Istanbul, Jan. 8--(AP) The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians will visit Iran this week to meet the Islamic republic's leaders in a trip that aims to build ties between the religions, officials said Tuesday. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I will travel to Tehran on Jan. 11, the Istanbul-based patriarchate said in a statement. The patriarch's four-day visit will include meetings with Iran's President Mohammad Khatami and top religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Bartholomew will also lead a mass at a Greek Orthodox church in Tehran, and visit the ancient city of Isfahan. "The Patriarch is hopeful that this visit will make an important contribution to mutual efforts for world peace by helping religions and cultures to gain deeper knowledge of each other," the patriarchate's statement said.

Bartholomew is also the spiritual leader of 14 autonomous Orthodox churches, including those of Greece, Russia, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.

Although only a few thousand Greek Orthodox Christians now live in Turkey, the patriarchate has remained in Istanbul and directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world.

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