The Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete (2016) and Russia (in the context of the hybrid war)

The Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete (2016) and Russia (in the context of the hybrid war)



In the last year, the behavior of the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) became increasingly radical, while its members are evermore eager to assume the posture of “religious patriots” defending ecclesiastical independence (autocephaly) and the “purity” of Orthodoxy. It turns out that in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church religious radicalism is tolerated at the highest level, with three bishops (Nicolas, Gabriel and Ioanikiy) openly supporting orthodox fundamentalists. All Orthodox churches which recognize democracy, human rights and Western civilization have also unequivocally been condemned in recent Synod decisions issued in connection with the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete (June 2016), voted under pressure from the two most active members of the Synod. In this media environment, many Bulgarian decision-makers did not consider enough the importance of hybrid war fought by the government in the Kremlin by means of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and its satellites. The BOC is already acting not just as a Russian satellite, but in the case of the Council, as a weapon of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy, bearing all the negatives associated with it. Regretfully, BOC activities of last year caused significant damage to the image of Bulgaria. Our state administration has failed to do anything to put an end to our largest religious denomination being taken over by another country. However, to understand, in depth the position of the Orthodox Church regarding the Council and to explain the connection between this decision and the interests of the Russian Federation, we must examine the documents issued by the Council in Crete (June 2016).


Preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council


The concept of the Pan-Orthodox Council emerged after the end of World War I as a means of re-consolidation of the Orthodox community in the Balkans having suffered a disintegration and spin-offs into “national churches” and torn by nationalistic antagonisms as a backdrop to the parallel collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was also involved with this process; in service to the interests of the Soviet leadership ROC succeeded in halting the emerging process of unification at the very first Pan-Orthodox conference in Istanbul in 1923. The actual preparation of the Council began in 1961 and all canonical Orthodox churches with their delegations took part. The BOC participated in consultations with small groups and usually coordinated all their proposals with the delegations of the ROC. At the beginning 80 topics were tabled for discussion. Over time, they were reduced to 6. Looking at the already reduced list of 1976, it appears that the most important topics to be dropped out last were the following:


A. The question of the common calendar. The Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian, Macedonian (in a schism with the Serbian church since 1967) and Georgian churches follow the old Julian calendar while the others have adopted the new calendar and celebrate a number of holidays together with Catholics. This matter is especially poignant for the Orthodox fundamentalists supported by Moscow in recent decades. Moscow planned the transition to the new calendar in 1968 but was thwarted at the last moment.


B. The question of Diptychs, i.e. the place of Orthodox churches in the order of their listing by honor. It is a seemingly petty issue, nevertheless causing grief to the ROC in particular, because it was only granted Patriarchate in 1589 and in a very controversial manner. ROC stands fifth in the order of Orthodox churches, a long way from first. For example, the Tarnovo Patriarchate (ancestor of the Bulgarian Patriarchate) was granted the status by the Council in Lampsak in 1235, a fact which in recent times makes the ROC uncomfortable. A similar thing can be said for other churches such as Cyprus or the Ohrid Archbishopric which are older and which, unlike the ROC, have been recognized by Ecumenical Councils but are not patriarchates like ROC.


C. The question of the way in which autocephalous status is granted (i.e., ecclesiastical self-reliance). This is also a problematic topic for the ROC because the autocephalous status is granted by the Pan-Orthodox Council (in which all recognized local churches participate), which, however, according to canon depends on the Ecumenical Patriarch. The latter must convene it by rule. Furthermore, where the church’s canonical territory has been under the jurisdiction of Constantinople or other ancient mother churches like Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, the mother church may unilaterally recognize the autocephalous status of that local church. Then again, in 18-19 c. the ROC took over a number of the canonical territories of Constantinople in Central and Eastern Europe and this issue gradually became very delicate. Such is the case of the Estonian Church, the Ukrainian Church, the Orthodox Church of the Czech and Slovak Republics and the Polish Church. There is a similar case with local churches in the Balkans as well as the Georgian Church, whose mother Church is the Constantinopolitan Ecumenical Patriarchate and they should have the closest relationship with Constantinople, but since the 19th century for political reasons, they have fallen under the influence of Moscow and some of them are now literally its political satellites.


The ROC and its satellites insist that the three topics above must be dropped because according to canon, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has the last say in the settlement of these issues. Particularly significant points in the discussion of these topics would be areas such as the Ukraine (including Crimea), as they were non-canonically detached from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in favor of the ROC in 18 and 19 c. as a result of several Russian-Ottoman conflicts. At the time, no one considered factors as “canonical territory” in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate actually operates. The only “Council decision” that entitles the ROC to act on these territories is from 1953, while trying to convene a Pan-Orthodox Synod in Moscow at Stalin’s initiative. This decision, of course, is not taken seriously as it was made under Stalinist diktat and purely political by nature.


