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Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium dramatically altered life in the Mediterranean world. As Constantinople increased in size and wealth so too did the prestige of its bishop, who thought his see should become second only to Rome. With the support of the emperor and the court, he began to seek patriarchal recognition.

In 381 the Council of Constantinople conferred primacy in the East to the Bishop of Constantinople, following only the Bishop of Rome. The popes, however, refused to confirm this canon of the council.

The Council of Chalcedon cited Constantinople as the “residence of the emperor and the Senate” and established the church as a patriarchate with jurisdiction over Asia Minor and Thrace. It was not until the Council of Florence in 1439 that the Holy See accepted the Patriarch of Constantinople as second to Rome. The present Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, who studied canon law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, today shepherds more than 3,500,000 Orthodox Christians, most of whom live in the Americas, Western Europe and Australia.

Since Chalcedon, the church was considered to have five major patriarchates – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – and to some Eastern theologians, this “pentarchy” was seen as essential to the constitution of the church.

The schisms in the early centuries of the church led to the birth of new patriarchates.

The non-Greek-speaking population of the Alexandrian and Antiochene churches (i.e., the majority of believers) had tired of what seemed to them the hellenization of Christianity and the increasing role of the Byzantine emperors in the life of the church. In the aftermath of Chalcedon, the very council that recognized the great patriarchates, three churches broke from full communion, created separate communities and established rival patriarchates.

The first of these, the Coptic Orthodox Church, traces its origins to the Church of Alexandria. The largest Christian community in the Middle East, with several million believers, the Copts are now led by the dynamic Pope Shenouda III.

After Chalcedon, the Christian faithful in the rural areas of the Antiochene church joined the anti-Byzantine movement. The Syrian Orthodox community, today led by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, spread throughout the Middle East, India and even to China. Of the more than two million Syrian Orthodox in India, roughly half belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church and the other half to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which is led by Baselius Mar Thoma Matthews II, Catholicos of the East.

The Armenian nation was the first to adopt Christianity as its state religion around 300. Compressed between the Roman (later the Byzantine) and Persian empires, church, state and language were united as a means of preserving the Armenian identity. Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, is recognized by all members of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the spiritual head of this community.

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Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Patriarchs