Amid other geopolitical machinations on the “Eastern front” there is one that has so far largely passed under the radar although its potential as a crisis detonator (or perhaps more properly, exacerbator) in the Ukraine and the surrounding Eastern Orthodox domains should not be underestimated.
Quite “spontaneously,” as these things are wont to happen, agitation at state and ecclesiastical levels in the Ukraine has been turned on to demand autocephaly, which in Orthodox church terminology is self-ruled status for the Orthodox religious community in the Ukraine. But not for just any of the existing communities (there are at least two major ones, the Orthodox church in spiritual communion with the Russian Orthodox patriarchy in Moscow, and a breakaway group espousing all the politically correct Ukrainian nationalist and Russophobic views). Alert and politically savvy readers should have guessed that in this controversy center-stage is the breakaway, NATO-friendly group.
The seemingly plausible argument is that since the Ukraine is an “independent” country, it is entitled also to have its own “independent” national Orthodox church to go along with that. That may or may not be so, depending on how church authorities in charge of these matters interpret and apply the relevant provisions of church law, or cannons. But before the issue was even presented to higher church councils for a ruling, the Ukrainian government itself avidly jumped into the fray to support its local Russophobic ecclesiastical proteges.
Needless to say, the Moscow Patriarchy affiliate in the Ukraine, which is followed by a majority of believers in that country, has taken a strong stand against the combined offensive against it of the NATO backed regime and its allies, anti-Russian zealots in cassocks. That means that now a new religious front also has been opened in the portion of Ukraine controlled by the Kiev regime. It is an attempt to complete the process already begun in the spheres of language, culture, education, history, and a number of other key areas, in this case to extirpate the last vestiges of “malign” Russian spiritual influence by severing the last remaining ecclesiastical link to Moscow. Driving the point home are the fervent partisans of the “native” Ukrainian church, led by defrocked former bishop Philaret Denysenko, now styling himself the new Ukrainian patriarch.
The fact that in the early 90s the same Denysenko, who at that time was an Orthodox bishop, had no qualms about putting forward his candidacy for Patriarch of Russia, and that, although a Russian-speaker, he subsequently embraced Ukrainian nationalism and conveniently developed passionate anti-Russian sentiments only after failing to achieve that objective, is beside the point. What matters is that he has now become a willing tool and visible symbol of the hybrid war being waged by NATO against Russia in the region, a war which in this instance has also a vibrant religious component.
What must be making hybrid war experts at the headquarters in Mons and other centers which attend to such matters jubilant is that igniting a religious confrontation in the Ukraine holds for them much more than merely local benefits. It is equivalent to opening a Pandora’s Box in the most literally geopolitical, and not just purely religious sense of the expression. A dispute of this nature cannot be properly settled either within the Ukraine itself or by means of intra-church dialogue between Kiev and Moscow. In the Orthodox world it is possible for a national church to gain self-rule, or autocephaly, but only under strictly prescribed conditions designed to preserve church unity and harmony. That means, at a minimum, that the consent of the Mother Church (in this case the Moscow Patriarchate) is required, as well as the approval of all the other churches around the world which form the Orthodox communion. And on top of that, to greatly complicate matters, there is also the ambiguous role in this process of the Orthodox Oecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). That see traditionally enjoys the position of “first among equals,” and it is not expected to act unilaterally but in consultation with other churches in resolving important issues. In the last couple of decades, however, it has notably tried to shake off those institutional constraints and has sought to turn itself into the Orthodox equivalent of the Roman Catholic Vatican.
The precarious position of the Oecumenical Patriarchy in Turkey, where it has very few, mostly ethnic Greek, followers remaining and is under heavy, and frankly unreasonable pressure from the essentially hostile Turkish government, since about the middle of the last century has motivated its patriarchs to seek the friendship and protection of Western NATO powers, simply to survive. That protection, however, did not come free of charge. Increasingly, and in particular during the Cold War period, the Oecumenical patriarch has been obligated to actively support various Western political initiatives. The increasingly Islamist complexion of the Turkish regime has now made toeing the Western line an existential necessity to an even greater degree.
Hence the unprecedented move by Poroshenko, during his visit to Turkey in April, taking a practical shortcut to resolve the Ukrainian situation without waiting first for a broad Orthodox Church consensus on the issue to emerge. Instead, Poroshenko urged directly the trapped Oecumenical patriarch Bartholomew to personally, and without bothering to consult peers, issue to Denysenko and his Kiev flock a grant of self-rule, in the requested form as patriarch of the NATO-invented and anointed “Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
To sweeten the deal, Poroshenko was supposed to bring in his coffers $25 million collected by devout Ukrainian oligarchs in the US, as a humble offering to patriarch Bartholomew to take a benevolent view of the fervent plea delivered to him on behalf of the Ukrainian faithful. Remarkably, the delivery of only a $10 million gift to the Patriarchy was recorded by the time the pious emoluments actually reached their destination in Istanbul. Where the missing $15 million might have evaporated can only be guessed, but given the Ukrainians’ sticky fingers when handling cash it does not require a long stretch of the imagination.
Predictably, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy took a very dim view of such back-door church politicking lubricated with plenty of cash, even if one considers only the diminished sum that actually reached the designated recipients. Its foreign relations spokesman, Metropolitan Hilarion, warned the patriarch in Istanbul that he was playing with fire by turning a receptive ear to Kiev’s entreaties because, in his view, granting Ukrainian church self-rule (autocephaly) in disregard of canonical regulations would be “to cause a Great Schism equivalent to the one that occurred a thousand years ago”. It should not be forgotten that this is no idle threat because the Russian church is the most numerous among Orthodox nations and a split between it and the Oecumenical see in Istanbul would plunge the entire Orthodox world into disarray. But that is just what the NATO doctors ordered, isn’t it?
It is, of course, quite normal for officials of the Russian church to seek to protect their faithful and safeguard their status in the Ukraine. But the impending, NATO-engineered convulsion, using the alleged spiritual needs of its Ukrainian colony as a hollow pretext, unleashed within the Orthodox religious communion which sits astride the arc of geopolitical competition stretching from the Balkans to Russia, and from the Black Sea basin into the Caucasus, with a significant historical presence throughout the Middle East, is fraught with serious implications. For one thing, its clear purpose is to add another layer to the campaign to “isolate Russia,” this time around by disrupting Russia’s spiritual and cultural ties to other kindred Orthodox lands, which may soon face a contrived “religious” choice between Moscow and Istanbul. The fact that the “choice” is couched in seemingly canonical rather than unapologetically and crudely political terms, makes it no less political.