The Russian Orthodox Church, only recently on its knees after 70 years of atheist rule, has not only gained hundreds of thousands of new adherents since the demise of the Soviet system, it has also surged in prestige and confidence, basking in the favour publicly bestowed on it by President Vladimir Putin.
Just as the Kremlin’s assertiveness in geopolitics creates unease internationally, so the newfound influence of the Russian Church is far from being universally welcomed, even within Orthodoxy. Chief among those casting nervous looks towards Moscow are the circles surrounding Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Bartholomew – who as “Ecumenical Patriarch” enjoys a purely honorific precedence among the self-governing Orthodoxy churches – presides over a beleaguered community. Conquest and pressure from the Ottoman Empire and then the secular Turkish republic have reduced the number of Orthodox Christians in Istanbul from some 300,000 in 1914 to about 2,000 today. What influence Bartholomew has depends on his international prestige.
Today, that prestige is under attack, not merely from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s resurgent Turkish Islamism, but also from the encroachment of the Russian Church on Constantinople’s traditional pre-eminence. In 2016, Moscow attempted to sabotage the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in Crete, Constantinople’s flagship project, by refusing to attend and, one suspects, persuading other churches to stay away.
There is widespread recognition that the spoiling tactics were largely motivated by Moscow’s longstanding and scarcely concealed ambition to assume the mantle of global Orthodox leadership. Unease with the modernising and pro-ecumenical positions of Constantinople was also useful when it came to fomenting discontent among the more conservative national churches.
But Moscow’s tactic of disrupting Bartholomew’s action and influence may now have taken a new and Machiavellian twist. An online disinformation campaign has apparently been directed at the Phanar – the compound in what was once the Greek quarter of Istanbul where the Patriarch strives to keep alive the flame of Byzantium.
There has been talk for some time of Russian “troll factories” from which disinformation, calculated to confuse and divide and to disrupt the political process, is directed at powers deemed hostile to the Kremlin’s geopolitical aims. But are these tactics being applied now to intra-Orthodox ecclesiastical politics?
There is certainly disinformation around, unambiguously aimed at damaging the reputation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A number of articles have appeared in various online religious news circles trying to link Bartholomew with the exiled Turkish dissident Fethullah Gülen, now the official bogeyman of the Erdoğan regime.
In 2016, the Moscow-based online journal Oriental Review published an article purportedly by Arthur Hughes, former US ambassador to Yemen, suggesting that Bartholomew was implicated in the “Gülenite conspiracy” supposedly behind that summer’s failed coup. When Hughes protested that he was not the author of the article and knew nothing of the allegations, it was taken down, but not before being referenced by a multitude of sites in Turkey and beyond.
Then, late last year, an article appeared on the website of a Russian news agency trying, once more, to link the Patriarch with Gülen and the CIA. Again, the article was seized upon and reproduced many times, often in sources noted for their closeness to the official Kremlin worldview.
The fact that such accusations rely upon no hard evidence does not diminish the danger for Bartholomew. For years now, the precarious position of the Patriarchate has led to talk of the institution abandoning its ancient seat and transferring it to Geneva. Such a move would be a last resort: what the Patriarchate gained in liberty would likely be offset by the damage of severing its links, however residual, with the symbolically significant past glories of Byzantium.
Bartholomew has in recent weeks been vocally supporting the Turkish military incursion against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, doubtless conscious of his need to offer proof of loyalty to Turkish public opinion (he is, and by Turkish law the Patriarch must be, a Turkish citizen in spite of his Greek ethnicity). The downside is that this attitude is patently alienating support in Greece, whose sentimental attachment to the Mother Church is a prop he cannot afford to lose.
Whoever is creating these difficulties, they will cause satisfaction in Russia. To the Kremlin, which now sees the Russian Church as an instrument of policy at home and abroad, they promise growing Russian influence not only within Orthodoxy but also with other Christians increasingly looking to that Church as a bulwark of traditional morality against the liberalism prevalent in the West.
And what of the Danilov Monastery, administrative seat of the Moscow Patriarchate? Would it allow itself to be directly implicated in what is essentially a campaign of dirty tricks? It doesn’t necessarily have to get its hands dirty, of course, in order to reap the benefits.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is the parish priest of Hedon and Withernsea in Middlesbrough diocese
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