Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew blasted what he called the “pan-Slavism” of the Russian Church under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in a wide-ranging speech last week in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking at the “World Policy Conference – For a Reasonably Open World”, Bartholomew condemned the support the Russian Orthodox Church offers to President Putin over the invasion of Ukraine.
The Ecumenical Patriarch criticized the role of the Russian Church over the last centuries and especially from the 19th century onwards when “in combination with the doctrine of pan-Slavism, it instrumentalized religious sentiment to achieve political and military purposes alien to the Church.”
Russia wanted to submit the church to its will in its effort to instrumentalize the religious feeling for its political and military ends, he said.
“From the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow aspired to replace the Ecumenical Patriarchate by proclaiming that Moscow represented ‘the third Rome’. This long-lasting policy of Moscow constitutes a fundamental factor of the division of the Orthodox world,” Bartholomew opined.
Bartholomew: Russian Church instrumentalizes religion
From the 19th century, Moscow instrumentalized religion he added. “Inspired by Pan-Germanism, the new ideology of Pan-Slavism, an organ of Russian foreign policy, acquired a religious component. This is the idea that churches should organize themselves according to the principle of ethnicity, the central marker of which would be language.
“It is this approach that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople denounced in 1872 as heresy (the heresy of ethnophyletism, a form of ecclesial racism). It is in flagrant contradiction with the universalism of the Gospel message, as well as the principle of territorial governance which defines the organization of our church,” Bartholomew said.
He stressed that following the collapse of Communism, Russia used religion again for ideological purposes. The Russian Orthodox Church has sided with the regime of President Vladimir Putin, especially since the election of Patriarch Kirill in 2009.
“It actively participates in the promotion of the ideology of Rousskii Mir, of the Russian world, according to which language and religion make it possible to define a coherent whole encompassing Russia, Ukraine, Belarus as well as the other territories of the former Soviet Union and the diaspora.
“Moscow (both political power and religious power) would constitute the center of this world, whose mission would be to combat the decadent values of the West. This ideology constitutes an instrument of legitimization of Russian expansionism and the basis of its Eurasian strategy.
“The link between the past of ethnophyletism and the present of the Russian world is obvious. Faith thus becomes the backbone of the ideology of Putin’s regime,” Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew conceded that the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church granted in 2019 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate has worsened relations with the Russian Church. He also said that the invasion of Ukraine pushed the polarization “to a fever pitch.”
Division of the Orthodox World deepens
The division of the Orthodox world deepens and expands, he warned. Some Churches agree with the Ecumenical Patriarchate; others, whose countries are too dependent on Russia, “blindly support” the Moscow Patriarchate; still others prefer to keep a complicit silence.
He condemned the efforts of the Russian church to establish its influence on the territory of other Churches, especially in Africa where it interferes in the Patriarchate of Alexandria in response to the recognition of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The consequences are very serious, Bartholomew argued. “The Orthodox world is divided and this fragmentation is projected onto poor countries, whose people hoped to find relief in the faith.
“Above all, it harms the Russian Church since sooner or later the people will realize the excesses of a Church subject to objectives that have nothing to do with its original mission.”