Category Archives: Religion and Politics

The Russian Orthodox Church and Coronavirus
Rethinking the Question of “Relevance to the System”

by Regina Elsner | ελληνικά | ру́сский

Assumption Cathedral, Moscow

In some respects, the global coronavirus crisis has brought to light ruptures that in normal times were often dismissed as marginal problems of small groups. Unresolved and underestimated social injustices became obvious and were recognized as threatening more than just the existence of the respective groups. A similar effect of the coronavirus crisis can also be observed for the Churches. Many conflict issues of the past years were dismissed as opinions of small groups or of particularly liberal or conservative individuals. Accordingly, solution processes were postponed. For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), this is true especially of the question of how to relate to modern society in the 21st century. The Church—despite growing requests—felt secure in its symphonic interaction with the political elite and in its role as moral authority in an increasingly complicated, globalized world. In this respect, the ROC was able to see itself as unquestionably relevant to the system.

In conflicts, the Church’s leadership often reacted incomprehensibly, even irreconcilably and hard-heartedly. This attitude was particularly justified by the alleged and yet so-difficult-to-prove existence of a fundamentalist wing within the ROC. Arch-conservative circles could cause a split within the Church, and the patriarch would only try to keep all currents together and prevent a split. The same happened in view of the spread of Covid-19: the indecision of the Church leaders in Russia and Belarus, but also in other Orthodox countries like Georgia or Serbia, was justified among other things by possible tensions within the Churches.

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Patriotism in Wartime: Nikolai of Japan and the Kingdoms of this World

by Betsy Perabo

St. Nikolai of Japan

In a diary entry on Christmas Eve 1904, Bishop Nikolai of Japan expresses his deep sorrow over Russian losses in the ongoing Russo-Japanese War.  Nikolai remained in Tokyo during the war at the request of the Japanese Orthodox congregation he had served for more than four decades.  His suffering was all the more difficult because he lived alongside Japanese Christians he had known for many years, who were – appropriately, he said – celebrating their own victories.  He states his desire to transcend this suffering when he is with his fellow Christians, writing:

I live now in a two-story house. On the upper floor we are all children of the Heavenly Father; on that floor, there are no Japanese, no Russians. Most of the time, I try to be there…Together we engage in Christian deeds for the Church, translation, book publishing, even Christian help to the prisoners of war or the Japanese wounded—all of this is suitable for the children of one Heavenly Father….But sometimes an oppressive state of soul pulls me down to the lower floor, where I remain by myself, without the Japanese….I must go to the upper floor, where there is no anger…I must be an inhabitant of the upper floor. (Betsy Perabo, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War, 149. Other in-text citations also come from this source.)

In a twist on the classic forms of the “doctrine of the two”—two cities, two kingdoms, two governments—Nikolai characterizes the coexistence of the “earthly kingdoms” and the “heavenly kingdom” as two floors of the same house, with the lower floor divided into two separate sections.  What Nikolai’s version of this theological construct captures that others do not is the multiplicity of the earthly kingdoms. Continue reading

Review: Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe

by Päivi Billie Gynther

Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe

Ever since the Russian Orthodox Church in July 2008 adopted its Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and human rights has been a popular theme in European academic publishing. Of this multitude, one stands out because of its respectful stance to varying views. Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, edited by Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou and Louis-Léon Christians (Peter Lang 2018) consists of contributions written not only by socio-political and legal scholars but also by orthodox theologians and clerics.

Evangelical and Catholic scholars open the way for a debate by introducing their views on the subject. Stefan Tobler from Lucia Blaga University, Romania, explains that for the Protestants human dignity is an unconditional concept that belongs to every human person, irrespective for her or his moral behavior. Thus, Protestants are finding it difficult to understand the Russian teaching about human dignity—not only as an absolute but also—as a moral concept. Walter Lesch from the Catholic University of Leuven, in turn, describes how human rights were gradually integrated to Catholic social thought and suggests that rights language should be seen as the Esperanto of Ethics, as a language that can be used and developed by believers and non-believers alike.

Referring to the fact that majority-Orthodox countries quite often have been judged for religious freedom violations by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), two scholars pose in Part 2 a question whether Orthodoxy as such is intolerant towards religious minorities, or whether we rather could trace historical and political causes for the multitude of litigations. Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou analyses in a thorough way religious freedom cases that have been brought before the ECtHR against Greece. Effie Fokas presents the findings of her empirical qualitative research conducted in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Russia, and suggests that the problems of religious freedom in these countries derive primarily from the peculiar relationship between religion and national identity. The challenge that the ECtHR hereby faces is how to apply its margin of appreciation doctrine towards these states. Continue reading

Did the American Government Create the OCU? Political Ambitions and the Ukrainian Church

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has inspired a number of hypotheses on who initiated the event. Past president Petro Poroshenko, Patriarch Filaret, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are usually identified as the architects of Ukrainian autocephaly. There is also a chorus of voices that attributes the creation of the OCU to the American government. Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, recently claimed that the OCU is an American creation, and that the USA desires to create a schism in global Orthodoxy. Lavrov made his claim immediately after Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s trip to the United States.

Hilarion was scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 22. Coincidentally, Metropolitan Epifaniy (Dumenko), the primate of the OCU, was set to meet Pompeo the next morning. Hilarion’s meeting with Pompeo was cancelled after the secretary assigned a deputy to represent him at the meeting (Hilarion declined). Pompeo’s meeting with Epifaniy took place as planned, and Pompeo expressed America’s support for the new church.

Is this enough evidence to verify that the US government created the OCU? If not, what do these meetings and statements mean, and what are their implications for American ambitions in Ukraine and Russia? Continue reading