This essay was original published in Arabic in the leading Lebanese daily an-Nahar. The English translation is taken from here.
What is happening in an Orthodoxy that is oscillating between geopolitical axes on a line of fire and steel?
The whole world is holding its breath. The geopolitical and military situation in Ukraine is heating up. Friction between Russia and NATO could develop into a military confrontation. A fire is likewise blazing in Ukraine, which sits upon geopolitical fault lines. The snowball of schism, which we have repeatedly warned about, is gathering speed, between the Orthodox churches which, whether they like it or not, have been cast into the competing camps of east and west. The Patriarchate of Moscow accuses the Patriarchate of Constantinople of igniting the spark of division by unilaterally granting, on January 6, 2019, without Orthodox consensus, autocephaly to Ukrainian schismatic groups at the expense of the legitimate, autonomous Ukrainian church connected to the Church of Moscow since the time of the historic agreement signed in 1686 by Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV and members of his holy synod and sent to the tsar of Russia as “protector of Orthodoxy” at the time. Constantinople responds by saying that Moscow is responsible for the division since, when it boycotted the Council of Crete of June 2016, it rejected the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and encouraged other Orthodox churches (Antioch, Bulgaria and Georgia) to boycott the council. Of course, Antioch had its own reasons not to participate in the Council of Crete, for which it had dedicatedly prepared in good faith until the last moment, the first of which being the disregard for and lack of a solution to the issue of the invasion of its historical ecclesiastical territory in Qatar by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, even though Antioch was the first to warn of the ramifications of this attack for the unity of all Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, by the eve of the Council of Crete, this canonical issue had not been dealt with as it should have been.
Thus, since 2019 there has been a split between the two poles of Orthodoxy, Moscow and Constantinople, and each of them has tried to draw the other churches into its camp. Of course, international politics have not been far from this situation. In a tweet in early 2021, the former American Secretary of State Pompeo stated explicitly that the United States supported the establishment of the autocephalous Ukrainian church, strove to win international recognition for it, and helped to free it of Russian influence. It has come to be known that the geopolitical and ecclesial factors have overlapped over the course of the twentieth century and until today, something we have confirmed in our five-part study published in an-Nahar in September 2019 under the title “Orthodoxy at the Crossroads: The Crises and Ways Out of It”. This is also confirmed, for example, by recently-declassified CIA documents indicating the relationship and cooperation between the American government and the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the Truman Administration in order to limit Soviet influence and how Patriarch Maximus V, Patriarch Athenegoras’ predecessor, was removed to the benefit of the latter, who was in America and was connected to President Truman, all despite the young age of Patriarch Maximus’, who at the time was said to have been removed due to his mental health. These documents, which received attention due to two recently-published articles on the American website Orthodox History, also indicate Patriarch Athenagoras’ cooperation at the beginning of his reign with the American government with regard to religious freedom. Many reports and articles also show how these practices continue until today. On the other hand, much is said by critics of Moscow, yesterday and today, who insist on the necessity of preventing the expansion of the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the most numerous and is accused of ambitions of “Third Rome” and of being in lockstep with the Kremlin.
In the current crisis, which is the most dangerous because it harms all of Orthodoxy, much is said and written about the immense pressures that have been put on the Orthodox Churches, especially that of Greece, to recognize the new Ukrainian ecclesial entity headed by Epifany Dumenko, whose priesthood has not been recognized by the churches. The Orthodox Church of Poland, for example, continues to consider him to be a layman. Up to today, he has only obtained recognition from the Churches of Greece, Alexandria and Cyprus, despite serious objections within the holy synods of these churches. The Archbishop Anastasius of Albania, a Greek by origin who is greatly respected for his broad theological knowledge and his lengthy ecclesiastical experience on account of his missionary work in Africa followed by his role in the restoration and resurrection of the Church of Albania, objects to the canonical pretext for Constantinople’s decision and continues to demand that a meeting of all the Orthodox patriarchs be convened to prevent the schism from widening. Likewise, in addition to Russia, the Churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic and Slovakia have not recognized the Ukrainian ecclesial entity.
The schism train is gathering steam now and the mutual estrangement between the churches is becoming deeper. At a time when there is talk of impending decisions from Constantinople to grant autocephaly to the church of Montenegro and to the schismatic church in Northern Macedonia at the request of political authorities in both countries, something that puts Constantinople in direct confrontation with the Patriarchate of Serbia because Montenegro and Macedonia historically belong to it, the Russian Church has decided to establish establish a pair of exarchates in Africa on the historical territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in order to receive priests and parishes from that patriarchate. This disintegration and departure from the paths of unity and true conciliarity are unfortunate. All the calls to hold a synaxis of the patriarchs and leaders of the Orthodox churches to set things right– including from the Patriarchate of Antioch, which is in danger because it sits on the line of contact in this hot-cold war– have come to naught.
Where are we today? The Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodorus, regrets and admits, publicly and belatedly, that he did harm to Orthodox unity, as though he were saying that he had been forced to recognize the schismatics without Orthodox consensus. Would it not have been better for him, as someone who had lived and served in Ukraine alongside the legitimate church and is known for his closeness to the Russians, if he had remained a bridge of communication and dialogue between Constantinople and Moscow, fending off mutual estrangement and schism? As for the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, a figure whom we have loved and still love, who had been promising with his mastery of several languages, who had studied at Chalki in Turkey, Germany and Rome, who knows both the West and the East, who has an excellent mastery of canon law, who set the Orthodox world in motion at his election on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s through his calls for Orthodox unity and joint Orthodox activity, several times convening the Synaxis, summits between the patriarchs and heads of the Orthodox churches as a modern and necessary mechanism for mutual understanding, keeping track of things, and joint activity, today stands obstinate in defending and insisting on an erroneous decision about Ukraine and is being pushed more and more to focus on a dodgy theory that transforms the primacy of honor that the Ecumenical Patriarchate enjoys in the Orthodox world, which is indisputable and entails the primate having rights and responsibilities for coordination as first among equals, into the canonical primacy of a first without equals– that is, a superior, quasi-papal canonical primacy that imposes itself vertically upon the other Orthodox churches, doing away with the Orthodox tradition since the Apostles, which is the conciliar tradition, the tradition of consultation, discussion and horizontal decision-making. As for Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, whose eyes gleam with intelligence, a servant of the Church in difficult times, who was not afraid during the Soviet period to the media to bear witness to the Gospel, who constantly preached to the youth and accompanied them, who rose up with the Church after the fall of the Soviet Union– and how not, when he was a disciple of Metropolitan Nikodim, his predecessor as Metropolitan of Smolensk in Russia and his predecessor in the Patriarchate’s Department of External Relations at the height of the Soviet Union, a renowned man of ecclesial diplomacy for the Russian Church, who knew how to escape the grip of the Soviet communist authorities, who was close to the Vatican, which worked with him to defend the underground Church, who constantly connected the dots and dodged traps to stitch together international support for the underground Christian resistance in Russia that struggled and prepared for the fall of the bastion of communism and atheism, today we see him also trying to cure matters by means of what was itself the illness. Is it possible to treat poison with poison? As we wrote in an-Nahar on August 7, 2018, let us once more lift up a thunderous voice: who will stop this dangerous slide that is threatening the unity of the Orthodox Church? Have the patriarchs lost the ability and boldness necessary to take initiative? Let us pray to the Lord!