On December 29, 2021, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate decided to establish a Russian exarchate for the entire African continent. The exarchate is to consist of two dioceses: one for northern and one for southern Africa. The title of the bishop of the northern diocese would be “of Cairo and North Africa.”
Many saw this decision as a violation of the ancient rights of the Alexandrian patriarchate. As early as in 325, at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, which adopted the universal Christian creed, a canon of the council stated: “The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places, since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome.” In other words, the Nicene council confirmed the territorial sovereignty of the Alexandrian church in the way similar to the territorial sovereignty of the church of Rome. Indeed, from the early centuries, the two churches followed the same pattern of the evolution of their administrative structures and prerogatives. Sometimes, the church of Alexandria set an example for its Roman peer. For example, the archbishops of Alexandria were called “popes” a century before the bishops of Rome adopted this title.
The Russian synodal decision taken in the last days of 2021 effectively cancelled this and some other norms of the ancient church. The Synod justified its decision by claiming that the pope of Alexandria has apostatized to a schism—by commemorating the primate of the newly established autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This church received its recognition through a Tomos issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate three years ago, in January 2019. Three other Orthodox churches followed the cause: those of Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus. The Russian Orthodox Church did not recognize such recognition and threatened with severe consequences those churches who would dare to support the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Moscow unilaterally broke communion with Constantinople, Alexandria, Athens, and Nicosia. However, so far, the Patriarchate of Alexandria has been retaliated against in the most brutal way.
Most observers agree with the explanations provided by the Russian church, that the reason for retaliation is the recognition of the Ukrainian church. I believe this is not a reason but an excuse. The reason could be seen in the larger picture of Russia’s advances to the African continent.
Following China’s success in what can be perceived as the recolonization of Africa, Russia rushed for the chance to get a share in what it sees as a second Scramble of Africa. It seems that the Eastern authoritarian regimes are trying to fill the void on the continent left by the Western democracies.
To get a foothold on African soil, the authoritarian regimes have to offer something to the local governments and economies. Russia cannot offer investments and infrastructure projects on the same scale as the Chinese. True, it can offer bribes, as it does in Europe and elsewhere, but this does not seem to be enough.
In the meantime, in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Putin has developed a unique skill of protecting authoritarian and murderous regimes—from their own peoples and from the Western efforts for democratization. He proved himself successful in protecting dictators in countries like Syria, where he convincingly demonstrated that the American “red lines” are nothing but talk. More recently, he offered similar services to the oppressive regime in Belarus’. Now Kazakhstan seems to be next in line for his services.
It appears that quite a few African leaders, whose style of governance is not much different from that of Mr. Al-Assad or Mr. Lukashenka, have become interested in Putin’s skill at protecting unpopular regimes from public unrest and turning democratic procedures, such as elections, into simulacra. And Russia’s leader is happy to share his political know-how and to enforce its implementation by the Russian paramilitary troops.
In taking his chance on Africa, Putin uses not only his paramilitary troops but also the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the soft power of Putin’s regime that can help him to cement the Russian presence in Africa. Earlier, the Russian church had some presence in Africa by offering pastoral care for the Russian expats here. It had its representations in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa. For that, Moscow had the consent of Alexandria. Now the Russian church wants to be a substitute for the Alexandrian patriarchate in caring for the native African Orthodox, who constitute a small but visible group on the religious map of the continent.
The Russian church claims that it expands into Africa in the name of the ancient canonical norms. The irony, however, is that such norms are brutally violated for the sake of expansion. Such a violation can be explained only if there is are higher political stakes, which in this case is an attempt at a new “Scramble for Africa.”
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is Professor of Ecclesiology, International Relations, and Ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.