How Patriarch Athenagoras Was Elected

Spyros Skouras Spyros Skouras In the mid-20th century, the Skouras brothers — Charles, Spyros, and George — were among the most powerful men in the booming film industry. Charles was president of Fox West Coast and funded the construction of St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, using his movie star friends as models for the icons. George was head of United Artists Theaters (now Regal Cinemas) and also worked as an agent of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA). But the most influential of them all was Spyros: the back cover of his memoirs (published in 2013) describes him as “the most influential Greek immigrant in American history and one of America’s preeminent citizens during the Cold War period.” Spyros was both the head of Twentieth Century Fox for more than two decades and also President of Prudential Lines, one of the largest shipping companies in the country.

In 1948, at the dawn of the Cold War, Ecumenical Patriarch Maximos V was forced out of his position and replaced by Patriarch Athenagoras, who was previously the Greek Archbishop of North and South America. I’ve written at length about this fascinating episode in church history, using as my main source a set of declassified CIA documents. As I observed in my earlier work, there are conspicuous gaps in the declassified documents, critical periods where no documents are publicly available. Given how closely the CIA followed the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it seems improbable that these documents do not exist; more likely, they simply remain classified.

Recently, I was provided with some additional declassified documents — a trio of letters from Spyros Skouras to then-Vice President Spyro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, written in 1969. In these letters, Skouras offers a firsthand account of the events surrounding Patriarch Athenagoras’s election and enthronement two decades earlier, and he appeals, at Athenagoras’s direction, for additional U.S. intervention in selecting Athenagoras’s successor.

Back in 1948, Spyros Skouras was 55 years old and had taken the helm of Twentieth Century Fox a year earlier. Here his how he described his interactions with U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall in his May 28, 1969 letter to Agnew (which you can download by clicking here):

As I told you, the late General George Marshall, when he was Secretary of State, called me and asked me to give him my opinion of the then Archbishop Athenagoras of North and South America, now Patriarch of Constantinople. General Marshall wanted to recommend that the Archbishop be considered by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul for the office of Patriarch of Constantinople.

At the time, both General Marshall and the then President, Harry S. Truman, were apprehensive that there might be elected to this important office of Patriarch of Constantinople of the Greek Orthodox Church a man who would not be aware of the importance of American policies abroad, particularly in Communist Russia and its satellite states which are all at least 90% Greek Orthodox.

There were, and are, over 300,000,000 Greek Orthodox adherents in the world and this was therefore an important consideration. Both President Truman and General Marshall felt that the man who was chosen for the office of Patriarch had to be not only a great spiritual leader, who enjoyed the esteem and affection of all his spiritual subjects, but one who was also American-oriented in his thinking.

Aside from this, he also had to be approved by the Turkish Government and be a Turkish citizen before he was elected by the Holy Synod. This was in keeping with the terms of the Lausanne Treaty, executed between Turkey and Greece in 1922.

Naturally, I recommended His Holiness, then Archbishop, very highly.

President Truman and Archbishop Athenagoras, February 1947 President Truman and Archbishop Athenagoras, February 1947 Skouras then goes on to describe in further detail his relationship with Athenagoras and his high opinion of the Archbishop. Then he says,

Therefore, General Marshall, in his capacity as Secretary of State, had no hesitation in sponsoring His Holiness and thanks mainly to his efforts and influence, the Holy Synod decided to elect Archbishop Athenagoras as Patriarch and the Turkish Government agreed to his election.

Skouras then describes what happened next — Athenagoras’s trip to Istanbul aboard President Truman’s private plane, with Skouras as one of the select passengers:

In 1949, President Truman sent his private plane — the Sacred Cow — to take His Holiness to Istanbul for his enthronement and a small group of Greeks and Americans of Greek descent, of whom I was privileged to be a member, accompanied His Holiness.


