Last November, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced it was creating its own exarchate for Africa and would seek to wrest control of the continent’s bishoprics and parishes away from the Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa (a.k.a. the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria). On the one hand, the move complementarily supports the Kremlin’s aggressive policy of using “private military companies” (PMC) to expand Russian influence in Africa. But on the other hand, it may also represent a form of revenge against other centers of world Orthodoxy that support the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Several months later, that pronounced ROC African exarchate now has a leader, claims to have won over more than 100 local priests and hierarchs, and, this past Sunday (January 30), celebrated its first church service in sub-Saharan Africa (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 18; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 30).
Patriarch Theodore of the Alexandrian and All-African Orthodox Church, not surprisingly, has reacted with fury, denouncing Moscow in the harshest and most uncensored terms for “sowing the seeds of discord” on the African continent and threatening the Orthodox World by ignoring territorial divisions that most Churches, including Moscow, have long accepted. Theodore said that Moscow’s actions are an “attempt to change Orthodox ecclesiology” by spreading the “evil virus of ethnocentrism.” One prominent Russian expert on religious affairs, Aleksandr Soldatov, argues that such harsh language, unprecedented in recent years, recalls the earliest days of Christianity (Novaya Gazeta, January 14).
Other Orthodox patriarchates, including both those that support Constantinople and its grant of autocephaly to Ukraine as well as those that do not, are worried by what they see as Moscow’s overreach. Namely, some fear that the ROC’s action in Africa may open the door to similar Russian aggressiveness in their own canonical territories. Some of these ancient Churches, including the one in Jerusalem, which is especially loyal to Moscow, have even taken steps to try to open talks to prevent disagreements on this point from broadening into a schism they fear will undermine all of Orthodoxy (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 1).
The Moscow Patriarchate, in fact, has had its own parishes in Africa since at least 1999, but these churches were intended to serve Russian expatriates living there rather than indigenous Africans. For most of the last two decades, until recently, the ROC was careful to say that the continent was part of the canonical territory of the Greek Orthodox Church Alexandria. But in response to the latter’s recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly and the Kremlin’s growing involvement in Africa, the Russian Church is no longer willing to pay such lip service; instead, Moscow is clearly poaching on the territory of the Alexandrian Patriarchate.
Many religious experts have naturally focused on the dispute between Moscow and other Orthodox Churches over Ukraine as the motive for Russia’s actions in Africa, given Moscow’s insistence that all recognize the former Soviet space as its canonical territory (see EDM, August 12, 2021). They point out that while demanding such acquiescence of others, the Moscow Patriarchate has been violating the spirit and the letter of inter-Orthodox understanding on this point elsewhere. To express its anger at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople for extending autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, they note, the Moscow Patriarchate began opening its own churches not only in Turkey but across that Istanbul-based Church’s canonical territory in Asia (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 24, 2019). And in December 2019, right before the beginning of the pandemic, Metropolitan Ilarion, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, said he would not exclude the possibility of doing the same in Africa or other regions where those patriarchates do not condemn what Constantinople and Kyiv have done (Credo Press, December 25, 2019).
The churchman did acknowledge at that time that Moscow had always recognized Africa as “the canonical territory” of the Alexandria Patriarchate, but even then it understood this to mean the northern part of the continent. According to Illarion, Alexandria added “all Africa” to its title only in the 1920s. Before that time, the Alexandrian Church had exerted influence only in the north, and, indeed, today, most of its 1,500 parishes are in the northern portion of Africa. Moscow supported that extension at the time; and when it opened churches in Africa, they were, according to Russia, canonically part of Alexandria. But now that Patriarchate supports Ukraine, so Moscow insists the earlier paradigm must be changed (Credo Press, December 25, 2019).
That threat, now being realized, represents a serious challenge to the harmony of the Orthodox World; but it also threatens both the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia itself as well as other countries with small Orthodox populations but no major Russian presence domestically up to now. Many Orthodox abroad are certain to be furious with the ROC’s aggressive pretensions, presaging what they see as a drive by Patriarch Kirill to create “an Orthodox Vatican” in Moscow (see EDM, July 9, 2019). At the same time, many Orthodox faithful in Russia are angry about the Church’s slavish following of the Kremlin into African affairs (violating its own rules governing where and how it can act abroad) when it is doing so little within the Russian Federation itself. The ROC is notably losing out to Catholics and Protestants in many parts of that country (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 18, 2022).
Another, more important, reason may also exist for why the Moscow Patriarchate is acting as it is: it clearly serves Kremlin interests. Few Russian Orthodox actually live in Africa, and churches established there will likely be filled with Federal Security Service (FSB) officers masquerading as priests (see EDM, March 3, 2015). Indeed, such use of the Church abroad as cover for intelligence officers has long been a Soviet and Russian tradition. Consequently, it is likely no accident that a senior Russian churchman, in welcoming the expansion into Africa, conspicuously referred to President Vladimir Putin and his goals before mentioning Patriarch Kirill’s (Patriarchia.ru, January 24, 2022; Interfax, Ahilla.ru, February 2, 2022).
At a minimum, this possibility of the Kremlin and Russian security services driving or exploiting the Moscow Patriarchate’s moves in Africa merits the closest possible attention. The creation of an ROC exarchate on this continent should be seen not simply as revenge for the position of Alexandria on Ukraine but as yet another part of “the hybrid wars” Putin has been conducting there and elsewhere.