“Appeasement,” Winston Churchill once said, “is feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last.” It is this approach—one of appeasement and concession—that Orthodox primates have applied to the ecclesiastical ambitions of the Moscow Patriarchate.
While the 2019 granting of autocephaly, or self-governing status, to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate made intra-Orthodox tensions more public, the root cause of today’s growing disunity is decades in the making.
Moscow’s obsessive ethnophyletism and promotion of its Russkiy Mir agenda were quietly acknowledged but mostly ignored for the sake of peace. Recent Moscow aggression, however, requires a broad-based and decisive response from Orthodox hierarchs. Failure to address the Moscow Patriarchate’s expansionism will only embolden and encourage even more aggressive behavior in the future.
On December 29, 2021, Moscow’s ruling synod adopted a resolution establishing an exarchate in Africa on what is the undisputed canonical territory of the Ancient Patriarchate of Alexandria—second in order of precedence after Constantinople of the fifteen local Orthodox churches (Moscow is fifth).
This retaliatory action is meant to punish Alexandria and its leader, Patriarch Theodoros, together with his clergy and flock, for the November 2019 decision to officially recognize the OCU and commemorate its primate, Metropolitan Epiphanios of Kyiv and all Ukraine, during liturgical celebrations.
This particular instance of Russian ecclesiastical encroachment, of which there are many other examples, followed two years of unsuccessful attempts to coerce Patriarch Theodoros and his hierarchs to reverse their decision on Ukraine. In addition to exacting revenge, Moscow’s presence in Africa will also serve its strategic purpose in at least two ways.
First, it puts on notice other local churches, but especially more vulnerable ones such as the Ancient Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who may be considering recognizing the OCU. Second, breaking communion with those who recognize the OCU, like Alexandria, provides Moscow with the pretext to establish a formal presence outside its traditional sphere of influence.
Following Constantinople’s granting of autocephaly to the OCU in January 2019, for example, Moscow moved expeditiously the following month to create multiple dioceses in Southeast Asia. More recently, Russian spokesmen have opened the door to establishing an ecclesiastical presence in Turkey, in the bosom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
At the same time that Moscow is extending its ecclesiastical footprint, it is also escalating its communication and misinformation warfare, specifically targeting Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. One tactic deployed by Moscow, and especially Hilarion, the Russian metropolitan responsible for external relations, is to focus on popular Greek-language church news websites in order to divide and thus weaken the Greek-speaking Orthodox world.
This approach is not new: in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, for instance, articles were fabricated and published in Russian-connected websites embellishing Patriarch Bartholomew’s connection to Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish president attributed the coup to, to increase animosity towards the Patriarchate.
Now, Russia’s calculated communication spin is to connect Constantinople’s decision vis-à-vis the OCU with the US State Department or a CIA ploy to destroy Orthodoxy. Just last month, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused Patriarch Bartholomew of conspiring with the US government to “bury the influence of Orthodoxy in the modern world.”
The multi-pronged and sustained Russian political-ecclesiastical alliance to advance a pro-Moscow narrative is also not new. What is novel, however, is the brazenness of their actions and the boldness of their rhetoric—Hilarion has publicly acknowledged that Moscow blackmails and intimidates local churches to ensure a supportive, or at least neutral position, especially as it relates to Ukraine.
For its part, Constantinople continues to preach unity and the importance of adhering to the Ecumenical Councils and their corresponding canons. Tellingly, Patriarch Bartholomew still commemorates his Russian counterpart during church services, and neither he nor his hierarchs respond to the incendiary rhetoric by Hilarion and other Russian clergymen.
There are some who now propose a pan-Orthodox synod to resolve the Ukrainian issue. This supposed solution, however, ignores Constantinople’s historical prerogative to grant autocephaly, as it did for almost all of the non-ancient local churches. Moreover, it conveniently overlooks the fact that the biggest obstacle to pan-Orthodox collaboration is the Moscow Patriarchate itself.
The most pronounced example in recent times of Moscow’s unwillingness to cooperate was its attempts to sabotage the 2016 Holy and Great Council. Despite multiple concessions from Constantinople, including relocating the council from Turkey to Crete, removing agenda items not favored by the Russians, and limiting the planned time for discussion, Moscow still declined to participate at the eleventh hour.
It is past time for Orthodox leaders to consider how to address and prevent future rogue actions by Russia that aim to “overthrow the Church’s canonical order,” as described by a leading metropolitan from Alexandria, His Eminence Gregory of Cameroon.
The most obvious, prudent, and proper thing to do is officially recognize the OCU and Metropolitan Epiphanios. In addition to Alexandria, the local churches of Greece and Cyprus have already done so. By having other primates and their synods do the same, Moscow will, at a minimum, have to reconsider its approach lest it finds itself in self-imposed separation from almost all other local churches. The longer it takes other churches to recognize the OCU, the more damage will be done, and structures put in place, such as in Africa, will be more difficult to reverse.
Silence from the leaders of Orthodoxy will encourage Moscow’s naked ecclesiastical ambition. Without a resolute coalition among hierarchs, Moscow’s uncanonical actions and expansionism will further erode Church unity. Establishing an exarchate in Africa is not just a direct threat to Alexandria; Russian actions are a threat to all other local churches, who either now, or someday soon, will inevitably face hostile actions when the interests of Moscow do not align with their own (such as the Church of Georgia, which faces constant canonical incursions from Russian clergymen).
Orthodox primates need to ask themselves how much feeding of the crocodile they wish to indulge in and what they will do when it’s their own time to be consumed.