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Concern mounts over Russian Orthodox Church’s expansion abroad

08 March 2024

Alamy

President Putin congratulates Patriarch Kirill on the 15th anniversary of his enthronement at the Patriarchal Chambers of the Kremlin, last month

President Putin congratulates Patriarch Kirill on the 15th anniversary of his enthronement at the Patriarchal Chambers of the Kremlin, last month

CONCERN is growing over the Russian Orthodox Church’s expansion abroad, after the Swedish government, referring to security fears, withdrew subsidies from Russian parishes.

“A prerequisite for state support for religious communities is that they contribute to strengthening the basic values of society,” Sweden’s Agency for Supporting Religious Communities explained in a statement last week.

“We believe, however, that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate no longer lives up to this criterion because of its actions in connection with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

The Agency said that it had taken note of statements by Patriarch Kirill in support of the war, and had been advised by security officials that the Church had received Russian state funding as “a platform for intelligence gathering and other security-threatening activities” against Sweden, which is expected to become NATO’s 32nd member state this month.

The Romanian Orthodox Synod has been accused of succumbing to pressure from Moscow by establishing a permanent presence in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church criticised a decision last month by Romanian Orthodox leaders to assume direct canonical supervision over dozens of Romanian-speaking parishes, mainly in the western Chernivtsi region, and called for “urgent and effective measures” to protect Ukraine’s “religious security”.

“This contemptuous and provocative decision against Ukraine, in war conditions, highlights the influence of the Russian Federation’s FSB intelligence services and the Moscow Patriarchate, which seek by every means to destabilise the European Union and NATO,” the Ukrainian Church’s Mukachevo-Carpathia eparchy (diocese) said in a statement on Sunday.

“It is becoming clear why the Romanian Orthodox Church has avoided recognising our Ukrainian Church — and how Russian narratives prevail at the level of Romania’s church hierarchy.”

The Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Churches in Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus over their recognition of the Ukrainian Church, formally established in January 2019, and has since sought to strengthen ties with sympathetic Orthodox hierarchies in Serbia, Poland, and elsewhere, besides building up Russian dioceses in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The Church has also created or reclaimed hundreds of parishes in Western Europe since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, ostensibly to serve new Russian communities while also spreading Russian cultural influences.

A second Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris, costing €100 million, was dedicated in 2016 by Patriarch Kirill close to the Eiffel Tower, while Russian-funded cathedrals and major basilicas are also planned in cities from Madrid to Nicosia.

The 300,000-strong diocese of Sourozh, covering the UK, belongs to a new Exarchate for Western Europe, founded by the Moscow Synod in 2018, and theer have been bitter divisions between those favouring and opposing closer links with Russia.

The move by Sweden comes less than two months after the Primate of Estonia’s 150,000-strong Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Jevgeni (Reshetnikov), was denied a residence permit on security grounds.

A declaration of independence by the Orthodox Church in neighbouring Latvia was also approved by parliamentarians in September 2022, while dissenting Orthodox priests from Lithuania were received by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in February 2023, after being unfrocked by the Moscow Patriarchate for insubordination.

Security fears have also been referred to in Norway, where media reported that Russian Orthodox clergy had acquired properties close to NATO bases at Stavanger and Kirkenes.

In September, the Russian Foreign Ministry protested when the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, Archimandrite Vasian, was deported for “serving Moscow’s geopolitical interests”, a year after the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats. Russian Church activities have been similarly banned in North Macedonia, which has also expelled Russian diplomats.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Antonii (Sevryuk), has travelled extensively since his June 2022 appointment. His destinations have included Africa, where a new Russian Orthodox exarchate was established in December 2021, covering territory traditionally supervised by the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

The exarchate’s first head, Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachov), was declared unfrocked for “canonical intrusions” by the Alexandria Synod in November 2022, and reassigned to a remote parish in Krasnodar after being dismissed for disciplinary offences by the Moscow Patriarchate last October.

His acting successor, Bishop Konstantin (Ostrovsky), told the Novosti agency in February that the Russian Orthodox exarchate now had more than 200 parishes, served by 218 priests, in Africa.

Addressing a world youth festival at Krasnodar last weekend, Patriarch Kirill said that Russian Orthodox missionaries had travelled across the world to “end the power of evil”, and were doing so again to hold back “powerful propaganda forces” undermining moral values.

“Our country has always stood for peace, and today it should under no circumstances abandon this mission; but this struggle for peace must necessarily include a value orientation,” said the Patriarch, who is banned from several Western countries, including Britain, for vigorously backing the war against Ukraine.

“We also need work on a horizontal plane, aimed at expanding the family of those who are with us, who sympathise with us and think like us, despite all cultural, intellectual, and linguistic differences.”

Parliamentarians in Ukraine, which placed Kirill on its wanted list in December, said this week that they had strengthened a draft government-backed law, due for enactment this month, to include a full legal ban on the Russian Orthodox Church, and clearer procedures for closing down “all religious organisations affiliated with it”.

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