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Crisis In The Cathedral


In response, the archbishop has simply removed anyone who openly challenges him. Stephanopoulos "doesn't deserve a demotion," says an old friend of his, Maximos, the bishop of Pittsburgh. "It's one of those cases where Archbishop Spyridon tried to get even with the guys who he considers his opponents -- who he considers his enemies."

Spyridon's supporters contend that this is all about politics. The people driving the revolt are disaffected cranks, they say, still in thrall to his popular predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos. One prominent Greek-American leader says it's no wonder Stephanopoulos was demoted: "He's been kicking at the archbishop for three months. A guy in the Catholic Church who signed a letter criticizing the cardinal? He'd be in China immediately!"

So the punches and counterpunches continue, from angry press releases to firings to lawsuits and funds withheld in protest. A fortnight ago, Spyridon offered to resign, in a rhetorical, off-the-cuff remark that his office has since discounted. Whether Spyridon is a man peculiarly, even astonishingly, ill-suited to his job or simply a misunderstood figure clumsily growing into a difficult role, his tenure as archbishop has triggered a battle, religious and secular, that can be described -- in the most literal sense -- as Byzantine.

Iakovos, Spyridon's predecessor and the archbishop of North and South America for 37 years, was a legend within the Greek-American world, and his black-hatted, white-bearded figure, which popped up routinely at political conventions and in the Oval Office, had over the years become familiar even to non-Greeks. He'd marched on Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, and the two made the cover of Life. Because of his charisma and his iconic status -- and, some say, his ego -- Iakovos had also consolidated a great deal of power.

In the years just preceding his retirement, Iakovos had hinted that it might be time for the American church to consider declaring its independence from the Old World. While the Greek church in America allows parishioners considerable say in running their affairs, power is still centered in the Phanar, the headquarters in Constantinople (the church uses the old name rather than the Muslim Istanbul), presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In 1970, the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States broke off from its mother ship, and it has been suggested that the American Greek church could do the same.

It's not surprising that the American church would want independence; the American hierarchy is far more democratic than its counterparts. But it's equally clear why Constantinople would be horrified at the prospect of losing 2 million of its more prosperous members; Greece itself has just 10 million. The Greek church, after all, is a Christian institution headquartered in a predominantly Muslim country -- and, religious differences aside, the Greeks and Turks have carried on one of the world's longest-running dysfunctional relationships. (The Phanar regularly gets pushed around by the Turkish government; someone even tossed a bomb over its walls in 1997.) Greece is also a relatively poor country and a traditionally corrupt one. American Greeks, on the other hand, hold an astounding amount of wealth -- and visibility, too, from George Stephanopoulos to CIA director George Tenet even to actress Jennifer Aniston.

That all translates into funds for the Phanar. Few were therefore shocked by rumors that the independence-minded Iakovos's retirement, though hardly unexpected -- the man was 85 -- might not have been wholly voluntary.

Who could follow him? On the face of it, Spyridon looked like a good bet. The Americans drawing up recommendations for the Phanar wanted someone in touch with American ways, who spoke good English, who'd tie together the Old World and the New. Spyridon was born George Papageorgiou in Warren, Ohio, the son of a doctor. His English is newscaster-perfect. Improbably, he's a computer nut, capable of batting around the pros and cons of Netscape versus Internet Explorer. He is also comparatively young -- 51 when he was enthroned two and a half years ago.

"I think everyone was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Stephanopoulos says. "We knew there'd be a new man in place, and that things would be different."

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