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Beware of Russia’s new Church-State expansion

18 February 2022

The Moscow Patriarchate has a vested interest in supporting President Putin’s Ukrainian policy, says Jonathan Luxmoore

IF THE current Ukraine crisis is defused without war, it will owe nothing to leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have maintained silence over the massing of Russian forces, never questioning the aggressive posturing of President Putin.

As tension mounted in January, the Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, conceded in a TV interview that war was “not a method of resolving accumulated political problems”. He also defended Russia’s right to demand “security guarantees” from NATO, however, and blamed Ukrainian politicians for seeing an interest in “full-scale hostilities”.

In this complex stand-off, Anglicans should remember that Ukraine (not “the Ukraine”) is an independent sovereign state, recognised and represented at the United Nations, over which Russia wields no more rights than it does over Poland or the rest of Eastern Europe. Other countries in the region are home to substantial minorities. This does not entitle their neighbours to meddle in their affairs or deploy troops and tanks on their borders to intimidate them.

They should also remember that the Russian Church does not “speak truth to power” in the prophetic manner of Western counterparts, but maintains a firm policy of never questioning the actions of regimes either at home or abroad. The Church has been richly rewarded for its subservience in the three decades since Communist rule. Meeting Patriarch Kirill on 1 February, in the latest round of mutual congratulations, President Putin lauded the part that the Church played in “strengthening peace and harmony”.

The Russian Orthodox Church has special reasons for endorsing the pressure on Ukraine. In January 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch granted autocephalous, or self-governing, status to an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, rejecting the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim that the country belonged irrevocably to its historic “canonical territory” (News, 8 February 2019).

Bartholomew I of Constantinople holds honorary first place among leaders of the world’s 200 million Orthodox Christians, and has asserted his right and duty to do this after repeated Ukrainian petitions.

While Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations in Ukraine have welcomed the new Church, headed by the youthful Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, as an ecumenical partner, Moscow, in contrast, accepts only the existing Ukrainian Church under its jurisdiction. It has severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in retaliation, as well with Orthodox leaders in Greece, Cyprus, and Alexandria who have since recognised the new, independent Church.

Opinions differ about how far this dispute reflects genuine theological and ecclesiological concerns, and how much a competition for people and resources.

It clearly coheres with the Russian rejection of Ukrainian statehood and nationhood, however, as reflected in frequent appeals to a shared Slavic identity.

Although clergy from Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Church accept the country’s independence, their leaders did not question Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014 (News, 21 March 2014), and have not opposed the vicious eight-year campaign by Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas region, which has already left more than 14,000 people dead. Nor — while acknowledging the threat of a Russian invasion — have they encouraged prayers for Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed services.

Since December, the Russian Orthodox Church has taken its feud with the Ecumenical Patriarchate a stage further by setting up its own dioceses in Africa for parishes wishing to leave the Patriarchate of Alexandria and link up with the Russians instead (News, 14 January).

As Moscow is promising schools and clinics, and protection for Christians facing persecution, the financial and material inducements are evident, and at least 160 priests and parishes in a dozen countries have so far seceded — 15 last week in Kenya alone.

Speaking at a Moscow press conference on 4 February, the new Russian Orthodox Exarch for Africa, Metropolitan Leonid Gorbachov, vowed that the Russian presence would now be permanent, and said that African Protestant communities were now also applying to join.

Orthodox hierarchs in Greece have accused the Moscow Patriarchate of using the Ukrainian Church dispute as a pretext for a long-planned expansion into Africa, and of violating central Orthodox principles by trespassing on another patriarchate’s jurisdiction.

Sure enough, the latest encroachments abroad are clearly part and parcel of a wider projection of Russian influence, which should make other Christians, including Anglicans, extremely wary.

Long-held assumptions that vulnerable Russian Orthodox leaders were forced into unwilling compliance with state directives under Tsarist and Soviet rule may well need rethinking, given the close links and shared interests now being readily reasserted in an era of relative freedom.

“Terrorists were driven away from Syria thanks to the Russian army, while in other countries of the Middle East, Christians attacked by terrorists and radical groups also need Russia’s protection and assistance,” Metropolitan Hilarion assured a state award ceremony at the Kremlin on 2 February.

“The Orthodox Christians of Africa are looking to Russia and its President with hope, as well as to the Russian Church and its patriarch. They are taking to the streets with posters saying ‘Thank you, Putin! Thank you, Patriarch Kirill!’”

In time to come, the Russian Church may well reap the whirlwind for its latest enthusiastic conformity with President Putin’s ambitions. For now, it seems to have learned remarkably little from its turbulent history.

Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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