An Orthodox church in Volgograd, Russia, January 2014. 
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

This June, the leaders of the world’s 262 million Orthodox Christians met in Crete at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (sometimes referred to as the Pan-Orthodox Council) to discuss the challenges facing their religious community. The council was the first of its kind in 1,229 years—the last was the Second Council of Nicaea in 787—and in an echo of the councils of antiquity, leaders addressed a church surrounded by conflict and riven by political and ideological disputes. Only a few hundred miles to the east of Crete, the Orthodox Christians of Syria and Iraq face extermination, just as their ancient communities were devastated by war and persecution. To the north, Orthodox believers are on both sides of the firing line in Ukraine. In Africa, Orthodox communities in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan face constant threats from militant Islamists. As it faces external enemies, moreover, Orthodoxy is increasingly beset by internal divisions.

In contrast with the Catholic Church, which is unified under the authority of the pope, Orthodoxy possesses no single leader. Each of the 14 Orthodox Churches is independent and equal within the faith’s hierarchy. Traditionally, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (now Istanbul) has been “first among equals,” a status that dates back to the origins of Eastern Orthodoxy in the Great Schism of 1054, when Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire. Yet that status has recently come into question due to the growing strength of the Russian Orthodox Church

A RUSSIAN SYMPHONY

In Byzantium, the patriarch of Constantinople was so powerful that he was responsible for crowning the emperor. The Byzantine church and state were mutually entwined in what was called a “symphony” of secular and religious power. Now, a similar symphony can be heard in Russia, home of the world’s largest Orthodox community (officially numbered at some 100 million believers). Under the combined rule of the patriarch of Moscow, Archbishop Kirill, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has in recent years cemented an alliance for the pursuit of traditional values at home and abroad.

“The line between religion and politics in Russia, and generally in the Orthodox space, is a thin one,” Lucian N. Leustean, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University, told me. When Putin unveiled his most recent National Security Strategy in late 2015, for example, he listed “defending Russian values” as his third overall priority. By Russian values, Putin meant the version of Russian Orthodox Christianity championed by Kirill, who sees it as a civilization separate and fundamentally different from that of the secular West. Russia, in this vision, is the champion of Orthodox civilization, and the Putin regime, as Kirill put it in 2012, is nothing less than “a miracle of God.”

Kirill’s view is often referred to as Orthodox exceptionalism, which holds that the Russian state has a moral duty to protect Orthodox religious spaces inside and outside of Russia’s borders. It also condemns Western ideas of human rights and the separation of church and state, and presents Orthodoxy as a more spiritual alternative to the supposedly decadent individualism and consumerism of the West. In recent years, Orthodox exceptionalism has motivated the Kremlin-financed construction of large Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe, including one overlooking St. Peter’s in Rome and another near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Despite the Kremlin’s maneuvering, however, Istanbul’s Ecumenical Patriarchate remains an obstacle to Russian dominance within the Orthodox world.

Despite the Kremlin’s maneuvering, however, Istanbul’s Ecumenical Patriarchate remains an obstacle to Russian dominance within the Orthodox world. Although it has only around five million believers under its jurisdiction (a few thousand in Istanbul, the populations of islands such as Crete and the Dodecanese, and Greek Orthodox Christians living outside of Greece), the patriarchate does maintain its traditional role as convener of councils and mediator in disputes. Since U.S. President Harry Truman’s time, moreover, the patriarchate has also enjoyed the backing of the United States, which has seen it as a valuable counterweight to Moscow.

It should come as no surprise then that the Holy and Great Council—championed by Bartholomew I, the archbishop of Constantinople and leader of the Ecumenical Patriarchate—became an arena for an Istanbul-Moscow showdown. After having helped to organize the event and draft its documents, the Russian Orthodox Church pulled out at the last minute over concerns about the council’s legitimacy. The withdrawal undermined the meeting’s universality, and therefore its legitimacy, and came after a barrage of criticism from Russian state media questioning the Istanbul patriarchate’s right to convene the council at all. The Russian news agency TASS even ran a story alleging that the council was an attempt to betray the Orthodox Church to the Pope, a charge equivalent to treason.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias visit an Orthodox church in Mt. Athos, Greece, May 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias visit an Orthodox church in Mt. Athos, Greece, May 2016.
Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters

The council, held in Crete, no doubt suffered from the fact that the Eastern Mediterranean has become a target for both Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and those of the Russian Orthodox Church. Just before the council, Putin had visited the monastic community of Mt. Athos in Greece, officially under Istanbul’s jurisdiction, to celebrate 1,000 years of Russian monks on the holy mountain. During his visit, he suggested that the Russian connection to Greece “could only get stronger,” and indeed Greece has been outspoken in its opposition to continued EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. So too has the government of Cyprus, and some Cypriot Orthodox groups have called to make facilities on the island available to Russian forces. The protection of Orthodox communities has even been cited as a justification for Russian military intervention in Syria. 

Yet disputes surrounding the council have also demonstrated the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence in the wider world of Orthodoxy. The Antiochan, Bulgarian, and Georgian Churches all also refused to attend the Holy and Great Council. Antioch, based in Assad-controlled Damascus, cited as a reason its dispute with the Jerusalem Church over jurisdiction in Qatar. The Georgian Church rejected, with the backing of the Russian Church, the customary age-based order in which the 14 Orthodox Churches are placed, claiming for itself a much older pedigree than the one currently recognized by the patriarchate in Istanbul. The Bulgarian Church, meanwhile, explained its nonattendance as in part a protest against council documents that included language about improving relations with other churches. The ultra-conservative Bulgarian hierarchs took this as a reference to the Catholic Church, which they, along with other Orthodox conservatives, maintain is not a church at all, but only a community.

POLITICAL THEOLOGY

The Bulgarian Church’s fussiness about the language used to describe Catholicism highlights another major division within Orthodoxy, that between conservative and more liberal-minded leaders. This division cuts across all churches. For example, several bishops from Cyprus, who did attend the council, echoed the Bulgarians by voting against the document on improving relations with other churches. Yet the division is not limited to religious matters; it extends into politics as well. In both Cyprus and Greece, some religious officials have welcomed the election of politicians from the neo-fascist parties ELAM and Golden Dawn. On Crete, however, Istanbul’s Ecumenical Patriarchate pushed through a mission statement for Orthodoxy that condemned all forms of racism and discrimination.

The conservative-liberal split has the ability to throw off the Russian symphony. Ordinarily, the Russian Orthodox Church is a strong proponent of theological conservatism. Yet conservatism does not always align with Russian interests. For example, in February 2016 Kirill met with Pope Francis in Havana, in a move that was likely engineered by Putin to boost the Russian church’s global profile. Yet on his return to Moscow, Kirill was strongly criticized by conservative Orthodox bishops, who felt that he should not be meeting with the Catholic leader. Likewise, the Russian Orthodox Church’s bid for dominance within Orthodoxy contradicts conservatives’ respect for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s traditional “first among equals” status.

The Istanbul patriarchate also has some potentially damaging leverage over Moscow when it comes to Ukraine. Ukraine is currently under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The day the bishops began arriving in Crete for the council, however, the Ukrainian parliament launched an appeal to Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul to recognize an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, separate from Moscow. He declined to do so, and the council went ahead without any official discussion of the subject. But the pressure remains. Such a move, which would remove some 30 million believers from the Russian church’s jurisdiction, would likely be seen in Moscow as a declaration of schism. It also highlights that the Russian church and the Russian state do not always see eye to eye. Despite the Kremlin’s depiction of Ukraine as a battleground between Orthodox civilization and the West, the conflict creates major difficulties for the Moscow Patriarchate. 

The question of Ukraine—as well as that of the wider struggle between the churches for influence—illustrates one of the fundamental issues put forth by the council and indeed by much discussion within Orthodox Christianity over the last 1,229 years. Is, as many in the Russian Church would argue, Orthodoxy merely a collection of national bodies, loosely affiliated by doctrinal ideas? Or is it a more unified and universal entity that transcends national and ethnic boundaries? The question is essentially theological. Yet the council has shown that, just as in the days of the Byzantine symphony, questions of theology and questions of politics are difficult to keep apart.