On October 15, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced its decision to break with the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul, a move media reports have described as the gravest split among Christians in a millennium. Indeed, this is the greatest rupture in the Orthodox world since the East-West Schism of 1054 AD, which divided the largely Greek-speaking Orthodox East, with its patriarch in Constantinople, from the Latin-speaking Catholic West, which was led by Pope Leo IX.

What on the surface seems simply an esoteric argument over ecclesiastical jurisdiction is anything but. At the heart of the schism lie the ideological underpinnings for Putin’s new nationalism, and its violent manifestations in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Moreover, as Putin’s advisors call for a closer relationship, rooted in religious conservatism, between Orthodox Russia and Islamist Turkey, the future of the Ecumenical Patriarch is increasingly threatened. Far from a discrete religious affair, the ramifications could mean increasing violence in Ukraine and Ankara’s further drift into Moscow’s orbit.

The ROC and its head, Patriarch Kirill, have long been incensed with Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, for his consideration of autocephaly, or independence, for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The ROC had absorbed the UOC in 1686 following the Russian Empire’s annexation of Ukraine. On October 11, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Holy Synod announced their decision to award a tomos – a small book that contains a Holy Synod’s grant of autocephaly – to the UOC.

For the ROC and Patriarch Kirill, the decision means the loss of up to one-third of its parishes, more than 12,000 of which are located in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, views it as a victory in its efforts to distance Kiev from Moscow’s sphere of influence. The government has been fighting pro-Russian separatist forces in its eastern territories since 2014, in a war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and resulted in 1.6 million refugees.

For Ukrainian President Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko, the recognition of an independent UOC represents a significant blow to Russian global ambitions. “The Third Rome concept, as Moscow’s longest-standing claim of global hegemony, is collapsing like a house of cards,” he asserted in September. Indeed, while less than two percent of Russians belong to a parish and are indifferent about ecclesiastical matters, for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, an autocephalous UOC is a direct threat to the ideology of Russian exceptionalism and statehood under “Putinism.”  

ROC’s Revival

Putin’s rise to power is inextricably linked with the revitalization of the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the chaotic 1990s under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, many Russians, including Putin, yearned for the perceived stability of the past under autocratic Tsars, as they opposed to “democracy” following the Soviet collapse. The church, devastated after 70 years of communist rule, also looked to regain its lost prestige and leadership over Russian souls. Both needed a new ideology to match their ambitions for a strong Russian state, which would regain its rightful place both secularly as a world power and spiritually as the Third Rome.

No person has more successfully filled this ideological void than Alexander Dugin, whom Kremlin-watchers have dubbed “Putin’s brain” or “Putin’s Rasputin.” Like previous Eurasianists, Dugin’s philosophy centers on Russia’s geography, straddling both Europe and Asia, which provides it with a unique culture that is neither East nor West. His version of nationalism labels “rationalism as Western and thus promotes a mystical, spiritual, emotional, and messianic worldview.”

This messianic worldview became the basis for a new patriotism under Putin. According to Dugin, Russia began as an Orthodox power, and after the 15th century, the successor to Constantinople. Therefore, according to him, to be Russian is to be Orthodox, and the question of “what does it mean to be Russian” is not just philosophical, but “almost religious.”

Russian ethno-genesis, like many nationalisms and nationalist ideologies, is critical to Dugin’s philosophy. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all consider Kievan Rus’ – a group of confederated states, which lasted from the 9th to 13th century – their cultural progenitor. It was Vladimir the Great, the most famous Kievan Rus’ ruler, who chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity for his pagan nation after purportedly comparing the faith with Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, and Orthodoxy. Thus, Kiev became the founding site for both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, laying the cultural and historical foundation for the future Russian Empire.

It is not surprising, then, that in Dugin and Putin’s view, modern Ukraine, with its capital Kiev, is an integral part of Russia as a secular Eurasian power, and its efforts to join the European Union are therefore unacceptable. Yet now, with an independent UOC and the loss of ROC’s jurisdiction over the site of its own founding, Russia’s claim to spiritual preeminence is threatened as well.

This leaves Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in an unenviable position, facing both a resurgent Russia, which views him as a hindrance to its nation-building process, and a hostile Turkish government, which uses him as a scapegoat to mobilize its Islamist-cum-nationalist base. Despite his signing of a joint declaration in July alongside 17 other religious minority leaders stating they are “free to live out their faith” in Turkey, observers at home and abroad recognize the growing challenges resulting from Turkey’s ongoing pivot to Russia. One thing both Moscow and Ankara can agree on is that the power and influence of Bartholomew I must be contained.

