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Orthodox churches (Eastern)

Eastern Orthodoxy consists of several autocephalous (self-governing) churches: the four ancient Patriarchates of the early church, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the four Patriarchates of more recent origin, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, the Catholicosate of Georgia, and the churches of Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia. It also includes the autonomous Orthodox churches of Finland and Estonia (with two jurisdictions). The Eastern Orthodox "diaspora" consists of churches in the Americas, Asia, Australia, Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States and Japan, some Orthodox churches have been granted autonomy or semi-autonomy, though these churches have not been recognized by all Orthodox churches. The monastery of Sinai is an autonomous monastic community related to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Mount Athos and the semi-autonomous Church of Crete remain under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The Eastern Orthodox churches hold the same faith, that of the seven ecumenical councils, as well as sacraments. The Patriarch of Constantinople is called the Ecumenical Patriarch, and has a position as "first among equals". It is he who convenes pan-Orthodox conferences, after consultation with the leaders of the other Orthodox churches. The Orthodox Church sees itself as the unbroken continuation of the Christian Church established by Christ and his apostles in the first century CE, and does not recognize any council since the Second Council of Nicea (787 CE) as ecumenical. Throughout the latter part of the first millennium of Christianity there developed an increasingly difficult relationship between the sees of Rome and Constantinople that led to a schism in 1054 CE. The estrangement evolved further between the 11th and 15th centuries and was exacerbated by the destructive effects of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century. The formal break occurred in the 15th century. The issues dividing the churches were the universal supremacy of jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome, and the doctrinal issue of the filioque ("and the Son"), the phrase inserted into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 CE) in 6th century Spain, which stated, "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son".

While the Orthodox churches acknowledge seven sacraments, or "mysteries", there are other sacramental actions that make up the liturgical life of the church. Baptism takes place by full immersion, and the sacraments of chrismation (confirmation) and eucharist follow. These sacraments are performed by a clergyman, and children are baptized and chrismated as infants, thereby allowing them to partake of the eucharist. The bread and wine in the eucharist become, through consubstantiation, the real body and blood of Christ; eucharist is received after careful preparation which includes fasting and confession. The worship services are held in national languages, though in some churches the original liturgical languages are used rather than the vernacular. The veneration of icons plays an important role in Orthodox worship, and prayers to the Mother of God and the saints enrich the liturgical texts. Bishops have been drawn from the ranks of the monastic communities since the 6th century CE, and since the Orthodox Church does not prohibit a married priesthood, many of the parish priests are married. Women have been blessed as diaconesses over the last few years. Monasticism has played and continues to play a major role in the life of the Orthodox Church.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople initiated the role of the Orthodox churches in the modern ecumenical movement, with its Encyclical Letter dating from 1920 to "all the churches of Christ". The call of the letter was for a "koinonia of churches" which would work for charitable cooperation and theological dialogue. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is a founding member of the World Council of Churches. There have been permanent representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church at the WCC since 1955 and 1962, respectively.

The role of the Ecumenical Patriarch as the primary spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian world and a transnational figure of global significance continues to become more vital each day. His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew co-sponsored the Peace and Tolerance Conference in Istanbul (1994) bringing together Christians, Muslims and Jews. Most noted are his efforts in environmental awareness, which have earned him the title "Green Patriarch." He has organized environmental seminars in co-sponsorship with His Royal Highness Prince Philip, and international environmental symposia on Patmos (1995) and around the Black Sea (1997). Since 1999 three other Religion, Science and the Environment International Symposia have taken place under the joint auspices of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and His Excellency Mr Romano Prodi, former President of the European Commission: Symposium III, which sailed down the Danube River; Symposium IV: "The Adriatic Sea: A Sea at Risk, a Unity of Purpose" (June 2002) and Symposium V: "The Baltic Sea: A Common Heritage, A Shared Responsibility" (June 2003). These endeavours, together with his inspiring efforts on behalf of religious freedom and human rights, rank Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew among the world's foremost apostles of love, peace and reconciliation for humanity, a reason for which he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the US Congress.

Other examples of significant contributions from Eastern Orthodox churches are the social doctrine laid out by the Russian Orthodox Church, the relationship with Islam lived out by the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, the work on bio-ethics by the Church of Greece, and the renewal and mission of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania after decades of communist persecution.

The Orthodox Church (Eastern) numbers its membership at 300 million worldwide. With the exception of Georgia and Bulgaria which withdrew in 1997 and 1998, and Estonia, all the Orthodox churches (Eastern) are members of the WCC.

See also the entry on Eastern Orthodoxy from the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2002).