Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the West has displayed a significant level of unity and solidarity with Ukraine. Comprehensive sanctions against Russia’s leadership coupled with military support to the Ukrainians have been at the forefront of the Western response. Before the invasion happened, we also witnessed intense and repeated, albeit unsuccessful, diplomatic efforts with the purpose of derailing Putin’s plans.
The same level of solidarity, which now requires a possible refit to better address the increased calls for protection of civilians, has been absent in the Orthodox world. A number of Orthodox churches failed even to call out and condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. After the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) scored several recognitions in 2019 and 2020, the enthusiasm for new recognitions has arguably slowed down. Ever since the granting of the Ukrainian autocephaly in January 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church has been weaponizing the question of the OCU’s recognition by devising and delivering a counter-recognition strategy.
The undecided group of churches that have neither leaned explicitly towards Moscow nor the Ecumenical Patriarchate, namely the Romanian, Bulgarian, and the Georgian Orthodox Church should have done the right thing and recognized Ukrainian autocephaly the moment Patriarch Kirill attempted to deflect and blame external evil forces for the war Putin waged against Ukraine. By staying idle on the matter, they are missing a chance to lend support to the OCU, which would further solidify this church but also provide hope to those in the UOC-MP who are taking steps to cut the cord with Patriarch Kirill.
The hesitation and silence among the non-recognizers is obvious and recent events tell us why. The recognition in November 2019 by the Patriarchate of Alexandria of the church headed by Met. Epiphanius turned out to be especially painful for Patriarch Theodoros II, whose canonical rights have been grossly violated by the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to establish an exarchate in Africa. This development revived the discussion of the Russian (church) geopolitical maneuvers and is being followed with worry and anxiety across the Orthodox world. The Greek foreign ministry showed unease and publicly shared its fears of ROC expansion activities in Greece and its broader neighborhood. The Orthodox Times reported that Archbishop Ieronymos (OCG) had informed the Greek political leadership of an increased ROC mobilization and the potential for destabilization in Greece.
The retaliation argument continues to be a centerpiece of the ROC’s international engagement, as it is constructed to prevent further international backing of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The last three years have produced enough material of the ROC’s dealings with the recognizers (the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Church of Greece, Patriarchate of Alexandria, and the Church of Cyprus) to infer such conclusions. By working against possible new recognitions, the ROC was making the Orthodox Church of Ukraine more vulnerable to destabilization efforts, be it from the ROC itself, the UOC-MP, Patriarch Filaret, or the loud group of external critics headed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. For now, the direct interference with the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria seems to be the most aggressive step and one with respect to which Patriarch Theodoros pays a high price.
Over the last three years, the Russian church has utilized different types of measures at its disposal for coercing the four recognizers. The ROC’s handling of the recognition of the OCU by the Church of Greece set the stage for the manner in which the Russian church would deal with the others who had taken the same path. The principal undertaking continues to be the cessation of communion, not with the entire church, as was the case with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but with the Primate of the church and those who support him. This approach is meant to bolster internal disagreements within the clergy and is an attempt to delegitimize and call in question the church leadership.
The same tactics were clearly on display in the case of the Church of Cyprus, the last to recognize Ukrainian autocephaly, in October 2020. As with the Church of Greece and the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the ROC decided to cease the liturgical commemoration of the Archbishop of Cyprus and those hierarchs of that church who maintain communion with the OCU. The immediate reaction of the ROC, after Abp. Chrysostomos went ahead with recognition, was that the ROC would continue to communicate with all bishops who do not recognize the decision of the Archbishop. As predicted, internal disagreements over the autocephaly decision flourished as several influential bishops, including Metropolitans Nikephoros of Kykkos, Athanasios of Limassol, Isaiah of Tamassos and Nicholas of Amathounta, started expressing their dissatisfaction publicly. The Metropolitans asked for the revocation of the OCU’s recognition and repeatedly challenged their Primate.
The Russian church and those close to it quickly exploited these internal fractions. Fr. Nikolai Danilevich of the UOC-MP immediately pointed to the revolt within the Church of Cyprus and said that none of the churches that recognized the OCU had done it in a conciliar manner and that any new churches that choose to recognize the OCU [will] face similar internal discord. Also, as with the Church of Greece, and to inflict financial loss, the ROC threatened them with the possibility that Russian pilgrims might only be able to travel to shrines on the island managed by those who support the ROC.
While Patriarch Theodore scrambles for a counter-response to the ROC’s aggressive actions, the worry is that the ROC might replicate the steps it took against the Patriarchate of Alexandria and continue formalizing its presence elsewhere. After all, Met. Hilarion spelled out that this might be a course of action in Turkey and elsewhere in a total disregard of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Archbishop Chrysostomos is no stranger to such a turn of events. In 2019, he issued a warning to the Russian Orthodox Church to stay out of the island after reports that such activity was taking place in the north. The Russian Embassy in Cyprus denied such allegations, saying that the person in question was not officially part of the Russian church.
The clear retaliatory measures that the ROC has been taking since the grant of Ukrainian autocephaly are first and foremost set to deter and slow down any further recognitions of the new church. They send a strong signal to potential recognizers that any inclination towards Met. Epiphanius will most likely be taken as an invitation to the ROC to meddle in and destabilize their inner-church life.
Despite the ROC’s ability to inflict pain, the Greek and Cypriot cases point towards the level of resilience in these two churches. Due to the war in Ukraine, the Russian church will be preoccupied in finding more ways to further legitimize Putin’s actions, but also ways to exert even more control over the UOC-MP. Externally it will be working in keeping the churches close to it (Serbian, Antioch and others) to ally as much as possible to its positions. The ROC’s project with the African exarchate after its lift off in November 2021 will probably face less attention due to domestic and regional concerns.
There is still a chance for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine despite its becoming a target of Putin’s “special military operation”. Scoring new recognitions by the Romanian, Bulgarian, and Georgian churches would boost further the legitimacy of the Metropolitan Epiphany and offer a glimmer of hope to those in the UOC-MP revolting against Patriarch Kirill. A “wait and see” approach might prove to be too late.
Andreja Bogdanovski is a PhD candidate at the University of Buckingham, UK, where he studies church autocephaly movements across Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
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