In Russia, there is a widely spread superstition that August brings national-scale catastrophes. The mass protests in Belarus against Alyaksandr Lukashenka are seen as such a catastrophe for the regime of Vladimir Putin. Even though Mr. Lukashenka struggled to preserve some independence for his country from Russia, Belarus under his rule represented the model of a Neo-Soviet colony that Russia has tried to impose on its neighbors since Putin’s presidency began. Belarus under Mr. Lukashenka preserved many symbols and most of the ethos of the Soviet era.
The key feature of the Soviet ethos is paternalism, which means that the regime offers its subjects basic social welfare in exchange for complete obedience. The Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (also known as the Maidan), for example, was a revolt against this sort of paternalism. What is going on now in Belarus looks more like a revolution that started within the paternalistic framework. There are good signs, however, that eventually the Belarusian revolution will turn against paternalism as such.
Around midday local time on Friday, July 24th, the first Muslim Friday prayer service in over eighty years was conducted in Hagia Sophia, its status recently changed from a museum to a mosque. A key part of weekly Muslim congregational worship is the preaching of a sermon. In this case, the sermon was delivered by Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the government ministry that licenses and oversees religious institutions and personnel in Turkey). Some 12 hours later, in the evening of the same day at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, Archbishop Elpidophoros led an Akathist service as part of a day of mourning for the change in Hagia Sophia’s status. At the end of the Akathist, Archbishop Elpidophoros also delivered a sermon.
The contrast between the texts of these sermons is remarkable. Comparing these two documents brings into focus the actual basis of the conflict over Hagia Sophia. One the one hand, Erbaş’s sermon argues for a religious politics of patronage and dominion. On the other, Elpidophoros’ sermon argues for a religious politics of pluralism and diversity. The conflict over Hagia Sophia is squarely between these visions of religion itself, not between Christianity and Islam per se. It reveals a fundamental dilemma faced by Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike: what kinds of religious politics do we choose to cultivate? Is human dominion or human diversity where we identify the traces of God’s image and will in this world?
“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.
That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time: for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey. The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity. And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.
As of 4 July 2020, the amendment to the Russian Constitution—first proposed by President Vladimir Putin in January, smoothly approved by the State Duma and Constitutional Court in March, and confirmed in a nationwide referendum with 78,56 per cent of votes—has taken effect. As widely reported, the main purpose of the amendment was to secure Putin the possibility of two more terms in office. But what significance does the constitutional amendment of 2020 have for the Russian Orthodox Church?
There are four places in the amended constitution which are the result of successful lobbying by the Moscow Patriarchate.