The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is intensifying its efforts to promote the Kremlin’s interests and its own in the Middle East. Although the Church, either directly or as a cover for Soviet and Russian security agencies, has long been active in that region—the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society is the only Russian post there that lasted from Imperial times through Soviet ones to the present (Mospat.ru, October 11; Portal-credo.ru, December 9)—the Moscow Patriarchate is now expanding its efforts. These activities help Vladimir Putin in his drive to expand Russian influence in the Middle East, given the waning of US power there (see Jamestown.org, October 5). At the same time, they ensure that Orthodox Churches in the region will continue to back the Moscow Patriarchate against the Universal Patriarchate in Constantinople on issues like autocephaly for Ukraine and the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim of “canonical territory” over the entire former Soviet space.
The Kremlin is currently convinced it can fill the niche that Washington had in the Middle East for three reasons: First, as Putin’s recent visit to the region shows (Kremlin.ru, December 11), the perception of victory of Russian forces over the Islamic State in Syria as well as Moscow’s successful backing of President Bashar al-Assad are popular. Second, the Russian president has presented himself as the chief defender of Christians in the region, something popular even among Donald Trump’s base in the United States; it is, thus, yet another means of projecting influence at Washington’s expense. And third, the Kremlin has positioned itself against Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, a widely unpopular view in the region (Yerkramas.org, December 12).
In support of those policies, Moscow Patriarch Kirill organized a meeting last week (December 4) between Putin and eleven patriarchs and two heads of delegations of Orthodox Churches who were in the Russian capital for a major conclave of the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of the churchmen attending were the leaders of the historical Orthodox patriarchates in the Middle East, and all appeared more than willing to lend their support to the idea that cooperation at the Church-to-Church level would boost the policies Putin and Kirill now back (Russkaya Liniya, December 5).
A major reason behind their agreement on this point is that the Russian president promised to offer his support to all the Orthodox Churches in the entire world, including, as the Russkaya Liniya religious affairs portal noted, “in the Middle East in particular.” That was music to the ears of many if not all in attendance, who are under pressure not only from the predominantly Muslim populations in which they function but also from the Universal Patriarchate in Constantinople. The latter has pretensions, as the senior Orthodox body, to becoming a kind of eastern papacy that can give orders to the others, including making decisions—as it has already—on the autocephaly of groups within their canonical areas that want independence from the existing patriarchates (Russkaya Liniya, December 5).
Of the 14 universally recognized Orthodox Church organizations in the world, only four were not represented: Constantinople, the Greek, the Bulgarian and the Georgian, the latter three being closely related to and dependent on the former. Thus, Moscow feels the Putin meeting in effect not only “eclipsed” but rendered null and void the efforts of Constantinople at the 2016 Crete conclave to unite the Orthodox World under its scepter. Indeed, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian government have very much opposed this play by Constantinople, to the point of being willing to promote a new schism in the Christian East (Rosbalt, June 9, 2016; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 13, 2016).
Putin thanked the churchmen for coming to Moscow and said they, together with the Russian Church and the Russian state, must struggle against the mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East as well as against those who would destroy existing states and thus put Christian communities at risk—as has happened in Syria. The Kremlin leader said he considers it particularly important that the Churches work with Moscow and others to ensure the return of the peaceful Christian population of Syria now that the conflict there is winding down and to help them rebuild their parishes and their communities (Russkaya Liniya, December 5).
Clearly, Putin hopes that cooperation on this issue will lead to cooperation on others, with the Orthodox Churches—other than Constantinople and its allies—speaking out on behalf of Russia. The Kremlin leader has few qualms with presenting Russia as being the chief defender of these cooperative Orthodox Churches; and at least some of the Moscow-friendly Churches are willing to accept it as such.
The Moscow Patriarchate, given its caesaropapist traditions, would likely have gone along with the Kremlin’s above-mentioned overtures even if the Russian Orthodox Church itself gained nothing out of the deal. But from Patriarch Kirill’s point of view, the Moscow Patriarchate actually obtains three important benefits: First, it returns into the Kremlin’s good graces after the problems that have arisen over Church leaders’ recent obscurantist talk about the supposed ritual murder of the Imperial Family (TASS, November 29, 30). Indeed, Kirill may have in this way edged out Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, Putin’s sometime spiritual advisor, who took the “wrong” stance on this issue. Second, Kirill has ensured that the Kremlin will continue to work with him against the influence of Constantinople, which recognized autocephaly in Estonia and elsewhere, and thus will not be inclined to make any deal about independence for the Ukrainian Church. And third, Kirill will certainly use Putin’s support to reaffirm his notions about the Moscow Patriarchate’s “canonical territory” embracing the entire post-Soviet space. No such concept actually exists in Orthodoxy, but both Kirill and Putin nonetheless support it.
All this means that the Orthodox Churches of the East, at the urging of both the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate, are set to become more politically active. Such a situation will further complicate the position of the West in the Middle East and give Putin new allies he can deploy for his own purposes.