THE Russian Orthodox Church has defended a decision to set up its own African dioceses in retaliation for the Patriarchate of Alexandria’s recognition of an independent Church in Ukraine; but commentators warned that the move would deepen a rift in world Orthodoxy.
“We would not have entered Africa if not for persistent requests by African clergy, who addressed us after Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria joined this schism,” the Russian Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, said.
“We signalled to the Alexandria Patriarch that we had no wish to enter his territory. But our proposals were rejected.”
The church official spoke last week to the Novosti news agency, as a new Russian exarch assumed supervision of 102 clergy and parishes previously loyal to Patriarch Theodore II.
He said that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, had acted “illegally and anti-canonically” by recognising the new Ukrainian Church in January 2019 (News, 8 February 2019), saying that the Russian Church was also ready to accept other clergy and congregations who wished to “avoid supporting schism”.
The Russian move was met with “deep concern” by the Alexandrian Patriarchate, however, which said that it would “continue fulfilling pastoral duties to the faithful” under its spiritual direction, as its governing synod debated how to respond.
Greece’s online agency Orthodoxia predicted that Russian Orthodox leaders would suffer “greatest damage” from their “unprecedented incursion” into another Church’s territory.
The Russian Church severed ties with Patriarch Bartholomew after he granted a “tomos of autocephaly” to the Ukrainian Church, and has since also ended relations with the Orthodox Churches of Greece and Cyprus, as well as Alexandria, for recognising the new denomination in favour of Ukraine’s existing Moscow-linked Church (News, 13 November 2020).
In a 30 December statement, the Russian Synod said that it had waited to see whether Patriarch Theodore would withdraw his recognition, but the “schism” had been exacerbated by his recent concelebration of a liturgy with the new Ukrainian Church’s leader, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko.
The Moscow Patriarch’s newly named Patriarchal Exarch for Africa, Archbishop Leonid Gorbachev, told Novosti: “This is a historic step, as the Russian Orthodox Church acquires a different status and assumes responsibility. . . We are not ready to put up with injustice and the violation of church canons, no matter who violates them.”
The Patriarchate of Alexandria is one of 15 self-governing Churches that make up the world’s 220-million-member Orthodox community, whose leaders are traditionally barred from intruding into each other’s canonical territory.
Its 35 African dioceses and archdioceses, mostly staffed by African clergy, are believed to have up to five million members.
In his Novosti interview, Metropolitan Hilarion said: “It is the fault of the Patriarch of Constantinople that canonical chaos has been created in world Orthodoxy. In this situation, each local church must decide whom it is with.”