Russia’s constitutional amendments of 2020 augur an ever-enlarging foreign policy role for the Russian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Constitutional entrenchment of the Kremlin’s selective understanding of state sovereignty and non-interference; a state-sanctioned vision of historical truth; the muscular protection of compatriot rights abroad; and the propagation of traditional values each tap into areas where the church has steadfastly advocated Russian civilization as a global counterweight to the West’s “ultra-liberalism.” Faced with this emerging reality, policymakers should reassess the nature and substance of their interactions with church officials and take measures to scrutinize ROC activities more closely in their respective jurisdictions.
*Please note that this essay was authored two days before the reported re-taking of the regional capital Mekelle by the Tigray Defence Forces, which has led the federal government to declare a ceasefire.
On November 4, 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia began a military operation in the region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. In the eight months of on-going conflict, involving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front/Tigray Defence Forces on the one side and the Ethiopian federal army supported by the Eritrean Defence Forces on the other, innumerable reports have emerged about indiscriminate artillery strikes on residential areas and civilians; the systematic raping of women and girls; the intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of ethnic Tigrayans; and the looting and destruction of property, hospitals, and religious sites and treasures by federal and ally militant elements. Humanitarian agencies consistently report that a man-made famine is unfolding in Tigray due to restrictions to farming and the systematic looting of agricultural materials by federal and Eritrean soldiers. A June report by the crisis group ACAPS (“Tigray crisis – Impact of conflict on food security, agriculture and livelihoods”) noted that the region is now classified in IPC phase 4, which means that it is facing Emergency Outcomes, with 350,000 people being in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). Moreover, since the start of the conflict hundreds of thousands have fled their communities, with some villages/towns being entirely emptied, seeking refuge in the regional capital Mekelle or camps in surrounding regions and at the border with Sudan. In April 2021, CARE reported that the conflict had led to the displacement of “over 417,152 people predominantly women and children” (“Tigray Conflict Rapid Gender Analysis”).
The current situation is personally agonizing, as I previous conducted long-term anthropological research in Tigray, and I have been working since 2016 to understand local communities’ experiences of domestic violence and to help to address the problem from within the local religio-cultural framework of the predominantly Orthodox Täwahǝdo population of Tigray. In November 2020, I relocated to Ethiopia with the intention of travelling back to Tigray’s Aksum city to pilot an intervention working with clergy and secular stakeholders and providers in the surrounding villages. The war erupted just as we prepared to start the project, terminating all our communication with partner institutions in Mekelle and Aksum and making it impossible to know the conditions of our colleagues and the communities there (communication has been partially restored since).
Much has been written about the conflict, and due to the ethnic tensions and grievances that underpin it, there have been conflicting narratives around it. In this essay I am not concerned with reinforcing any of these narratives, but rather to share my personal understanding of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis as witnessed from my current location in Addis Ababa and communicated to me by colleagues in Tigray in order to stress the need for urgent and definitive responses.
In his preface to the social ethics document “For the Life of the World,” Archbishop Elpidophoros of America invited the Orthodox faithful, as well as Christians of other denominations and all people of good will, to engage with the text and enter into a discourse about it. In response to this invitation, the author, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, has thoroughly analyzed the text, written in the spirit of the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, and appreciated its significance.
The social ethics document was intended to continue the engagement with the modern world begun by the Holy and Great Synod of Crete in 2016. In view of new questions and challenges, additional efforts were needed to provide forward-looking impulses for the church and its faithful. A comparison with the synod documents shows that the social-ethical document contributes a significant facet to this. Documents of social-ethical content published earlier by the Russian Orthodox Church were included in the study in order to be able to answer the question of continuities or new accents. Access to the world of thought and to the understanding of the social-ethical document is opened not least by the manifold contributions and publications of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and many Orthodox theologians. It was neither intended nor possible within the framework of this study to attempt to fully cover the diversity of positions and statements of Orthodox theology on the broad spectrum of topics covered by the document. The inclusion of a selection of contributions by hierarchs and theologians rather served the goal of approaching the text in the horizon to which it belongs, namely that of Orthodoxy. In doing so, it has become apparent that “For the Life of the World” has been consistently drawn from specific aspects of modern Orthodox theology developed over decades.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .”*
The Pentecost feast-day reading from Acts (2:1-21) is absolutely galvanized with spiritual energy, isn’t it? It radiates with the brightness of faith coming into being in an extraordinary mystical experience including the whole community gathered in prayer; so that, in the words of Romanos’ Kontakion for Pentecost: “they glorified the All-Holy Spirit” (E. Lash, trans. 1995, 207). This abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, revealed to us in Scripture, is a foundational treasure of Orthodox Christianity. It is the Holy Spirit who is leading us through the Liturgy, who gave courage to the early men and women martyrs, who guided the Ecumenical Councils, and who defined the Canon of Holy Scripture.
We are fortunate that the Acts of the Apostles was crafted so soon after the events it describes. While it is a story involving a whole panorama of remembered characters and beloved episodes contributing to the seeding and growth of the Primitive Church, it is the action of God—the living divinity of God we know as the Holy Spirit—which is most urgently, most excellently portrayed here. “It is no exaggeration to conclude that Early Christians looked upon the Holy Spirit as the chief external witness to the presence of Christ’s reign” (J.T. Koenig, Charismata: God’s Gifts for God’s People, 1978, 73). In fact, Acts might better be titled “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”