Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul); b. Vassilikon, Epirus, Greece, March 25, 1886; d. Istanbul, July 6, 1972. The son of a prominent physician and civic leader in what was then a Turkish-ruled area, Aristokles Spirou had his primary and secondary education in Joannina, capital of Epirus, and then attended the Patriarchal Theological School on the island of Halki, near Istanbul. Upon graduation in 1910, he took the name Athenagoras. After serving as archdeacon in the diocese of Pelagonia, in Eastern Europe, he became associate to Archbishop Meleties of Athens in 1919, and in 1922 was raised to the hierarchy as metropolitan of Corfu and Paxos. In 1931 he became archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, taking U.S. citizenship in 1938. When Maximos V retired for health reasons, the Holy Synod of Constantinople elected Athenagoras to the position of spiritual leader of the world Orthodoxy, with the titles archbishop of Constantinople, and new Rome and ecumenical patriarch (1948). Outspokenly anticommunist, he was said to have been supported for the post by U.S. president Truman, who provided the plane that took him to Istanbul.
Athenagoras led his see into active participation in the World Council of Churches, formed the year of his election, and into closer relations with the Catholic Church. In events of historic importance, he sent observers to Vatican II, exchanged the kiss of peace with Pope Paul VI at the Mount of Olives in 1964, joined with the pope the following year in simultaneously nullifying the anathemas pronounced by their predecessors in 1054, received Paul at the Phanar in July 1967, and visited him at the Vatican the following October. Seeking to advance unity among the Orthodox churches also, Athenagoras convened a pan-Orthodox conference at Rhodes in 1961 to begin preparations of an ecumenical council that would be the first in the Orthodox world since the 11-century division between East and West.