored important church work in charity and promoting racial equality. Liberals were lashed for trying to water down Greece's strong Orthodox heritage. He even proposed a Greek alternative to Valentine's Day and urged his supporters to buy Christmas cards with religious icons instead of Santa Claus and Christmas trees. In a 2006 Easter message, Christodoulos said: "The church is our hope for the future ... It is the living and new resistance against the murderous world order which throws every independent voice, every protest of conscience and reasonable opposition into the meat grinder." But public criticism of the church leader quickly faded after news of Christodoulos' illness spread, and prominent left-wingers visited him in hospital. The archbishop was born Christos Paraskevaidis in 1939 in the northeastern Greek city of Xanthi, one of two sons of a wholesale food importer and devoutly religious mother. He grew up in Athens, where was drawn to the priesthood from a young age. He was ordained at 22, and obtained consecutive degrees in law and theology from the University of Athens. His skills were soon spotted by members of the church hierarchy. Christodoulos was appointed secretary to the Church's governing Holy Synod during a 1967-74 military dictatorship. The coup leaders had installed their own church leadership under the late Archbishop Ieronymos to help realize their strictly conservative social agenda. In a television interview years later, Christodoulos famously asserted he had been unaware of widespread abuses carried out during the dictatorship because of his demanding religious studies. After the junta collapsed, he was elected metropolitan bishop of a diocese based in the central city of Volos, where he remained until elected archbishop on April 28, 1998. Church elders had sought for a remedy to years of administrative disorder under the leadership of the long-ailing Archbishop Seraphim, who had rarely appeared in public for years and died in 1998, aged 84. Several of Christodoulos' mentors from the traditionalist wing of the Orthodox Church who had risen to the senior ranks helped him win a close election for archbishop. In contrast to his predecessor, Christodoulos appeared on television daily, touring schools and churches, and watched his approval rating rise to 75 percent in opinion polls. He remained popular, but his abrasive tactics also made him enemies in the church and the media, who openly called for his resignation when sex and corruption scandals broke out in the church in 2005. Several senior clerics were accused of embezzling funds, involvement in sexual scandals, and even trial-fixing. Christodoulos publicly apologized for failing to contain the scandal and defeated a no-confidence motion in the Holy Synod by 67-1 votes. Christodoulos is survived by one brother. Funeral arrangements were to be determined by the Holy Synod meeting later Monday.