Paraphrasing Luke the Evangelist in Acts 10:37, we could ask, “Do you know what happened in the whole country of Rus’?” The Patriarchate of Constantinople imposed the creation of a new “Orthodox Church in Ukraine” to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Things evolved in conflicting ways between the heads of the Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchates, since the Russian Orthodox Church refused to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete in 2016. Could this be just a quarrel of power and primacy? Constantinople has repeatedly opposed the establishment of the Moscow Rus’, particularly during the re-establishment of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate by the provisional government.
As Metropolitan Tikhon (Belavine), elected as Patriarch on November 5, 1917, said, “the night will be dark and very long”. Few know that the history of the Russian Orthodox Church was tragic, fraught with uncertainty, marked by an almost constant submission to civil power, in this case Czarist. The history of the Kievan and Moscow Rus’ Church results from an extension, in which influences were contrasted and marked by important contributions made by Little Russia theologians, so theologians who came from many regions now called “Ukrainian”.
Quibbles did not fail to arise. Even old spell books dating back to the 17th century were brought out. The Constantinople patriarchate entrusted the Kievan Rus’ to Moscow in 1686. Four hundred years later, at the request of a Ukrainian president whose country is at war with the Russian Federation, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “primus inter pares” of Orthodox Churches leaders, denounced this temporary transfer to the Moscow Church, and claimed to unite the Orthodox faithful of the Republic of Ukraine in a new Church placed under his own protection and authority.
On January 6, 2019, the Phanar should confirm by Decree/Tomos that this “Orthodox Church in Ukraine” cannot extend outside the territory of the Republic of Ukraine proper. However, the Patriarch of Constantinople will exercise his canonical and spiritual authority over all Ukrainian Orthodox who, throughout the world, recognize his jurisdiction.
“Patriarch” Filaret of Kyiv, excommunicated by the Moscow Church, was recently reinstated without consultation with the Moscow Patriarchate and all the other canonical Orthodox Churches. He gave way to Metropolitan Epifaniy, elected as the head of this new Ukrainian Church. But he refuses the conditions currently proposed by the Phanar. The negotiations will take time.
Actually, things have not been clarified. Many wonder, why did the Ecumenical Patriarch make such a decision? Repeated requests made by Orthodox Ukrainians asking for self-determination can be mentioned. This country is the cradle of Eastern Slavic Christianity. The climate of multi-faceted political mistrust has been aggravating relationships, and the war has been emphasizing the deep fracture characteristic of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Twenty-six years ago, the crumbling of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics fostered the demand for more autonomy, even the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church placed under the omophorion (spiritual and canonical authority) of the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, the Kievan Rus’ obtained its autonomy, while remaining in the Moscow Church. Almost thirty years have gone by, but this is too short a time in history.
The Moscow Patriarchate lived the period of the collapse of communism and the disappearance of the Soviet Union while maintaining a canonical link with various local entities present in the immense territory of the former Tsarist Empire. In 2007, the union with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) confirmed that the 21st century was starting with negotiated forms of reconciliation and unity, while preserving specific liturgical and community characteristics.
Geopolitical strategies have also been mentioned, for instance the American support given to the Phanar and to the Republic of Ukraine. Others talk of a need for freedom and trust… Theological reasons have all too often been missing in the discussions on this issue. There has been more talk of power, of domination, than of announcing or celebrating the Mystery of the Church and of Jesus of Nazareth.
The year 2018 was marked by the 170th anniversary of the presence of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission of the Church of Moscow in the Holy Land. This event went unnoticed in Western circles. But in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias and Hebron, it was the occasion for numerous conferences and celebrations organized by the Moscow Patriarchate. The building of prestigious monasteries (the Gorny Monastery for women at Ein Karem) has been widely celebrated.
Other places belong to ROCOR, like the St. Mary Magdalene monastery on the Mount of Olives. British princes Charles and Andrew went to pray there twice, thus highlighting the historical and pan-European character of the Eastern Christian faith of the Russian tradition, present in the Greek Byzantine tradition.
Other historical properties have been challenged by various jurisdictions, and claims have been filed with the Israeli authorities. This is the case for the monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene in Tiberias. Saint Alexander Nevsky metochion (monastery), a few feet away from the Holy Sepulcher was the object of numerous negotiations both with the Israelis and the Greeks. It is visited today by many tourists, because of its archeological and historical importance, witnessing to the Russian presence in Jerusalem.
