The Orthodox church is a fellowship of administratively independent, or autocephalous (self-governing) local churches, united in faith, sacraments, and canonical discipline, each enjoying the right to elect its own head and its bishops. Traditionally, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) is recognized as the “first among equal” Orthodox bishops. He possesses privileges of chairmanship and initiative but no direct doctrinal or administrative authority. The other heads of autocephalous churches, in order of precedence, are: the patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, with jurisdiction over Africa; the patriarch of Antioch, now residing in Damascus, Syria, and heading Arab-speaking Orthodox Christians in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; the patriarch of Jerusalem, with jurisdiction over Palestine; the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia; the patriarch-catholicos of Georgia (former USSR); the patriarch of Serbia; the patriarch of Romania; the patriarch of Bulgaria; the archbishop of Cyprus; the archbishop of Athens and all Greece; the metropolitan of Warsaw and all Poland; the archbishop of Albania; the metropolitan of Prague and all the Czech Lands and Slovakia; and the metropolitan of all America and Canada.
Three autonomous churches also enjoy a large degree of independence, although the election of their primate is subject to nominal approval by a mother church. These are the churches of Crete and Finland, under Constantinople, and the churches of Japan and Ukraine, under Moscow. The autocephalous and autonomous churches differ greatly in size and membership. The churches of Russia (50-90 million) and Romania (21 million) are by far the largest, whereas some of the ancient patriarchates of the Middle East, including Constantinople, are reduced to a few thousand members. The patriarch of Constantinople, however, also exercises jurisdiction over Greek-speaking churches outside Greece and controls, for example, the Greek archdiocese of America, which is distinct from the Orthodox Church in America, listed among the autocephalous churches. In Greece the Orthodox church is the established religion. Long repressed in the USSR and the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, it experienced renewed freedom with the removal of restrictions on religion during the Gorbachev era.
Adapted from: John Meyendorff. The Orthodox Church. The Academic American Encyclopedia (Electronic Version), copyright © 1993 Grolier, Inc., Danbury, CT.