Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine threatens to become the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history. The Russian Orthodox Church, already embroiled in a protracted conflict in Ukraine over Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, is facing even greater struggles to maintain unity among its flock as this calamity unfolds.
The Moscow Patriarchate bears a good deal of responsibility for this current conflict. Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church have been at turns enthusiastic cheerleaders or silent regarding Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, support of separatists, and annexation of Crimea.
Russian Orthodox media in both Russia and Ukraine has been working since 2014 to discredit Euromaidan and democratically elected Ukrainian governments and since 2018 to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Now, as Russian troops attack Ukrainians, we see how media and rhetoric divide Orthodox Christians within the Moscow Patriarchate.
On November 19, 2020, The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society published what many media sources have referred to as a “black list of false clerics.” This list of clerics was added to an already existing list of organizations that were claiming to collect money for charitable and religious purposes but, who upon closer inspection, appear to be swindlers and scams. The Patriarchate created this list to warn believers that some of the religious leaders and figures that they may follow, whether online or off, are not endorsed by the Moscow Patriarchate and should be avoided.
The “black list” reveals the Moscow Patriarchate’s seriousness in confronting independent groups and individuals labeling themselves Orthodox that might lead members of the flock astray. This is a problem that many within the institutional Russian Orthodox Church have looked to deal with in the post-Soviet Period. The Church already combats the publication and distribution of unapproved religious literature though a tiered system of stamps of approval for print materials. The Patriarchate continues this trend with the publication of this list, providing clear guidance on who a faithful believer ought to avoid online. However, in publicizing these names, the Church may have only boosted interest in these clerics.