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Pope Returns Relics To Orthodox Leader

The events surrounding the remains of the other saint, John Chrysostom, are particularly symbolic in the hostilities between the two churches. The bones were looted by Catholic marauders in 1204 from Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, during the Fourth Crusade. The Crusaders plundered the city and set Byzantium, the Eastern Orthodox Christian empire, along the road to decline.

Orthodox Christians regard the conquest of Constantinople as an example of Roman Catholic Church efforts to undermine its religious rival. John Paul apologized for the incident in 2001.


Pope John Paul II hopes to unify the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, divided since 1054. (Plinio Lepri -- AP)

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Pope Innocent III had dispatched the Fourth Crusade to free Jerusalem from Muslim control, but monarchical participants conjured up an alternate plan. At the request of Alexius Angelus, a pretender to the Byzantine imperial throne, the Crusaders agreed to attack Constantinople. Alexius complained that his father, Isaac, was deposed unjustly. In return for being placed in power, Alexius promised cash and submission of the Church of Constantinople to Rome. Venice, the wealthiest city in Europe, supplied ships on credit for the invasion.

At first, the scheme succeeded. Venetian, Frankish and other troops breached the city's defenses and routed the Byzantine forces. Isaac was enthroned alongside Alexius. But the joint emperors reneged on the pledge to pay off the Venetians. Byzantine rivals in Constantinople then revolted against Isaac and Alexius. The two died in a dungeon.

Venetian leaders of the expedition realized that the only way to obtain the promised financial windfall was to conquer Constantinople outright. It was also an opportunity to crush a prime commercial rival.

Three days of looting climaxed the assault. A Byzantine chronicler described the theft of holy images, destruction of relics, the ripping of jewels from chalices and use of the cups for drunken revelries.

The victors divvied up the massive loot. Among the best known souvenirs harvested by the Venetians were four bronze horses that still stand atop the door of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. The Crusaders did not bother going on to Jerusalem. Innocent III was horrified and criticized papal representatives who abandoned the Holy Land to join in the establishment of the new "Latin" order in Constantinople. Nonetheless, Innocent accepted the outcome.

The Crusaders set up their own kingdom, and effectively, if briefly, unified the Eastern and Western churches. Their rule, however, lasted only 50 years, until Greek avengers reconquered Constantinople. Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity then resumed their rivalry, their separation hardened by brutal war.


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