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Russian church pursues Kremlin isolationism in Ukraine split

Kseniya Kirillova

The Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction to its Ukrainian counterpart’s bid for independence confirms once again that is an arm of Kremlin foreign policy.

On the path to independence

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate was granted the right to start the process of gaining independence from Moscow by the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul on 11 October. It was a landmark event in the life of not only the Ukrainian church, but also world Orthodoxy. In its final communique, the Ecumenical Patriarchate also published a number of other equally important decisions.

First, the Synod granted the requests by Filaret (Denisenko), Macarius (Maletich) and their followers, who were declared schismatics, as noted in the document, “not for dogmatic reasons”. This means that these church officials, as well as the churches headed by them, are now considered canonical, that is, legitimate from the point of view of church law. If “autocephaly” (independence) is granted, nothing prevents them from merging with the churches that are now under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). In addition, the Synod abolished the Synodal Letter of 1686, which granted the Moscow Patriarch the right to appoint the Metropolitan of Kiev, and also restored Stavropegion, that is, the direct subordination of Ukrainian churches to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Russian church hostility

Needless to say, this decision caused an extremely hostile reaction from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). In an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency, ROC officials said that they did not recognize Constantinople's decision, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) would not agree to merge with other Orthodox churches. Moreover, a senior UOC-MP official, Archbishop Clement, even announced that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – viewed as the world leader of Orthodox believers - should himself be excommunicated and that his actions were aimed at splitting Orthodoxy in Ukraine!

In reality, many priests, even in the UOC-MP, welcome the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and have been hoping for unification.

Patriarch Kirill’s spokesman, priest Alexander Volkov, went even further and said that the Russian Orthodox Church would take steps “related to the breaking off of eucharistic communion” with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

“The Patriarchate of Constantinople has crossed a red line... Our response will be the strongest and toughest, it will be commensurate with the situation that has developed,” said Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk, a Moscow Patriarchate spokesman. In September, when the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to appoint its own representatives to Kiev, the ROC Synod voiced strong objections then too.

“The Constantinople Patriarchate has now quite openly embarked on the path to war. And this war is not only against the Russian church. This war is not only against Ukrainian Orthodox believers. This war, in essence, is against the unity of all world Orthodoxy. Because if this, I would say, despicable and deceitful project is brought to a successful conclusion... we will have to break off communication with Constantinople,” the Moscow Patriarchate’s top diplomat, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion, told Russian state TV.

Obstructing Ukrainian church independence

We might expect Russian church leaders to rejoice at a long-awaited end to many years of church schism that even members of the Moscow clergy said needed to be healed. However, Moscow's reaction is quite logical if we understand that in recent years the ROC has become a de facto arm of Kremlin foreign policy. In the Orthodox environment in Russia there are still different trends and attempts at free-thinking (although actively repressed by church and state censorship). But in foreign relations, it is now logical to assume that the most important ecclesiastical decisions are at the very least agreed with the Kremlin.

The ROC not only strongly objected to the healing of the Ukrainian "schism", but in recent decades also did everything it could to maintain it. In particular, about a year ago, the Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret wrote a letter to Patriarch Kirill with a request to put an end to the confrontation. Russian media immediately called it "a plea for forgiveness." As a result, no reconciliation took place. The Moscow Patriarchate continued to stigmatize Ukrainian fellow believers as “schismatics” and “sectarians”, initiated processes for the demolition of Ukrainian churches and did everything it could to aggravate the confrontation. Politically, this behaviour was quite understandable: officially recognising the Ukrainian Church would mean the emergence in Kiev of a spiritual centre not politically controlled by Moscow.

Yet another fact makes it clear that ROC's motives are political and not religious in nature. A canonical Ukrainian church, independent of Moscow, has existed for a long time: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada (Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA). It is an offshoot of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and is in no way organizationally connected with the UOC-KP. However, the priests of this church personally complained to me that the Moscow Patriarchate would not allow it to open parishes in Ukraine itself. So the Kremlin opposed the activity in Ukraine of not only ‘non-canonical’, but also completely canonical churches.

Pursuing Kremlin isolationism

The ROC has now started to implement its threat to break off communication with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A synod decision on 15 October forbade Russian clerics to conduct mass with those of the Constantinople Patriarchate and worshippers from taking communion in its churches. Moscow had already begun to aggravate relations with Constantinople even before the discussion of Ukrainian autocephaly, when the ROC refused to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council in June 2016. In addition to resentment over the loss of control over Ukraine, the Kremlin has several reasons to seek the end of relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

First, since the Kremlin has long considered the ROC an instrument of hybrid war, the idea of allowing any foreign organisation to influence their "agents" is not compatible with the KGB mentality of the Russian leadership.

This mindset was expressed more subtly in an article by candidate of theology Vasily Chernov explaining why the Russian delegation refused to go to the Council. “It is very important for Moscow to observe the principle of ‘the priority of national legislation over international obligations’, that is, not to allow the Pan-Orthodox Council to influence its internal affairs in any way,” he said. Secondly, supporting the decisions of Constantinople would destroy a number of the most important myths of Kremlin propaganda, on which the entire legitimization of the Kremlin’s policy in the eyes of the population has been founded in recent years.

First of all, the myth of the "uniqueness" of Russian spirituality. Russia has been positioning itself on the world stage as the only stronghold of “healthy values” in the modern world, as the bearer of true religion and morality, which many external enemies supposedly want to destroy with such zeal.

Second, cooperation with other Orthodox churches and recognition of the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate would mean that Russian ‘spiritual bonds’ are by no means unique, that there are many other Orthodox churches in the world that occupy a more important position than the ROC MP and have a different opinion on a number of issues, but at the same time are considered to be no less Christian than the Russian Church. In addition, it would deal a tangible blow to Moscow’s attempt to make the war it unleashed in Ukraine appear religious in character.

Third, it is important for the Kremlin to support the concept that Russia is "surrounded by enemies", and can only rely on its armed forces to protect it. How could the Kremlin maintain this façade if it recognised that foreign churches have the same values and their members are fellow believers, and that relations with them from a theological point of view should transcend all borders? It is not surprising that the rhetoric of hostility has been transferred to other Christian churches. If there is no reason to declare them heretical and schismatic, they are declared “modernist” or sponsored by Washington.

It is clear that it is not Ukraine or the Patriarchate of Constantinople that are doing everything possible to split the Orthodox world, but the ROC, with the Kremlin standing behind it. These actions have the potential to turn the ROC into a kind of marginal sect within Orthodoxy. This would suit the Kremlin as it seeks to insulate Russians against foreign influence. But is it in the interests of Russian Orthodox believers?  

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