ANKARA, Turkey - A court Tuesday backed Turkey's long-held position that the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarch is only the head of the city's tiny Greek Orthodox community and not the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.
The decision has no influence on the status of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I outside Turkey, where he is regarded as the so-called "first among equals" of the Orthodox leaders. But it bolsters Turkey's strong resistance to acknowledge a wider role for Bartholomew and his ancient Christian enclave.
Turkey has strongly objected to giving concessions to the patriarchate, fearing it could open the doors to similar claims by other minority groups including Kurdish rebels fighting for greater autonomy. Officials in mostly Muslim Turkey also have been suspicious of the patriarchate's close cultural and religious ties to longtime rival Greece.
The court said Turkey could not give "special status" to any minority group. The ruling came as part of an appeals proceeding that upheld Bartholomew's acquittal in a dispute with a Bulgarian priest.
"The Patriarchate, which was allowed to remain on Turkish soil, is subject to Turkish laws," the appeals court ruled. "There is no legal basis for the claims that the Patriarchate is ecumenical."
The Patriarchate's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Among Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew's position holds great historical weight. The patriarchate dates from the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Ottoman forces conquered Constantinople — now Istanbul — in 1453.
But he holds no direct sway over the more than a dozen autonomous Orthodox churches in Europe and the Holy Land. Bartholomew's flock includes Istanbul's 3,000 remaining Greek Orthodox and several other congregations scattered around the globe, including the United States.
Turkey maintains tight controls, including rules requiring that patriarchs must be Turkish citizens. This sharply limits the potential pool of candidates to one day succeed Bartholomew. The patriarchate — backed by the Greece and other Orthodox nations — also has pressed Turkey to allow the reopening of a seminary that was forced to close more than two decades ago.
In Athens, the Greek Foreign Ministry said the court decision would not change the Christians' perception of the Patriarch.
"The ecumenical dimension of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is based on international treaties, the sacred regulations of Orthodoxy, on history and Church tradition," ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos said.
"But, above all, recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarch as a spiritual leader is — and has been for centuries — deeply rooted in the conscience of hundreds of millions of Christians, Orthodox or not, worldwide."