Also, in preliminary consultations on convening a Pan-Orthodox Council in March 2014 (in Fanari) the ROC managed to impose a special rule, according to which, if one of the 14 churches failed to attend the forthcoming Council or to vote against its decisions, it would not be considered valid. All decisions had therefore to be taken by the churches in unanimity – an idea absurd in itself. The ancient practice had been that every bishop voted with his personal opinion. In June 2016, it turned out, however, that the BOC’s refusal to participate triggered this particular clause. Therefore, the regulation proposed two years ago by Ilarion Alfeyev, head of the delegation of the ROC at that time, was meant to provide the Russians with a procedure enabling them to stop the Council.


The documents of the Council


Of the six documents adopted by the Council, only three have geopolitical significance.


The first document (on the mission of the Orthodox Church in the modern world) was adopted almost as prepared by the meeting in Chambesy in January 2016. It is a powerful text based upon the dignity of the human person, embracing the value of freedom and recognizing that the Orthodox church accepts western democracy; then moving to the value of justice (rule of law) and condemning militarism and the violation of international rules of peaceful coexistence, the violation of borders and of the territorial integrity of internationally recognized states. The Orthodox Church thereby also distances itself from the “sick religiousness”, a term used by the bishops for “fanaticism” and “fundamentalism” to identify not only Islamic radicals, but Orthodox extremists too. The document condemns discrimination, nationalism, consumerism, military aggression and social injustice. All these benchmarks in the document should be a source of problems between the ROC and the Russian state leadership and those Orthodox fundamentalists that it has been spawning for decades.


The second document on the Diaspora (resettlement by emigration) is a kind of compromise with the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church because it legitimizes the interim position into which the Church fell after the emergence of the so-called “national churches”. It represents a practice that is contrary to the teachings and canon, so the Council recognized that the situation is anomalous and it strove to achieve canonical normalcy in future. In other words, there was the will to replace national churches with territorial, managed by a local council of bishops, instead of dispatching priests on an ethnic principle as emissaries of foreign ministries of different countries, using Orthodoxy for national and political purposes. What was added to the preliminary text concerned removing the duplication of titles already given to bishops from other dioceses (obviously targeting BOC with two of its bishops who were encouraged more than once to change their title as it duplicates the titles of bishops in neighboring countries – a problem typical for Bulgarians). This document is not acceptable for the ROC as ever since the Cold War it has been attempting to control the predominantly defiant Russian and Soviet emigration namely through the church. While in the past the Soviet Union failed to do so, nowadays, with the help of an extensive parish network in the EU, Russia has not only managed to usurp the temples of old emigrant communities, but also to promote Orthodoxy as an ideological foundation for its expansion, replacing the communist ideology.


The sixth document on the relation between the Orthodox Church and the rest of the Christian world proved to be extremely controversial. It included an amendment to the text discussed in the consultations, namely that other Christians will be called “churches” from an historical perspective only. This is a serious compromise made by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, bowing to the Archbishopric of Athens and the Serbian church, namely to the extremist elements in them. While the document encourages inter-Christian dialogue as an important testimony of the teachings of the Church and its experience in holiness, it still marks a decidedly distanced attitude towards Catholics and Protestants. This immediately provoked outrage in the West. However, this position is much softer than the one stated several months ago by the Bulgarian bishops (in April 2016) – the position of BOC in which other Christians are condemned as “heretics”. This position was reaffirmed by the document of November 15 (29), 2016, issued by the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which not only condemns other Christian churches as heretic but accuses the Crete Council of June 2016 of the same. The document of the Crete Council, although manifesting retreatment from the initial call for openness to the rest of the Christian world, proved not satisfactory enough for Moscow, precisely because of the strong lobby of radical Orthodox groups demonizing the West in the ROC.


In this environment, the low literacy and unhealthy servility of the Bulgarian episcopate to interests rigorous for RF, allowed for the Crete council which had attracted the hopes and eyes of millions of Christians around the world, to be successfully torpedoed by the BOC a week before its start. So, the actions of the BOC became the latest episode in the web of intrigues woven by Russian diplomacy between the Balkan states – members of NATO. With its final decision of 15th (29) November 2016, the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church re-iterated this position. Oddly enough, it stands at a certain distance from the position on the Crete Council of the ROC of 22 November, which is relatively soft and diplomatic. So, it turns out that Russian diplomacy used the BOC and not the ROC as its main weapon. The goal of ROC is not to suffer severe negatives both from an image-making or financial perspective, hence preventing international isolation. Let us be reminded here that the ROC has absorbed hundreds of millions of dollars from the funds of the World Council of Churches (WCC). There is little doubt that Russian diplomacy is behind the mission to torpedo the Crete Council, as is evident from the words of the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov. On July 22, 2016, he publicly stated that the Government of the Russian Federation does not allow ROC to participate in a Council which does not meet Russian interests.


The Objectives behind the torpedoing of the Council


The result was that instead of becoming a symbol of the unity of the Orthodox churches, despite nationalism, secularism and international tensions, the Council was thwarted in many ways and regretfully, the BOC was in the front line as was the name of Bulgaria in general. Bulgarian-Greek relations were put at stake again – a fact extensively reflected in Greek and Western media. The same happened with Bulgarian-Romanian relations, as in Romania the news was accepted with sadness, especially by Pro-Christian media that have a serious impact in the country. This was an attempt to strain relations between the local Churches in the region and thus bring distrust among communities otherwise united as Euro-Atlantic allies. Media in all three countries – Bulgaria, Greece and Romania – reported the event in this context, based on historically accumulated attitudes which are not being countered effectively by the education system in all three countries, a fact recognized and utilized by Russian diplomacy in all cases of artificial deterioration of relations in the Balkans.


An attempt to impair the relationship between the Serbian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is also not unlikely, but the appearance of the Serbian church at the Council at the last moment prevented such a development, although at the event its bishops were under constant pressure from Russian officials in attendance. Also, given the failed Russian energy projects in Greece in 2016, apparently, Greece has become subject to “punishment” by the upset Russian diplomacy. It escalated to the point that, after the Council was concluded, the Russian press described it as having been organized by the CIA because the main sponsors of the event were rich American Greeks.


The first and most important goal of the campaign, which is still topical, appears to be the attempt to prove that Constantinople no longer has the potential of being the leading cathedra in the Orthodox world and that its place should be taken by Moscow, thus securing a new and legitimate ideological foundation for Russian expansionism. Another important goal of this active campaign was to break the Balkan alliance within NATO, achieved after so many wars and so waver the belief of the Orthodox population in its European identity, constraining Orthodoxy only to Russia and the Slavic.


However, it appears that the next and foremost goal is the sabotaging of Bulgarian-Greek relations as the reverse gas connector between Bulgaria and Greece unifies in a single gas market the area from Ukraine to the Mediterranean and practically terminates Russia’s gas monopoly in a vast territory in Eastern Europe. Thus, Gazprom will miss out on huge profits already gauged for the region and will have to work under open-market competition rules. Let’s not forget that the final settlement of contracts in the project for the reverse connector took place only a month after the Council.


Diplomatic and Media response


Largely, European diplomacy in the region tried to reflect properly on the Council attendance. American diplomacy also responded: Hillary Clinton as a senior civil servant, sent a congratulatory letter to the Council upon its conclusion. Western embassies in Greece were represented in Crete by their observers. The Council was also attended by observers, representing the Catholic, the Lutheran and Anglican churches. The head of the European Conference of Churches was also present, as well as representatives of the Oriental churches and other political and religious observers. Russian media and all radical and extremist Orthodox media announced that the Council was funded and organized by the CIA and that it was a retreat from Orthodoxy, i.e. it was heretical.


Short-term forecast


According to the signals coming from Moscow, the changes in the top hierarchy of the ROC and the attitude of Foreign Minister Lavrov to the Council, it can be assumed with a high degree of confidence that Russia will organize another Council in Moscow, claiming its Pan-Orthodox status or at least a pre-Council meeting to prepare such a Council in the future. According to information from Russian officials, the preparations for such an event are already under way. An additional push was the recent birthday of the Russian Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) attended by the heads of other Orthodox churches, which most likely were probing the possibility of broad representation.


In these circumstances, a “council meeting” or a “Pan-Orthodox Moscow Council”, accompanied by denouncing of the Crete Council, would lead to a factual division of the Orthodox Church into two – a pro-totalitarian church united around the Moscow Patriarchate (which is already clearly defined; the only question being whether the Serbs will join it) and a pro-democracy church, united around the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with some Greek-speaking churches (the leadership of the Athens Archbishopic has so far not been the most reliable in this respect); Jerusalem and Alexandria; immigrant churches in the West, including the most powerful dioceses of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; Romanian, Albanian, Finnish and Polish Churches. Nonetheless, given the insistence in Ukraine for recognition by Constantinople of the Autocephalous Archbishopric of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it will join the pro-democracy and pro-Western camp as the largest Slavic church after the Russian. One important detail is that it has more active Christian believers than the ROC, based on the fact that in Ukraine the church as a whole is more revered than in Russia.


As for Bulgaria, it will find itself in an uncomfortable position where the Orthodox Church, operating in its territory, will remain permanently in the Russian camp, which will undermine the country’s image, as well as its economic and national security for a long time. Most importantly, there are probably already intelligence operations being carried out through its parish network. Such undertakings were recently revealed in France. There are no prospects of a change of course by the Episcopate of the BOC, neither in the near nor in the distant future. This will lead to continuous destabilization and to planting artificial conflicts with neighboring churches, aimed to draw along with them certain segments of society or even the government – something we witnessed in 2015 at the tenth visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Sofia. This will permanently destabilize NATO’s southern flank and our status in the EU.


By Mihail Matakiev

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