(RNS) — As the world’s attention focuses on the fighting in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has begun to challenge the established order of Orthodox Christianity by moving his Russian Orthodox Church to Africa. The Moscow Patriarchate also hints that its anger will soon turn to Turkey.
According to their traditional rules, the 16 autocephalous, or autonomous, Orthodox churches, some of which are not recognized by others, reign supreme in their own “canonical territory”. Kirill’s bold step into Africa was to establish his own Orthodox Church structure there alongside that of Alexandria.
If successful, the new exarchate would alienate priests and parishioners from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, weakening the old institution and widening the hold of the Russian Church.
“It’s part of his imperial mindset,” said Brandon Gallaher, an Orthodox deacon who teaches at the University of Exeter in Britain. “That kind of mentality is now penetrating places like Africa.”
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Kirill’s measures come in response to what the Moscow Patriarchate calls the Kyiv Schism – the recognition of an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in 2019. Beyond Kirill’s support for the attempt of Russian President Vladimir Putin to subjugate Ukraine as part of Russia,” Kirill intends to punish Orthodox leaders in other countries who have supported the breakaway Ukrainian church.
Eastern Orthodoxy has only a few hundred thousand followers in Africa, many of them from Greek communities, and is organized under the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. It is distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy, which has 60 million followers, many of them in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Late last year, as the Kremlin headed towards war in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate announced the creation of an exarchate – a grand ecclesiastical jurisdiction – in Africa. It would be based in Cairo, along with the dioceses of North Africa and Southern Africa, and headed by Metropolitan Leonide of Klin.
Moscow also said 102 Orthodox priests in Africa had already moved from the Patriarchate of Alexandria to the Russian Exarchate in Africa to protest against Alexandria’s recognition of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. We expected others to join us.
A letter to this effect was signed by 27 African priests – 19 from Tanzania, four from Kenya, three from Uganda and one from Zambia.
“The Patriarch of Alexandria has recognized the Ukrainian schism,” Metropolitan Hilarion, the “foreign minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, told the RIA Novosti news agency to justify the exarchate’s decision. “What if a part of the clergy of the Patriarchate of Alexandria refuses to come to terms with him…and wishes to join us?”
The Patriarchate of Alexandria claims 2.9 million members, few of them Russians. Traditionally in the Greek tradition, it developed among Africans through missionary efforts and the use of local languages.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s sudden interest in Africa parallels the Kremlin’s growing interest in the continent, where Chinese economic ties are already strong. “They are in areas of Africa where the Russians are interested in matters concerning their energy interests and in providing military assistance,” Gallaher said.
“They are competing with the Chinese to throw money at countries,” he added. “People are massively impoverished (and) it seems they have been paying regular wages in their new exarchate.”
The Moscow Patriarchate also aimed to exploit ethnic discontent among some staff members of the Alexandria Patriarchate, Gallaher said. “Alexandria is a church with few African bishops. They are often expatriate Greeks.
In a letter in early January denouncing Moscow’s decision, Patriarch of Alexandria Theodoros II called Russian Orthodox in Africa “false prophets” and “wild wolves who come among you and will not spare the flock.”
In his interview with RIA Novosti, Metropolitan Hilarion also hinted that the Moscow Patriarchate could create another Exarchate in Turkey, which is officially the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul.
“Similarly (as in Africa), we cannot deny pastoral care to the Orthodox faithful in Turkey in the situation where the Patriarch of Constantinople has taken the side of schism,” he said.
This could harm the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is mainly centered on the Greek minority of no more than 3,000 people in Turkey. Over the past decades, many Russians have lived in or visited Turkey both as expatriates and tourists.
To date, the Patriarchate of Moscow has taken no further public action to back up Metropolitan Hilarion’s allegation.
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Like Putin in Ukraine, Kirill could see his expansion plans slowed or blocked by outside factors he did not reckon with. The Moscow patriarchy depends on the Russian state and friendly oligarchs to fund its forays abroad, and Western economic sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine could slow or stop the flow of funds from Russia to the country. ‘Africa.
They could also curb any expansion in Turkey.
“This African adventure is likely to be short-lived,” Gallaher said. “Because of the sanctions, many of these African priests have not received any money. Some of them return to the Patriarchate of Alexandria.