Skouras concludes his letter by requesting a meeting with President Nixon. He writes, “His Holiness [Athenagoras] is greatly concerned about his health and the matter of his successor, and I feel very strongly that at this time the matter is also of grave concern to the United States, just as it was when Mr. Truman was president and George Marshall, as Secretary of State, realized the importance of the person who is selected to fill the office of Patriarch of Constantinople.”

Skouras was about to travel to Istanbul to meet with the Turkish government and he hoped to meet with Nixon before that trip, and on June 4, 1969 (about a week after the letter to Agnew), Skouras wrote to Nixon himself to ask for a meeting, which he was unable to secure. Upon his return from Turkey, Skouras again wrote to Nixon (September 25, 1969). In both cases he re-told the story of Truman, Marshall, and Athenagoras’s election. In the September 25 letter, he went into further detail about Athenagoras’s objectives regarding Nixon:

Because I had acted as intermediary between His Holiness and General Marshall, the Patriarch sent me a message, about six months ago, with one of his bishops, which he requested me to convey to you personally.

When I saw His Holiness on my recent visit to Istanbul, naturally I explained that I had been unable to see you as yet, due to your extremely heavy schedule on so many vital matters. His Holiness understood and expressed the hope that I would be able to see you soon. […]

His Holiness is 84 years of age and while his health is good, he is not as strong as he used to be. He is naturally concerned about the matter of his successor and he feels that the situation today is just as critical as it was twenty years ago when General Marshall so wisely selected him to become Patriarch, and that it warranted our interest and attention.

I sincerely hope, Mr. President, that you will be able to designate a time soon when I may come to see you to discuss this important matter and to deliver to you the message entrusted to me by His Holiness.


There are two narratives at play here, one from 1948 and another from 1969. In 1948, the Truman Administration viewed the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a key strategic partner, and it was thanks in large part to the U.S. that the staunchly pro-American Athenagoras took the throne in Constantinople. Patriarch Athenagoras proved to be a reliable ally of the United States in the decades that followed. As he explained to a Washington Post reporter in 1965, “I was the religious counterpart to the Truman Doctrine.”

By 1969 the now-elderly Patriarch Athenagoras was thinking about succession, and he went back to his old friend Skouras to mediate between the Phanar and the U.S. government. The Nixon Administration was pretty clearly less interested in the Ecumenical Patriarchate than the Truman Administration. Based on the Presidential Daily Diaries on file at the Nixon Library, we can establish that Nixon and Skouras were in the same room multiple times in the months that followed — Skouras was a big enough deal to make it onto exclusive White House banquet guest lists. But if Skouras and Nixon had a private meeting about the Ecumenical Patriarchate, there’s no record of it in those Daily Diaries. Skouras died in 1971, and the following year, Patriarch Athenagoras himself reposed.

Most people expected Athenagoras to be succeeded by Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon or Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America but the Turkish government struck both of their names from the list of candidates, and in the end it was the mild-mannered Dimitrios who was elected Patriarch.