The Precarious Patriarch 

The position of Bartholomew I, however, is more precarious than the Turks and Russians acknowledge. Despite being the first among equals of church leaders, he is, in many respects, a shepherd without a flock at home. “We have suffered because of Greek-Turkish confrontation, struggle, and a lack of mutual trust and confidence,” the Patriarch told CNN in 2010. “And that is why we lost most of our faithful.”

Bartholomew I, with his seat in Istanbul, is the living embodiment of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious past, which has eroded as a result of mass expulsions and pogroms. Indeed, the once-thriving Greek Orthodox community that the ecumenical patriarch represents has dwindled to a few thousand.

Turkish government policies have long attempted to let the institution wither away. In 1971, the government closed down the Halki Seminary, the key institution for training the next generation of Greek Orthodox clergy. While there are never-ending negotiations for its reopening, little progress has been made in over 40-years.

Turkish law stipulates that only a Turkish citizen can hold the title of Archbishop of Constantinople; the Turkish government does not recognize the Patriarch’s status as the leader of the Orthodox World. Since the Orthodox community only numbers in the thousands, with only a handful of youngsters looking to join the church, it means the Turkish government must issue citizenship to foreign archbishops to compensate for the dwindling pool of prospective future patriarchs. Effectively, this chokehold allows the Turkish government to have the final say over the succession of Bartholomew I. Look no further than Turkey’s Armenian Apostolic Church: The Turkish state’s constant interference in the election process for a new patriarch continues to polarize a religious minority, leaving Turkey’s largest Christian community leaderless.

Under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conspiratorial one-man rule, however, life has become even more difficult for the embattled ecumenical patriarch.

Conspiracy theories are a national obsession in Turkey, practiced and spun by representatives of the entire political spectrum. The recent case of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson revealed the degree to which such theories feed anti-Westernism: Turkish courts accused the American missionary of plotting to create a breakaway Christian-Kurdish state in Turkey. This absurd charge has its roots in the public’s longstanding belief that missionary activity, especially the proselytization of minorities, led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, as a representative of a Christian minority, or “fifth column,” evokes deep mistrust among Turks. Yet the chaos of the 2016 coup attempt put these conspiracies into overdrive. On August 30, 2016, government-mouthpiece Aksam published an article accusing Bartholomew I, the CIA, and U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen of plotting the coup in response to the government’s rapprochement with Moscow. Aksam cited as evidence a letter written by former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Arthur Hughes that was published on the website Oriental Review.

The letter was a forgery, and further investigation revealed that the ultimate source was a deliberate Russian disinformation campaign. Yet the majority of Turkish media outlets had already spread the fabricated story and Russian involvement became immaterial. 

The allegation that the July 2016 coup was a response to Ankara’s improving relations with Moscow was oddly similar to Dugin’s own view. Dugin was in Ankara as the putsch unfolded, and when he returned to Moscow, he told Russian viewers on his show that he had insider information about the Turkish “deep state,” which was attempting to wrest Turkey from Russia. Dugin stated that as he entered the airport and heard shooting, “they said soldiers are rebelling against Erdogan, and I understood right away, that American agents are among them, and in the important army posts, Gulenists.”  

Now that Bartholomew I has recognized the UOC independence, the Russian propaganda machine has turned on him again, claiming that he is a proxy for NATO and American machinations.

While death threats against Bartholomew I are nothing new, state-sponsored attempts to incite hatred against the Ecumenical Patriarch are a significant escalation. When asked in 2009 whether he sometimes felt crucified, he responded simply, “Yes, I do.”

Indeed, violence against Bartholomew I is not the only worry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Should “illegal activities” occur, warned Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on October 12, “then of course, just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers – and Putin has spoken about this many times – Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Analysts fear that UOC autocephaly will lead to other schisms in the Balkans, a region still recovering from the devastating ethno-religious wars of the 1990s. Meanwhile, there are reports that Moscow, in collusion with Ankara, could set up church dioceses in Turkey, and also recognize the Turkish Orthodox Church as a rival “heir of the Constantinople Patriarchate [from] the time of the Byzantium Empire.”

As tensions continue to mount, not only the Ecumenical Patriarch, but also the Eastern Orthodox Church could become the next battleground of Putin’s expansionist ambitions, and their odd resonance with Erdogan’s own bid for the leadership of the Muslim world.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

John Lechner is an intern at the Turkey program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He holds a BA in Slavic Languages & Literature from Harvard University and speaks Russian fluently, in addition to Turkish, German, Serbo-Croatian, Georgian, and Chechen. His bylines appeared in The American Interest and The National Interest.

Photo Credit: Patriarch Kirill (Left), Fmr. Russian President Dimitri Medvedev (Center), and Bartholomew I of Constantinople (Right) in 2010) Source: en.kremlin.ru.