A Turkish court on Tuesday ruled that the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarch is not the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and is only the head of the local Greek Orthodox community.
The court's decision, however, has no impact on his status outside Turkey. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the internationally recognized spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox.
The court's verdict could help strengthen the Turkish government's position in disputing the patriarch's global role. The government has long sought to contain Bartholomew's influence, and objects to the use of title "ecumenical" or universal.
Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country that is seeking European Union membership, has long kept close tabs on the patriarch, suspicious of his close ties with Turkey's traditional regional rival Greece and other predominantly Orthodox countries.
The Patriarchate's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
The ruling was included in an appeals court verdict that upheld a lower court's decision acquitting Bartholomew of charges of illegally barring a Bulgarian priest from conducting religious services. The court also upheld the acquittals of other top church leaders on the same charges.
Bartholomew, who is a Turkish citizen and an ethnic Greek, has spiritual authority over the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians and directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world, including the United States.
Turkish officials however, reject any Vatican-like status for the Patriarch and says he is the religious head of the Greek community of around 3,000.
"The Patriarchate, which was allowed to remain on Turkish soil, is subject to Turkish laws," the appeals court argued. "There is no legal basis for the claims that the Patriarchate is ecumenical."
The court said Turkey could not give "special status" to any of its minority groups.
The Patriarchate dates from the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.
The charges against Bartholomew and 12 senior clerics were first filed in 2002, by the head of a Bulgarian Church Foundation, who argued that Bartholomew had no authority to dismiss Kostantin Kostov, the Bulgarian priest.
The Bulgarian foundation had claimed the priest was punished after he refused to refer to Bartholomew in prayers and refused to conduct religious services and issue baptism and marriage documents in Greek.