Pilgrimages are multiplying from the Russian Federation and countries dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate (Moldavia, Belarus, Ukraine so far, and faithful from Central Asia). Thousands of visitors arrive daily in the Holy Land, so in Israel, in the West Bank, and in Jordan. Older imperial organizations are developing in each of these traditional ecclesiastical regions. The King of Jordan, who sometimes opposes the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem of which he is the guardian, has promoted the development of tourist and cultural centers dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church on the banks of the Jordan.
Israel is sometimes considered the second Russian country in the world. The country has absorbed more than one million people coming from the former USSR. Yet, Ukrainians say they are the largest group in the country, and not the Russians. Immigrants came mainly from Ukraine or Belarus, Moldavia/Bessarabia. Little organized in Israel, they claim a special link with Ukraine. Others were from Ukraine, but had been deported to Siberia during the Second World War. Some had settled in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, which had abolished areas of residence discriminating against Jews.
The revival of “Russian Palestine / Русская Палестина“, initiated by the Orthodox Holy Synod of Moscow in the 19th century, came up against the difficult dialogue between the Russian Church and the Israeli authorities. The latter favored instead the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, while the Russian Church has long had important contacts in all Arab countries and with the Patriarchate of Antioch.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople has no representation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
In 2005, it was possible to provide a canonical resolution to the issue related to former Patriarch Irenaios. Allegedly accused of illegally selling lands, he was dethroned. The election of the current patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem was possible thanks to a special synod that obtained the assent of the Moscow Patriarchate and of all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches.
The creation of a Ukrainian metropolis can be considered part of a larger project. The decision to organize a “Synod of Unification” in Kyiv on December 15, 2018, has no doubt rushed projects in preparation for many years. For the Church of Constantinople, it is a matter of streamline diasporas which may wish to receive more autonomy from the Phanar. The Constantinople See must also ensure the authenticity of the Orthodox message, as it is announced and passed on in various continents.
The Moscow Patriarchate has been experiencing the same concern. On December 28, 2018, the Moscow Russian Orthodox Church Synod decided to create two new structures. Following the twists and turns in Ukraine, they created the “Exarchate of Chersonese (Korsun) and Western Europe“. It includes all European countries formerly entrusted to Metropolitan Evlogy. However, the absence of Scandinavian countries, not included in the new entity, is noteworthy, although both the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR have parishes in Northern Europe.
A second exarchate was created in Southeast Asia. Its see is the city of Singapore. It includes all the countries of these Far Eastern regions (Republic of Singapore, Cambodia, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand) .
We can identify here a more subtle movement of strategic positioning by the two patriarchates, Constantinople and Moscow. Both exercise or want to impose their authority and traditional religious influences in specific regions of the world. We could speak of a dividing up, or even of a significant territorial redistribution, secured by innovative or even unpublished canonical statutes, questionable in the eyes of some jurisdictions.
Europeans will be astonished to see the emergence of the Moscow Exarchate in Western Europe. It is the continuation of the structure created in 1931 by Metropolitan Evlogy. The current Archdiocese of Russian Churches in Western Europe is facing a particularly difficult survival choice that should be resolved in February 2019.
The Exarchate of Southeast Asia would seem more distant. Yet, it directly concerns Israel. The Hebrew State includes a very large number of expatriate workers coming from all these Asian countries. Filipino communities settled there decades ago, as did Thais people. Pilgrims from Indonesia and South Korea come to Jerusalem.
Not only Roman-Catholics. Many are Orthodox and join the Eastern Christian communities – there’s a strong ROCOR presence. Shortly after the creation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (Constantinople Patriarchate), Patriarch Bartholomew went to South Korea, where the Greek diocese dependent on Phanar has been experiencing a noticeable development. And the Moscow Patriarchate has just created a new structure in Seoul.
Patriarch Bartholomew is demanding the control of all Ukrainian churches connected to the former schismatic Kyiv patriarchate, thus restricting the authority of young Metropolitan Epifaniy, elected at the Unification Synod (December 15, 2018) to the sole territory of the Republic of Ukraine.
This territorial claim can be explained by the importance of the Ukrainian diaspora in the world, especially in North and South America. But by taking the canonical and spiritual control of this international Ukraine, the ecumenical patriarch could also have a say in the Ukrainian faithful (or those who identify themselves as such) living in Israel, residing in the Palestinian Territories , or working as expatriates in the United Arab Emirates. In Jerusalem, hundreds of Orthodox Ukrainians come daily to visit the Holy sites.
