Putin’s version is supported by Patriarch Kirill, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. But it is bitterly contested by the leaders of other Orthodox communities – and by the most senior Eastern Orthodox prelate, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who from his seat in what is now Istanbul oversees the legacy of about 1,500 years from Byzantium.
Pope Francis embarked on this cross-community battle on Tuesday, curtly warning Kirill that he should not be “Putin’s altar boy”. Francis told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he advised Kirill during a Zoom conversation on March 16: “Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus”. The Roman and Orthodox churches have their roots in two apostle brothers, Peter and Andrew. During the Great Schism of 1054, Rome separated from Byzantium.
We view Putin as a secular and autocratic leader. But he’s also an Orthodox believer, carrying the cross his mother secretly gave him when he was a baby during Soviet times. Kirill served as his ally in rallying the Russian people to invade and conquer a neighboring Slavic country. But for Putin and his patriarch, it seems, it is about restoring order among the rebellious faithful.
This inter-communal battle has elements of a family feud. The Russian Orthodox Church was founded in kyiv in 988, then moved to Moscow, which has asserted its dominance ever since. When some of the Orthodox faithful in a restive post-Maidan Kyiv in 2015 demanded independent status in Moscow (in religious terms known as “autocephaly,” or egocentrism), Kirill rejected the offer.
Tensions have risen: Bartholomew attempted reconciliation at what was supposed to be a global gathering of the faithful at a “Holy and Great Council” in Crete in 2016. But Kirill boycotted the meeting. In 2018, Bartholomew agreed to officially recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Church from Moscow; Kirill severed relations with him and, in effect, denied his primacy. For the Orthodox world, it was a schism.
“The pious people of Ukraine have been waiting for this blessed day,” Bartholomew said in a 2019 speech at a ceremony in Istanbul establishing an independent Ukrainian church. He said the Ukrainian Church should enjoy “the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-reliance, freeing itself from all external dependence and intervention.”
Moscow’s push for control in recent years has taken on religious Cold War aspects. Russian and Eastern Orthodox prelates fought for the dominance of churches in Africa, Korea, Singapore and elsewhere. Kirill created an “exarchate” in Africa to replace the Patriarch of Alexandria, loyal to the Church of the East. A Religion News Service article described it as an effort to “woo priests and parishioners…weaken the old institution and extend the grip of the Russian Church.”
Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, in a January letter, derided the Russian church’s intervention in Africa, calling its evangelists “wild wolves who come among you and will not spare the flock”, according to Religion News Service. An Eastern church activist estimates that Russian Orthodox organizers, with plenty of money to hand out, have converted more than 200 churches in Africa.
“Instead of supporting the local faithful, the Moscow Patriarchate is dividing them,” protested Reverend Perry Hamalis of Russia’s disruption of “God-pleasing unity” among South Korea’s Orthodox. His comments were published in a 2019 collection of essays by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, which supports the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Anthony J. Limberakis, who leads the order in America, told me that the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to replace the old primacy of Constantinople, now embodied by Bartholomew. Russia’s goal is “to use the Orthodox Church as a political tool for Russian nationalism and expansion”, he said.
“When Kirill goes to other jurisdictions, like Africa or Korea, it’s a religious invasion,” Father Alexander Karloutsos, spiritual advisor to the Order of St. Andrew, told me in an interview. “That’s why there is a schism.”
From Putin’s perspective, Kirill is a patriarch for all seasons. He blessed the invasion before it happened and now he ignores the terrible human cost. “Russia has never attacked anyone,” Kirill said in a sermon on Tuesday, according to Orthodox Times. He spoke on a day when shells and rockets were bombarding the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy.