For decades, the citizens of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) have suffered the pain and gnawing awareness of division. They have been separated from their families and their homeland by the political reality of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the physical reality of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which bisects the peninsula near the 38th parallel and is packed with soldiers on both sides. Former President Bill Clinton once described the DMZ as, “the scariest place on earth.”
While the “Miracle on the Han River” typically refers to South Korea’s rapid economic growth from the ruins of war in 1953 to successfully hosting the 1988 Olympics and becoming a G20 member in 2010—despite the peninsula’s ongoing division—the “miracle” has, appropriately, been manifested within Korea’s Orthodox community as well. After the North’s army abducted Korea’s only Orthodox priest at the time, Fr. Alexi Kim, at the start of the Korean War in 1950, and after the St. Nicholas Church building was destroyed by the 1951 bombing of Seoul, the small flock of Orthodox faithful was at risk of annihilation. However, by the grace of God and through the help of Greek chaplains and soldiers serving in the Korean War, St. Nicholas was rebuilt, a new Korean priest (Fr. Boris Moon) was selected by the faithful and ordained (being transported secretly to the nearest bishop—in Japan—and back!), and the flame of Orthodox Christianity endured. In 1955, 55 years after the first Orthodox arrived in Korea from Russia (1900), 38 years after all spiritual support from the Russian Orthodox Church had ceased with the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and subsequent Soviet regime, and 2 years after the Korea War’s ceasefire, the ecclesiastically orphaned but resilient Orthodox faithful of Korea wrote a letter to the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate asking to come under the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s spiritual care and jurisdiction. Their request was granted, and the development and growth of the Church in Korea began to accelerate.
Today, the roughly 5,000 Orthodox faithful of Korea remain under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, whose Holy Synod elevated the flourishing Church in Korea in 2004 to the status of a “Metropolis.” Bishop Soterios (Trambas), who had served the Orthodox faithful since arriving there in 1975, and who oversaw the renewal and growth of the church after Fr. Boris’s sudden death in 1977, became Korea’s first Metropolitan.
Among Bishop Soterios’s extraordinary accomplishments in Korea, both before and after being elevated as “Metropolitan,” was his preservation of the jurisdictional unity that is fully congruent with Orthodox canon law—one region, one bishop, one Church. As we in the United States know, this is no easy task. It is especially difficult when there is an influx of immigrants, as there was in Korea in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Bishop Soterios preserved the local church’s unity neither by force, nor by political strategizing, but by genuine love and humble dedication to meeting the needs of all the Orthodox living in the country—Korean natives, Slavophones, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Americans, etc. In 2008, when Metropolitan Soterios voluntarily resigned from his leadership role, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod elected bishop Ambrosios (Zographos) as his successor, an equally dedicated hierarch and shepherd who had been serving in Korea since 1998. Like his predecessor, Metropolitan Ambrosios has selflessly dedicated himself to meeting the pastoral needs of all Orthodox Christians in Korea, placing particular emphasis on spiritual growth, liturgical participation, youth ministries, publishing translations of Orthodox books, and cultivating a warm, unified, family atmosphere among the faithful.
On Sundays at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Seoul, for example, the Divine Liturgy in the main church is celebrated in Korean (with a few prayers repeated in English) and is celebrated simultaneously in Slavonic in the Cathedral’s Chapel of St. Maximos. Both Fr. Antonios Lim (in the main church) and Fr. Roman Kavchak (in the chapel) are priests of the Ecumenical Patriarchate serving under the omophorion of Metropolitan Ambrosios. Following the Divine Liturgy, the faithful gather as one spiritual family to share an “agape” luncheon. At the same table one is likely to find native Koreans sharing fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who were born in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Greece, Serbia, Georgia, and/or the U.S. Similarly, at the Metropolis of Korea Summer Camp, one finds children who, despite their different racial and ethnic backgrounds, experience one another as nothing other than sisters and brothers in Christ—members of one Eucharistic body, ministered to by diverse clergy and staff, and taught and guided by the spiritual authority of their one local bishop. Having lived in this community with my family for a year, and volunteered in their various ministries for over 16 years, I can find no better description of Orthodoxy in Korea than the words of the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps 133:1)
What, then, is the “threat” Korea faces?
We are all aware of the recent escalation of tensions between the governments of North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., China, and Japan, resulting from Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions and military progress. To be sure, this is a real threat to the lives and well-being of millions of people, to non-human creation, and to the socio-economic “miracle on the Han river.” Anxieties are rising on all sides, especially in the hearts of Korea’s residents, who seem to be both most at risk and least in control.
But there is another current threat, one that could destroy the unity, peace, and unique evangelical witness of the Orthodox community of Korea: Leaders within the Patriarchate of Moscow are intent upon establishing a parallel jurisdiction.
Responding to the actions and ambitions of the Patriarchate of Moscow in Korea, Metropolitan Ambrosios has said in his recent extended interview (available in Greek and in English), ‘What is at stake is not me, but the Church of Christ.’
The interview—recommended reading for all “Public Orthodoxy” subscribers—details a series of events showing not only that the Patriarchate of Moscow runs roughshod over the Church’s canon law tradition (when doing so seems to serve their interests), but that today’s Russian Orthodox Church is so driven by its nationalist and expansionist political agenda that it is willing to destroy the extraordinary ‘goodness’ and ‘pleasantness’ of Orthodox unity among the citizens and residents of the Republic of Korea, a people who have already been traumatized by separation from loved ones for over 65 years.
It is time for the Patriarchate of Moscow to cease this insidious modus operandi. If the Russian Orthodox Church truly desires to promote Christ on the Korean peninsula, its leaders need to acknowledge, communicate with, and support the flourishing flock that is already there and is being shepherded by His Eminence Metropolitan Ambrosios with the blessing of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As St. Paul wrote, “they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; thus I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them.” (1 Cor 16:15-16)
Rev. Dr. Perry Hamalis is Cecelia Schneller Mueller Professor of Religion at North Central College (Naperville, IL). In 2015-16, he was a Fulbright Senior Fellow and Underwood Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul). A deacon of the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea, he teaches, writes, and lectures on Christian Ethics, and is the co-editor, with Valerie Karras, of the forthcoming book, Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War (University of Notre Dame Press).