Despite last-minute defections by representatives of four Orthodox Patriarchates, a spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarch insists that the Council of the Orthodox Churches will still speak for all of Eastern Orthodoxy and will foster Orthodox unity as well.

“The Holy and Great Council may not have all Churches in attendance, but I find it very difficult not to call it ‘Pan-Orthodox’,” Father John Chryssavgis told CNA June 17. He is the spokesman for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

The Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches have decided not to send representatives to the council set to begin June 19, due to various concerns and objections.

Fr. Chryssavgis said the initial consensus among the 14 Orthodox Churches to convene and to attend the council still stands.

“Unfortunately, however, for whatever reason, some Churches decided at the very last minute that they cannot attend. However, that does not change the Pan-Orthodox validity of the council or the Pan-Orthodox authority of its decisions,” the Orthodox priest said.

He said the council certainly qualifies as a “Great Council” because it is “undoubtedly more authoritative than any individual local synod.”

Many Orthodox faithful hope that the council will take “a broader perspective” on Church life rather than local concerns. Father Chryssavgis cited “the tragedy of persecution and martyrdom” in the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East and Cyprus.

“They are the Churches right in the middle of the refugee crisis,” he said. They also have the most experience and the most to contribute from their history of coexistence “alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters, especially in Palestine, the Middle East and Northern Africa.”

There is also the “painful” situation in the Ukraine, which he said had devolved into civil war between Orthodox Christians, “often behind the face of Orthodoxy.”

The council will focus on the Orthodox Church’s mission in the contemporary world, relations with other Churches, and how to organize Orthodox Churches outside their native lands.

“There will also be discussion about social issue such as family and marriage, as well as the environmental crisis and challenges in bioethics,” Fr. Chryssavgis said.

The great split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is usually dated to AD 1054.

Pope Francis is looking attentively toward the outcomes of the Pan-Orthodox Council. Proof of this is the fact that Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christians, has been tapped to be the Vatican’s observer at the council. The presence of such a high-ranking prelate shows that Pope Francis shares the effort for unity brought forward by Patriarch Bartholomew.

The Pope hopes that a renewed unity of Orthodox Churches can ease the ecumenical path and Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. That is the reason why the news that some Orthodox Churches would not participate was received with concern in the halls of the Vatican. However, Bartholomew was determined and, as first-ranked of the Orthodox patriarchates, continued on the path of the Council.

For his part, Fr. Chryssavgis said he thought that the absence of some Orthodox Churches at the council would not be harmful for ecumenical dialogue.

“The purpose of the Holy and Great Council is to bring the Orthodox Churches together — for the first time in history on such a comprehensive and representative level — in order to present a more unified profile and provide a more credible witness in the world,” he said.

He suggested that the 14 Orthodox Churches have developed at a different pace. He said the Ecumenical Patriarchate has created positive relations with other Churches for decades, while other Orthodox Churches like those of Bulgaria and Georgia have hesitated and become isolated and uncomfortable with dialogue.

“Therefore, the Holy and Great Council is an opportunity for these diverse Orthodox Churches — united sacramentally and doctrinally, but fragmented in so many other ways — to establish some helpful guidelines about the importance of embracing the world instead of retreating into a ghetto,” the priest said.

There are multiple reasons that caused four of the Orthodox Churches to abstain.

The Antiochian Orthodox have broken communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem because the latter appointed a metropolitan bishop in Qatar, which Antioch claims as part of its territory.

The Bulgarian Orthodox withdrew June 3 due to strong theological objections to several passages in the preparatory document on Orthodox relations with other Christians. The Patriarchate of Georgia echoed the Bulgarian concerns and objected to parts of the preparatory document on marriage.

The Serbian Orthodox initially joined the abstainers, but then decided to take part in the council on June 15.

The Russian Orthodox delegation bowed out only two days before it was set to arrive in Greece with Patriarch Kirill. They voiced support for the abstainers and called for a postponement of the council.

In this environment, Fr. Chryssavgis countered claims that the council’s decisions would be invalid because some Churches will not attend. These claims are “simply a way of creating a smokescreen,” he said.

He pointed to the Orthodox council of 1872, which the Russian Orthodox Church did not attend. Its condemnation of “ethnophyletism,” a religious version of tribalism, is considered binding.

He also rejected the possibility that the council could result in less Orthodox unity.   “If we put our trust in God — because we certainly know we cannot put our trust in mortals — then who can possibly separate us?” he said.

At the same time he acknowledged the universal surprise that some of the Churches bowed out of attending the council given that, in his view, nothing changed since the Jan. 28 gathering of Orthodox primates that agreed on the council. He said representatives of each Church had signed “literally hundreds of signatures” on the documents and decisions.

The Orthodox Churches also made an agreement in March 2014 to convene the council this year on the Feast of Pentecost, according to the Julian Calendar.

The Pan-Orthodox Council has been “a dream” for over a century and the planning process has been in place for 60 years. The council will be “the largest and most representative gathering of the Orthodox Church” in over 1,000 years, according to Fr. Chryssavgis.