Vienna, November 3 – By defying Kremlin’s desire that it take control of Russian Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Moscow Patriarchate may now lose its privileged and hitherto unchallenged status as the Russian Federation’s religious representative to the international community.
In a commentary posted on the Portal-Credo.ru religious affairs portal, Mikhail Zherebyatyev suggests that the Church’s unprecedented act of insubordination is prompting some in the Russian foreign ministry to reexamine the government’s relationship with Russia’s largest religious denomination (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=1483).
Since Stalin’s decision to restore the Patriarchate in 1943, the Russian Orthodox Church often notoriously has worked hand in glove with the Soviet and the Russian government to promote whatever the Kremlin wanted even at the cost of the values to which the Church is doctrinally committed.
In exchange for such loyalty, Moscow, through its foreign ministry and special services, has helped the Patriarchate defend or recover property abroad and participate as Russia’s sole religious representatives in international undertakings, actions that have reinforced the notion that the Orthodox Church is, as its leadership sees it, the national faith of Russia.
But that relationship may be about to change, Zherebyatyev says, as a result of the Patriarchate’s refusal to do what the Kremlin wanted following the Russian invasion of Georgia and Moscow’s recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a failure that has led many Moscow commentators to criticize the church.
In fact, the Patriarchate refused to take the Orthodox bishoprics and parishes in these two breakaway republics under its authority not so much because it wanted to defer to the wishes of the Georgian Patriarchate, as some have charged, but rather because it wanted to maintain the principle that canonical borders do not need to follow political ones.
Were the Patriarchate to violate that principle in this case, it would be creating a precedent that at least some in Kyiv to demand the subordination of all Orthodox bishoprics and parishes in Ukraine to a single autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Were that to happen, Moscow would lose its status as the largest Orthodox Church in the world.
Moreover – and this may be an equally important consideration– the departure of these bishoprics from the Russian Orthodox Church could change the outcome of the future elections to replace ailing Moscow Patriarch Aleksii II. Some in Moscow, particularly Metropolitan Kirill had counted on the “Ukrainian” vote; without it, someone else might win.
But these concerns – and both matter to the Russian government, which has defended the Russian church’s canonical territory against other faiths, as well as to the Moscow Patriarchate – are not the ones that appear to be directly responsible for the foreign ministry’s consideration of a possible change in its attitude toward and ability to work with the Russian Patriarchate.
When Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia and no one followed suit except Hamas and Nicaragua, the Russian government was clearly not pleased that its own Russian Orthodox Church appeared to be siding with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili rather than Moscow.
And last month in Kazakhstan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about the Russian Orthodox Church as the “titular” church of Russia without any reference, as he has done in the past, to its special “canonical” territory, a distinction that sent shock waves through the rhetorically sensitive in the Patriarchate.
The reason for that is clear: Lavrov has been pushing for the creation of a special consultative Council of Religions at the United Nations, and the Moscow Patriarchate, assuming that it would be the Russian government’s only representative there as it typically has been at such gatherings in the past, backed the idea.
But in describing it, Lavrov pointedly said that “it is important that politicians and diplomats make possible the creation of favorable conditions for the further development of inter-confessional dialogue,” code words not only for such talks abroad but within the Russian Federation as well.
And consequently, Zherebyatyev continues, it now appears likely that the Russian Orthodox Church “will not have a monopoly on the right to represent the interests of Russia” in such a body or perhaps more generally, a change that could entail dramatic consequences inside Russia as well.
The leaders of other denominations understand this as well, the commentator continues, noting that Mufti Umar Idrisov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Nizhny Novgorod, enthusiastically supported Lavrov’s proposal, almost certainly because they hope to be sitting alongside Patriarchal representatives abroad rather than left out at home.