Hey Reuters: Historic details really matter in Istanbul

Istanbul is the kind of place in which the past often seems to be just as real, or even more real, than the present.

Sometimes this shows up in the headlines.

For example, back in 2004 I visited the center of Eastern Orthodox life there and learned the history of the stark, black, closed gate out front. At that time, I wrote this for Scripps Howard:

ISTANBUL – There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

Please keep in mind that the capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. This is a corner of the word in which more than a few people have long attention spans.

Thus, the thrust of the following Reuters report didn’t really surprise me:

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is investigating an alleged plot to assassinate Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and has stepped up security around the patriarchate in Istanbul, his spokesman said. …

Spokesman Dositheos Anagnostopoulos said the patriarch had not received any direct threats but had learned of the alleged plot from Turkish media, which was later confirmed to the patriarchate by Turkish police.

“Later in the day, police informed the patriarchate of a possible threat and dispatched additional police officers,” Anagnostopoulos said.

Turkish broadcaster NTV said one man had been arrested in relation to the alleged plot, after state prosecutors in central Kayseri province received an anonymous letter saying there was a plan to assassinate Bartholomew on May 29, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of present-day Istanbul.

Like I said, this didn’t surprise me very much, in light of unfolding events in that region. So what DID surprise me in this report?

Well, I was surprised that a major wire service produced the following chunk of text at the end of the report. Try to spot the clunker in this:

Known often by his full title Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the historical name for Istanbul, he is the spiritual head of worldwide Orthodoxy, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

Previous attacks on Christians have raised concerns about the safety of religious minorities in Muslim Turkey, which has around 100,000 Christians out of a total population of 76 million. In 2010, a leading Catholic bishop was stabbed to death at his home in southern Turkey by his driver and in 2006, a Roman Catholic priest was murdered in the Black Sea town of Trabzon by a teenager with suspected links to ultra-nationalists. In 2007, three members of a Bible publishing company, one of whom was a German citizen, were tortured and killed in Malatya in central Turkey.

Now, church history is a complex subject and I get that. I also know that leaders of the great ancient churches, East and West, have different views of what happened in the great schism of 1054.

But, honestly, the Eastern Orthodox “split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.” Really? That’s about as fair, and accurate, as saying that the Church of Rome decided to leave Orthodoxy or, yes, that Rome “split from Orthodox Christianity in 1054.”

So, Orthodox and Catholic readers, here is my question: What’s a neutral, journalistic wording that would be more neutral in terms of the historic realities? Give it your best shot. Please.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://twitter.com/slavicpolymath Ivan

    “Which parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054” or “Which has been in schism with the Roman Catholic Church since 1054” or “Which constituted one church together with the Roman Catholic Church until 1054” — all are much less loaded.

  • Taylor

    how about “with” instead of “from”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    Separated from the Western Church?

  • tmatt

    IN SCHISM WITH…. Well, is Rome in schism with the Eastern
    Churches? Would that language work both ways? I’m trying to find words
    that historians on both sides would say is as neutral as possible.

  • RoamingChile

    Well, you buried the lead. The whole article seems to be about the history of Muslim-Christian tensions in Turkey. And then you ask about how to objectively mention the Schism of 1054.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I wrestle with this at least twice a year. No solution pleases everyone but I use something like this (it varies a bit every time):
    Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of a worldwide Christian church that split in 1054, primarily over issues of authority. The western wing is the Catholic Church.

    I’ve had people send me dissertations arguing that the 1054 date is incorrect. Eastern Catholics want to quarrel over the western reference. Some people don’t like the word wing (or branch, which I have also used). But for purposes of daily journalism, I think it works.

    • tmatt

      Very practical and solid. And, of course, I realize that no one will be totally happy.

  • Lynn

    You could just say that they parted ways. It wasn’t really one leaving the other so much as both going separate ways.

  • JayCZ

    The Protestants separated from the Catholic church in the 16th century. Yes the Orthodox had their own national churches and so left as a whole, but they seem pretty parallel.

  • http://twitter.com/AvengingRedHand Avenging Red Hand

    Well, calling the EP the ‘head of worldwide Orthodoxy’ is a bit problematic too. I’d revise it as follows:

    ‘…He is the senior bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which descends from the Eastern Churches that mutually broke communion with Rome in the schism of 1054.’

  • Julie Gould

    His full title according to OrthodoxWiki is His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch. And last time I checked, Jesus Christ was still the “spiritual head” of the Church.

  • Captain Peabody

    It’s really a question of “how accurate is too accurate?” Or, “how accurate can we reasonably expect journalists to be?” This is my main topic of academic research this summer, so I’m kind of sensitive about the matter. For the purpose of answering your question as thoroughly as possible, I’m going to go ahead and be as pedantic about this question as I possibly can.

    Using 1054 as a date for some kind of definitive “schism” is problematic for a lot of reasons, but it’s useful in shorthand genres like journalism because it lets you put a specific date on a very long and nebulous process of separation, consolidation and conflict. Practically, though, not all that much changed before and after 1054; and it’s a lot less significant to the Schism than many other incidents both earlier and later. If I had my way, I’d remove the references to 1054 entirely, but I don’t mind it as a kind of journalistic shorthand.

    Also, referring to the Eastern Orthodox Churches as representing generic “Eastern” or “Orthodox” Christianity can be problematic, since there are, of course, many more “Eastern” forms of Christianity, including many that are far more geographically eastern, like the Nestorians or the Chaldeans in India–as well as Oriental Orthodox who lay claim to the title of “Orthodox” as well, and are very much not in communion with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

    So I think it’s best to just refer to the “Eastern Orthodox Church” without explanation, rather than make any sweeping references to “Eastern Christianity” or a generic “Orthodox Church.”

    If you wanted to be as pedantic as I’ve just been, you could say “Patriarch Bartholomew is the senior bishop of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church, which became increasingly distinct from the developing Roman Catholic Church over the course of the first millennium AD, leading to a definitive separation during the Middle Ages.”

    If you wanted to be even more pedantic, you could include references to other church bodies like the Nestorians and the Oriental Orthodox. But that’s hard to fit in without a lot of extraneous detail, and the most important reference for American and Western readers is the Catholic Church.

    Or, more simply, “Patriarch Bartholomew is the senior bishop of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church, which experienced a final separation with the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.” That’s still a little awkward, though. I am not a journalist.

    Or, if 1054 helps, you can use that too. As I said, I’m an academic, not a journalist. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/AndrewJamesBoyd A.J. Boyd

    The other problem, of course, is that 1054 is a bit of a clunker as a date too. Symbolic, given the excommunications (which have been ‘committed to oblivion’ for 50 years) of the patriarch and the papal legate then, but problematic as that alone hardly constitutes schism.

    Well, and the other, other problem is referring to the Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Church. A perennial problem in the AP and Reuters.

    How about “Since 1054 (or 1204, to be more accurate), the Churches of Rome and Constantinople have been in schism” or “The Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church broke communion with each other nearly a millennia ago, and despite ecumenical efforts both ancient and modern, remain divided.”


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