James2/18/2021 9:48 am
David: Are you afraid to read the truth? And why do you insist on any reportage of the suffering born by canonical Ukrainians due to Pat. Bartholomew's lawlessness as pro-MP? It's simply pro-truth, pro-Orthodox, and pro-Ukrainian. Would you have called Mark of Ephesus a propagandist? Much more deplorable is the silence many Greeks keep about what is being done there. But there are many who to the contrary quite deplore what Pat. Bartholomew is doing.
David2/18/2021 1:41 am
J.Dominick: The problem here, is that only side of the story is being told. My use of the term "blood feud" was carefully chosen, as it is family and blood conflicts that are the most bitter and heart-wrenching. It is the same with the Greek Catholics ("Uniates). Pro-MP media denounced Church seizures by "Nationalist Uniates." What they didn't tell you, was that those Churches were formerly Greek Catholic, seized by the Soviet Government when the Greek Catholics were suppressed, and the MP took them. Context has been added, and the picture changes. The OCU also have their tragic stories. That is the whole point I am making. UOJ and these outlets aren't telling the whole story. And yet, these sensationalist articles are presented as the truth. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter who is doing it (and even if I am inclined to agree with their "position"). There are many on the "Greek" side of the house who are sympathetic to the MP's position, but deplore their overreaction and disproportionate response. Metropolitan Hilarion's disastrous "diplomacy" in the Church of Greece didn't help either.
Jesse Dominick2/17/2021 6:32 pm
David, you wrote: “There are many Orthodox who want no part of Ukraine's blood feud (dressed up in ecclesial and world politics) and would like a peaceful place to explore Russian Orthodoxy.” The crisis in Ukraine is ecclesiological and touches all of Orthodoxy, as is evidenced by the fact that all Local Churches are dealing with it to one degree or another. This is certainly not confined to Ukraine, or even to Russia and Constantinople. Also, consider that the suffering Ukrainian faithful appreciate that their story is being told. “The EP was supposed to declare the UOC-MP "uncanonical" last month. What happened? Utter Garbage.)” No, this report was not “utter garbage.” For one, it’s important that it said the Synod would “reportedly” do this. It was not presented as certain fact. Moreover, there are still serious reports that Constantinople is still planning on this. Patriarch Bartholomew himself has openly declared that the UOC is only temporarily tolerated. This obviously means the “tolerance” will eventually end. Further, plans change, things get delayed. This does not necessarily mean the reports were false. The Holy Synod of Constantinople delayed their dealing with the Ukraine issue in 2018 many times. And once they dealt with it and sent exarchs and later recognized the schismatics, the date of the “unification council” was also pushed back several times. This does not mean the reports that the council would be on such and such a date were wrong. It means things change. So the reports about Constantinople excommunicating the UOC were not garbage at all.
David2/17/2021 3:23 am
J. Dominick and James: This is true, the author is not saying these things. HOWEVER, his articles are being used to reinforce that narrative (that the <b>Ecumenical Patriarchate</b> is a rump Patriarchate propped up by the CIA). Epithets like the "Constantinople Patriarchate," "Turkish Patriarchate," and "Phanariot" all are in the service of that narrative. One can disagree with the EP's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere and still render the proper respect (Antioch, Albania, Romania and even Serbia have managed to do so). If this website were just a blog written by some anonymous person, then you could just shrug your shoulders. But this website is a ministry affiliated with a prominent Russian Monastery, and so carries an additional weight (and in my thinking responsibility). There are many Orthodox who want no part of Ukraine's blood feud (dressed up in ecclesial and world politics) and would like a peaceful place to explore Russian Orthodoxy. Bad photoshops with the worst pictures of Patriarch Bartholomew coupled with inflammatory articles (oftentimes devoid of context and even wrong----the EP was supposed to declare the UOC-MP "uncanonical" last month. What happened? Utter Garbage.) is beneath everyone here, and I say that with the utmost respect for Metropolitan Tikhon and the people affiliated with this ministry (I still would like to think of it as a ministry). Sadly, the EP has also decided to engage in such things (with "Orthodox Times"). We deserve better, I think.
Jesse M Dominick2/16/2021 9:08 am
David, the author is not even a member of the MP, and knowing him, I'm quite certain he would never say that Constantinople is not a Patriarchate.
James2/13/2021 12:07 pm