It is too early to give a precise description of what this could mean for the territory of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The Jerusalem Patriarchate has an important moral debt towards the Phanar. It faces growing difficulties with local communities: the Arabs of Israel and Palestine, the indigenous clergy of Jordan, and the maintenance of a Hellenic Orthodox clergy, traditionally composed of descendants of the Black Sea Greeks, exterminated during the 1915 genocide led by the Young Turks. The patriarchate has a hard time maintaining direct contact with local populations, including at the linguistic level (Hebrew and Arabic, but also European languages).
Representatives of the Republic of Ukraine in Israel support the creation of the “unified” Orthodox Church. They do it in a trans-jurisdictional way: in the Holy Land, all Churches are normally under the authority of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. He has to deal with Israeli parliamentary and legal projects: verification of land property and territories. Jewish and/or Israeli groups have secretly acquired buildings or land, sometimes with the help of Orthodox Arabs or thanks to embezzlement done in Greece or Cyprus. We often forget that some of these properties used to belong to Jewish settlers, during the time of the British Mandate (the two hotels at the Jaffa Gate, for example).
The confrontation between Israelis and the religious jurisdictions reluctant to help each other over time is expected to intensify, as the Israeli government wishes to streamline their relationships with faith-based structures mainly run by authorities outside of the State of Israel. The issue of the participation of the Churches, faithful and hierarchy, in the “civic” life of the Israeli society still remains utopian. Without even mentioning operating costs, taxes, and the debts accumulated by the Churches over several decades.
King Abdullah of Jordan has often challenged the actions of the Jerusalem Patriarch. But he allowed the Ecclesiastical Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate in Jerusalem and the representatives of the Imperial Orthodox Society of Palestine (Императорское православное палестинское общество, created in 1882) to open cultural centers and shelters for pilgrims belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR.
The Moscow Patriarchate has therefore serious plans for the renovation and development of its spiritual, theological, and strategic activities in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land. This can be explained by an old tradition: Orthodox Russian faithful deeply adhered to the Christian message when the Kievan Rus’ converted and spread towards Moscow. “They did not adhere to Germanic, Latin, or Greek mythologies, but to the biblical account” they were steeped in.
The Moscow Patriarchate is the heir of privileged times in the history of the Holy Sites of Christianity. In the Ottoman era, the Russian Orthodox Church approved the support given by the Sublime Porte to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the first Church or “Mother of all the Churches of God”, as witnessed by the inscription in the Katholikon, the great nave of the Holy Sepulcher entrusted to the Hagiotaphite Fraternity (the community guarding the Church of the Resurrection of Jerusalem). Their relationships have not always been easy.
Ultimately, in an apparently more confessional dimension, the Russian Church considers that its importance should give it a more substantial right of scrutiny over the management of the local Church. Recently, the Moscow Patriarchate intervened, so that the water debt of the Holy Sepulcher (the Hellenic Orthodox Patriarchate is in charge of it on behalf of the Christian communities), may be paid off. Patriarch Kyrill personally traveled there on this occasion.
A large number of Orthodox faithful have settled in Israel since the time refuzniki started arriving in the country in the 1970s; a million and a half between 1991 and today. Some may claim a right of return under Israeli law. Others arrived as spouses of someone who could benefit from the right of return. At times, there have been as many as 400,000/300,000 people called “other/ acherim – אחרים”, baptized in the Soviet Union because of a massive movement towards the Church.
In the south of the country, the Negev, there are about 150,000 people. The Orthodox Church of Jerusalem has developed little assistance to these faithful, and often hesitantly. I have put together groups of Hebrew and Slavic, or other languages (including Ukrainian, Belarusian, ad Moldavian). Cultural nostalgia and a weak Orthodox Christian identity within in a strong Jewish context have encouraged them to find rather parallel paths, especially thanks to digital media.
The Moscow Patriarchate did little to promote Hebrew enculturation. During too short a time, I did celebrate in Hebrew and Slavonic at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Jerusalem (Kikar Safra). This was possible because the texts had been published by the Moscow Synod in 1841. The Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Russian Orthodox authorities had given their agreement. The administrative procedures that often protect the renewal of the Russian Church in the world have since unfortunately complicated a movement that needs to be revived.
Historically, the Russian Church has been helping Arabic speaking Orthodox Christians since the establishment of the Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. Some Arab priests studied in the Soviet Union. They speak perfect Russian and have often married a Russian or Ukrainian woman. There is a great flow of connections between Israeli society and families in the Palestinian territories.
