Greek Orthodox men dive in Istanbul in celebration of Epiphany

Three Greek Orthodox faithful dived into the wintry waters of Istanbul’s Golden Horn on Saturday to retrieve a wooden cross in an Epiphany ceremony.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, first led a liturgy at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George for Epiphany, the day on which the Greek Orthodox Church commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ.

His Holiness Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, led the congregation to the shores of the Horn, a 2.3-kilometer (4.5 mile) arm of the Bosporus waterway, for the traditional ceremony of the blessing of the waters. He threw the cross into the cold water and the three worshippers jumped in, in a contest to retrieve it.

This years’ winner was Mario Tarinas, 27, from Istanbul, who beat a father and son from Greece to reach the cross first. Tarinas kissed the cross and lifted his arm to show it off as some 300 faithful, members of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek Orthodox community and visitors from Greece, cheered and applauded. The two other competitors, Christos Koulidis and his 16-year-old son, Alex, then swam toward Tarinas to touch the cross. All three were rewarded with a chain and crucifix from Bartholomew.

The ceremony was conducted under tight police security. Turkish nationalists, who mistrust the patriarchate because of its ties to Turkey’s historical rival Greece, have disrupted similar ceremonies in the past.

The Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the 1,100-year Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city, then called Constantinople, in 1453.

Although only a few thousand Greek Orthodox Christians now live in Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has remained in Istanbul, and has direct authority over several Greek Orthodox churches around the world.

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