David: I don't think anyone is "going anywhere with this", it's an article written by an historian about Church history. Why do you call this an attack? It's simply history. The history of the MP under communism has also been written about in many volumes, for anyone to read. Everyone is free to draw their own conclusions. The MP pretty much ignored the CP's dallying with the U.S. government until it's become a really big problem for the Ukrainian Church, and in fact for the whole Orthodox world. It's plain as day that the U.S. government is now pushing strongly for the creation of an "eastern pope" who will tell everyone in Russia and all of Orthodox Eastern Europe what to do. And since the he who pays the piper calls the tune, the U.S. can then call the tune. So a correction has to come into the U.S.-CP equation, or we are all in trouble. And that's why we have to know about it.
Dimitri2/13/2021 11:28 am
Truman and Athenagoras: Brother Masons.
David 2/13/2021 3:08 am
I am not quite sure where you are going with this. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always struggled with Caesar---The Emperors, Sultans, and now Modern Geo-politics. Sometimes the EP played the game. Sometimes they refused to play. And sometimes they walked the tightrope, trying to do what they could. The Moscow Patriarchate was compromised by the KGB and the Soviet government at the same time, but that doesn't mean that all MP clerics were Communists. I think His Eminence Tikhon said it best in his book "Everyday Saints"---that nobody should judge those who were a part of the MP in those times. I am truly mystified by MP partisan attacks on Patriarch Athenagoras and the influence of "world politics," as if this has never happened before (and the self-serving and deliberately obtuse pearl clutching that goes with it). It happens ALL THE TIME. Every Bishop has to deal with Caesar in some fashion, and sometimes Caesar butts in. But just as it was in the case of St. Photios, sometimes that "interference" is God's will, or something good comes out of a blatant attempt to muck it up. The whole "EP is not a real Patriarchate at all, but a CIA front" is a vicious lie, just as the "MP is Putin's Church" is. Perhaps something more is going on here.
Herman2/12/2021 7:37 pm
It would also be interesting to learn the real story of how some of our current Patriarchs were elected, such as Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos, who just so happens to be the cousin of George Tenet, former director of the CIA. Although I'm sure this relationship had nothing to do with becoming Patriarch... How many people knew that? That at one point, the head of the CIA in America was a Greek Orthodox Christian... it's strange. Read this press release from 2005 in which Tenet was made an Archon by the GOA. Included is a brief bio, which should also mention "cousin of the Patriarch of Jerusalem" but it doesn't. This family relationship is also absent from the Patriarch's wikipedia page. I'm sure they just forgot to mention that little detail:
Theodoros 2/12/2021 6:48 pm
It was during the tenure of Athenagoras that the Church of Constantinople lost most of its flock. The Turkish sponsored pogroms of 1955 led to the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks of Constantinople which which were repeated during the 1960's when tens of thousands of Greeks were forcibly expelled from Constantinople and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos. Patriarch Athenagoras never condemned or criticized the Turkish government for its policies against the Greek Orthodox population. Whatever agreements may have been reached between Patriarch Athenagoras and the Truman administration, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its flock in Constantinople certainly never gained from this over the long term. Many ironies abound today in the aftermath of Constantinople's collusion with the State Department at the expense of the Church of Ukraine. In 1955, after the anti Greek pogroms in Constantinople when dozens of Churches and shrines were destroyed and burned, and when the 100,000 faithful at that time were subject to violence, rape, and the destruction of their property, the State Department in Washington refused to condemn the Turkish government. Likewise, during the 1960's, Washington did nothing to condemn the Turks or to restrain the violence against the Greek Orthodox. Patriarch Bartholomew and his supporters have forgotten this brutal history. Patriarch Bartholomew now makes common cause with the State Department that is largely responsible for the Patriarchate's losing most of its flock and being on the verge of extinction in Constantinople. What Patriarch Bartholomew has done in Ukraine is obscene on many levels. First and foremost, for participating in the violence against the Ukrainian Church and splitting Orthodoxy.Secondly. its collaboration with the State Department is leading to its own demise, not its revival. It has been forgotten that the Russian Church (and the other local Churches) condemned the pogroms of 1955 when they occurred at the time. The Russian church could have provided real assistance to the Church of Constantinople if Patriarch Bartholomew had been friendly to the Russians and had not been consumed by a desire for total power.
Art Samouris 2/12/2021 5:30 pm
Thank you for the article. The Turkish Patriarchate has been a sham for over 100 years, and worse now more than ever.
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