Greek Orthodox Church Elects New Leader


(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) :: New elected leader of Greece's powerful Orthodox Church Metropolitan Bishop Ieronymos of Thebes waves to the crowd from the Archbishop office in Athens on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008. Ieronymos succeeded the late Archbishop Christodoulos who died on Jan. 28, 2008.


Updated: 2/7/2008

ATHENS, Greece

A low-key bishop described as an ''enlightened conservative'' was chosen by senior clergy Thursday to lead Greece's powerful Orthodox Church.

Church bells rang out and the lights outside Athens Cathedral were switched on to signal the election of Metropolitan Bishop Ieronymos of Thebes as the successor to the late Archbishop Christodoulos.

Within an hour of the vote, Ieronymos, 70, appeared on the balcony of the archbishop's office before cheering crowds with the three other bishops who were being considered.

''In whichever position the church appoints us, no matter how high, we must know that our leader is Christ,'' the archbishop-elect said.

His enthronement ceremony is expected to be held Feb. 16.

The restrained Ieronymos is likely to differ considerably in style from the charismatic and often combative Christodoulos, who died last month of cancer at age 69. But Ieronymos is expected to continue his predecessor's effort to heal the centuries-old rift with the Roman Catholic Church.

''He doesn't advocate the Middle Ages, but he's also not a rebel,'' said Giorgos Moustakis, a theology and sociology professor. ''I consider him an enlightened conservative.''

Ieronymos takes the helm of the church in a country where Christian Orthodoxy is the faith of about 97 percent of the native-born population. Greece's church is also influential among the other national Orthodox Churches around the world.

While Christodoulos often had a strained relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, Ieronymos enjoys good relations with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's more than 250 million Orthodox Christians. Bartholomew sent the archbishop-elect a warm letter of congratulations.

Both Christodoulos and Bartholomew worked to heal the rift with the Roman Catholic Church. In 2001, despite opposition, Christodoulos became the first leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece in 1,300 years to welcome a pope to Athens.

The matter remains ''very, very delicate because there is resistance from within (parts of) the church,'' Moustakis said. That creates pressure for the new church leader, he said, but predicted that the new archbishop ''won't leave the issue to die.''

Christodoulos alternately fascinated and shocked Greeks during his 10 years as head of their church. He frequently criticized government decisions — a break in church tradition — and accused political liberals of attempting to erode Greece's religious heritage.

It is unclear whether Ieronymos will also involve the church in politics, but Moustakis predicted the new archbishop ''will be much more restrained as far as politics go.''

''He hasn't touched on that issue,'' said Moustakis. ''But certainly, we who follow ecclesiastical issues, we don't believe he will risk a clash with the political leadership.''

Ieronymos won 45 votes after two rounds in an election that began Thursday morning. Four bishops of the 78-member Holy Synod, the church's governing body, were absent. The other three contenders were the 68-year-old Bishop Efstathios of Sparta, Bishop Ignatios of Dimitriada, 52, and Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, 74.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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