Biggest rift in modern Orthodox history? Russian Church won’t work w/ Constantinople-chaired bodies
“We have decided to suspend joint performance of church services with the hierarchs of the Constantinople Patriarchate, to suspend our membership in all structures, which are headed or co-chaired by the representatives of Constantinople,” Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s External Relations Department, said following an extraordinary meeting of the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The decision does not mean that the two churches are completely severing ties, Hilarion told journalists, adding that the decision refers only to the Moscow Patriarchate’s participation in the work of some inter-church organizations.
The measures taken by the Russian Church so far are a “warning” to Constantinople, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s press secretary told journalists. Earlier, Hilarion warned that the Russian Orthodox Church could break all relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate if it grants independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is still part of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The move follows Constantinople’s decision to send its exarchs to Kiev, which violates the rule that forbids one Orthodox Church to interfere in the internal affairs of another, the synod said earlier, adding that it also goes against the official position of the Constantinople Patriarchate itself, which has so far considered the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Exarchs are special representatives of a patriarch that have a higher position in the church hierarchy than a metropolitan, the current head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church regards Constantinople’s decision as the first step towards recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Even though all independent Orthodox Churches are equal, the Constantinople Patriarchate has more leverage on inter-church issues due to its historical location and its role as the Mother Church of most modern Orthodox churches. The Constantinople Patriarch also enjoys the status of the ‘first among the equals’ and is widely regarded as a spiritual leader of world’s Orthodox Christians, even though his status is nothing like that of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.
Most Orthodox clerics in Ukraine still pledge loyalty to the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, and consider themselves to be part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian authorities, however, support a schismatic force, which originated back in the 1990s and calls itself the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate.
Unrecognized by all other Orthodox Churches, this religious movement led by the former Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, who is now called Patriarch Filaret in Ukraine, seeks to gain the status of an Orthodox Church, which is fully independent and “equal” to the Moscow Patriarchate. Meanwhile, it has taken Ukrainian churches from the Russian Orthodox Church by force with the help of local nationalists.
The attacks on the Russian Orthodox Churches in Ukraine intensified following the 2014 coup. According to TASS, 40 churches have been forcefully seized by the Kiev Patriarchate between 2014 and 2016. In the first half of 2018 alone, Ukraine witnessed 10 new attacks on Russian Orthodox Churches.
In September, Metropolitan Hilarion already denounced Kiev’s attempts to achieve independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by saying that the issue has nothing to do with real religious affairs and has become a hostage of Kiev’s political gambling. The Ukrainian authorities just need some “big success” ahead of the upcoming presidential election to reduce public tensions, he told Rossiya 24 TV on September 3.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, branded the Russian Orthodox Church itself a “security threat” as he sought independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Constantinople’s latest move also follows Kiev’s request for independence.
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