Mixed marriages must be taken into account, often between Jewish women who have become Christians, and Christian Arab men who are seeking to marry. This is general in the region. Innovation is everywhere: we know that the Samaritans, alerted by their demographic decline and consanguineous problems, accepted a significant number of Ukrainian women admitted into their community without conversion rite. This does not mean that these wives renounced Christianity. Things are very complex in the country.
Israel does not yield to the (sometimes legitimate) demands made by the Moscow Patriarchate. The latter, with ROCOR, is currently encouraging the revival of the “Palestinian Russia” created in the 19th century. Patriarch Kyrill experienced this as early as 1967, during his first trip to Jerusalem as the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations.
Israel also leaves “vagabond/vagrant” groups of Orthodox priests ordained in the non-canonical and minority jurisdictions of Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Bulgaria or Greece (Old-calendarists). This situation is little known and rarely mentioned in the current “unification” period in vogue in Ukraine. In Kyiv, in Odessa, as well as in Israeli rural areas (!), we can find a whole indeterminate constellation of Slavic “sectarians /сектанты”. In Palestine, some priests have left the of Jerusalem Patriarchate to join Russian jurisdictions parallel to the official structures.
Having a Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdiction is therefore important for the Phanar. If the ecumenical patriarch, in addition to his quality of “Primus inter pares” among the sister churches, could also benefit from a sure authority over the Ukrainian diaspora, he would be able to find more direct ways of intervention in the Holy Land. This would only be possible if, in a still unexpected movement, the Republic of Ukraine demanded, in the name of its new unified Orthodox Church, goods acquired since the installation of the Russian missions in the Holy Land.
The political future of the Republic of Ukraine is uncertain, but the creation of the new independent Church on the national territory has opened up perspectives seemingly unprecedented, or little taken into consideration. These would be based on the “myth” of a powerful Ukrainian Orthodox identity, parallel to the “Russity” born in Byzantium and certainly international by now. This identity is regularly expressed in the Ukrainian media and in Israel. It could have some impact through political and religious collusion.
This is also confirmed by the attempts made by the Antioch Orthodox Patriarchate of to intervene in Jordan. The Jerusalem Patriarchate must redouble its vigilance. They initiated important actions (in education and religious life) at the request of King Abdullah. At present, without the centuries-old know-how of the Hellenic Orthodox community, it would not be unthinkable for a split to occur in the Jerusalem Patriarchate, with a jurisdiction close to Antioch and Moscow in Jordan, and the strengthening of Greeks in Israel, West Bank, and Gaza.
The “Ukrainian” hypothesis is less illusory than it seems. We could easily associate it with “building castles in the air” or improbable utopias. This would be to ignore the deep jolts experienced repetitively and more and more frequently by traditional churches in the Middle East, in Jerusalem (Israel, West Bank, Gaza, Jordan). This would be to ignore the targeted power struggles which occur discreetly between the great diplomatic powers, between the nations and, consequently, between the Churches redeployment in a region on fire.
The fact remains that the Moscow Patriarchate most often acts
by conforming to the rules of the canon law of the various Orthodox traditions.
This might surprise us, but this is what happened in Jerusalem, when the patriarchal
candidate supported by the Russian Church was defeated. Moscow let it go and accepted.
Similarly, in the unanimous election of Patriarch Theophilos in 2005, the Synod
of Moscow acquiesced. In the present vicissitudes, the Moscow Patriarchate does
not rebuff, but makes disputed decisions (suspension of the Eucharistic
Communion with Constantinople).
It should be emphasized that most often, they act through canonical ways, such as the creation of new ecclesiastical structures in Europe and Asia. We must also bear in mind the fact that the Russian Church was frequently injured, sometimes severely, during the past century. They wish to consolidate their properties through the Russian Federation. This is not often understood, when most Churches have state structures that secure their goods and activities (Vatican, European states).
Most Orthodox Churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church, have expressed their disagreement with the initiatives taken by the Phanar to grant unilateral autocephaly to a new Orthodox Church in Ukraine. They said so and wrote so.
These are the facts or events in this early 21st century. The real issue is the authenticity of Christ’s message today, the truthfulness of the testimony. There can be no question of rivalry or competition. It would be childish, even if tensions have been experienced throughout centuries of antagonism. There remains the need to be open to all nations, all cultures, and all languages without exception.
This ability to be open to all relies first and foremost on being firmly rooted in faith, a living faith, and a faith lived with authenticity.
Source in French (published on January 1st, 2019 in The Times of Israel)