Leader of Greece's Orthodox Church

Special to The Times

Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of Greece's Orthodox Church, who welcomed rapprochement with the Vatican and revitalized his congregation but was criticized for meddling in politics and government, died early Monday. He was 69.

A charismatic nationalist and his country's supreme religious authority for the last decade, Christodoulos died at his home in Athens after a seven-month battle with cancer, church officials said.

With his flowing black robe, thick graying beard and open manner, Christodoulos attracted thousands of young Greeks back to the church. And he joined historic talks with two popes in an effort to ease a 10-century rift with the Roman Catholic Church.

But he angered social liberals by mixing church with state, and he clashed bitterly with the government over Greece's participation in the secular European Union. He called Muslim Turks "barbarians," and said homosexuals were "handicapped."

Although Greek governments at times found it necessary to distance themselves from some of the archbishop's statements, officials were quick Monday to lament his passing. Four days of mourning were declared, soccer matches canceled and flags lowered to half-staff at the ancient Acropolis and across the country. Messages of condolence arrived from many quarters, including from President Bush and senior Vatican officials.

Christodoulos' body, adorned with a golden crown and clasping a staff, was lying in state at Athens' lavish Mitropoli Cathedral, and tearful mourners filed past throughout the day. The state funeral, planned as a ceremony befitting royalty, is to be held at the cathedral Thursday, officials said.

"He was an enlightened cleric who, through his pastoral work, brought the church closer to society, closer to modern problems, and closer to young people and their concerns," said Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, a conservative.

George Papandreou, president of the main opposition Socialist Party, said Christodoulos was "one of the most important faces of the church."

"He was a charismatic man who was a pleasure to talk with," Papandreou said, "even when you disagreed with him."

Christodoulos led Greece's estimated 10 million Orthodox, about 98% of the country's native-born population. There are 250 million Orthodox worldwide who belong to national Orthodox churches, such as Greek, Russian and Serbian Orthodox. They recognize as their spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul.

The Orthodox are Christians who follow Eastern rites and who split with the Roman Catholic Church in the Great Schism of the 11th century in a dispute over the authority of the pope, among other issues. The two churches remain separated to this day, but Christodoulos and other leaders had taken steps in recent years to repair relations.

Christodoulos received the late Pope John Paul II in Athens in 2001, when he became the first Catholic pontiff to visit Greece since 1054, the year of the schism. In what was hailed as a turning point at the time, the pope apologized for the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire and headquarters of the Orthodox Church, and asked forgiveness for that and other sins committed by Roman Catholics against the Orthodox.

"The pope was very nice to us," a pleased Christodoulos said after the visit. "But, of course, there are still problems between our two churches that we have to face."

Five years later, Christodoulos returned the gesture and became the first top Greek prelate to make an official visit to the Vatican, where he held talks with John Paul's successor, Benedict XVI.

Born Christos Paraskevaidis in northeastern Greece in 1939, Christodoulos was elected to lead the church in 1998 upon the death of Archbishop Serafim. Young for the job, he was initially regarded as a dynamic reformer, and he quickly steadied and energized a church that had gone adrift in the waning years of the ailing Serafim's tenure.

He called on young people to return to the church "as you are, with earrings and all." It shocked old-timers, but it brought back the faithful and made Christodoulos one of Greece's most popular figures.

He also was a strident nationalist. Greece sided with fellow Orthodox Serbs during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. When NATO bombed Serbian positions in 1999 to stop a Serbian crackdown on Muslim ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Christodoulos was enraged. He branded the NATO bombers "pawns of Satan."

Christodoulos also frequently railed against what he saw as Western influences that diluted Greece's Christian identity. In 2000, he led a campaign against government plans to remove a person's religion from his or her national identity card, an EU requirement. Christodoulos collected 3 million signatures in favor of retaining the religious designation, but the effort failed.

"My dear Christians," he told cheering crowds, "do not bow your heads to the forces of evil. . . . The forces of globalization and religious marginalization are trying to take away our society's Christian identity . . . because they hate God."

In 2005, Christodoulos was forced to face the most serious scandal to hit the church in recent times. Numerous priests were accused of a slew of crimes, including bribery, embezzlement, trial-fixing, trafficking antiquities, and involvement in drug and sex crimes. Though never implicated in any wrongdoing, the archbishop was attacked for having turned a blind eye to the problems. Eventually he made a public apology for failing to have taken tougher action against clerics and promised to clean up the mess.

In protest, the Greek Communist Party walked out of parliament when Christodoulos entered to swear in a new president in a 2005 ceremony. But on Monday, in keeping with the protocol in a country where the church is a pillar of society, Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga said: "I express my sympathy for the death of Archbishop Christodoulos."

Christodoulos was diagnosed with liver and intestinal cancer during an operation to remove a polyp last summer, and was awaiting a liver transplant in Miami in October when doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. The transplant was called off.

The Holy Synod, the decision-making body of the Greek Orthodox Church, met in a special session Monday afternoon and is to reconvene Feb. 7 to elect a successor to Christodoulos, the Athens News Agency reported.

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tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Rome and special correspondent Tugwell from Athens.

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