Macedonia and Ukraine in search of the Orthodox grail

Ljupco Popovski

It is naive to think that the sensational decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since in the beginning of this month that it has the right to grant autocephaly to churches without the consent of the other local churches, has no seal of geopolitics, but only to show the power of Patriarch Bartholomew in relation to his rivals. His words: “If the Ecumenical Patriarchate abandons and does not fulfill its responsibilities and moves away from the Orthodox order, local churches will go “like sheep without a shepherd”, causing great alarm in at least two capitals – Moscow and Belgrade. In the first because the Moscow Patriarchate manages more than 150 million believers, half of all Orthodox in the world, and wants to stifle any desire for autocephaly. And in the second, because the Serbian Orthodox Church in this decision of the Ecumenical Council of the Ecumenical Patriarchate sees a great danger of losing control, influence and power in relation to churches in Macedonia and Montenegro. The third thing is related to the rivalry of Bartholomew with Moscow Patriarch Kirill on the leadership of the Orthodox world. Such decisions in Orthodoxy occur so rarely that they can not even be remembered, but their time has come because the events in politics determined the actions in the faith as well.

This decision can be of great importance to the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Although the local bishops are trying to denounce the possible euphoria and, as the Metropolitan Timotej stated, “the MOC is ready to talk with Constantinople to find a way to resolve the Macedonian church issue, and I expect in the next period to have a meeting at the commission level of representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with hierarchs of the MOC, “they want, in some way, to seize the moment and finally find the lost holy grail. The possibility for the Macedonian church to receive autocephaly directly from Constantinople without taking into account the acute opposition of the Serbian church at first glance even seems unnatural. Most of all, because the Serbian and Greek churches are on the same line to keep the MOC in isolation as a misguided child, and also because all the hierarchs in the Ecumenical Patriarchate are Greeks. The connections of Bartholomew and his bishops with the Metropolitans of the Greek Orthodox Church had a centuries-long tradition and were almost like one body. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has respect for the church, but he keeps a distance from it. When he was sworn, he did not swear on the Bible (as all previous prime ministers did) to show the secularity of the state. But his influence on church affairs should not be underestimated.
It is unlikely that the letter of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev sent to Bartholomew, or the request of the Macedonian Orthodox Church for the Bulgarian Church to be its mother-church in the acquisition of autocephaly, played the most important role. Much more likely is that the great plan for solving neuralgic problems in the Balkans played the most important role. The Serbian piedmont in the former Yugoslav territories should be placed within which it will not be able to reflect instability, and it is already time for the Serbian Orthodox Church, as the leader of the nationalist wing in society, to get rid of the national churches’ dependence on their neighbors.
The SOC received this decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a nightmare. In a letter that Serbian Patriarch Irinej sent to Bartholomew, written in Ancient Greek, he advises the head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to do many bad steps that will have consequences for the entire Orthodoxy. But besides the councils, the words he uses for the “heretical” Macedonian church is filled with hatred. Macedonians are called “immature North-Macedonians”, and Macedonia is called a state invented by the Communist Party and Tito. Irinej reminds Bartholomew that with the tomos of 1922 the Ecumenical Patriarchate handed over the religious premises of the then Vardar Banovina within the Kingdom of SCS to the SOC. And that now there is no logic and that it is unprincipled to be taken away what was so easily given in 1922.

Patriarch Irinej also received help from Jovan Vraniskovski from the POA of the SOC, who for the Belgrade “Politika” furiously defends the right of the SPC to jurisdiction over the Macedonian church. “Giving autocephaly to Macedonia and Montenegro without the consent of the SOC would be a dangerous precedent.” And he, like Irinej, says that the possible act of Constantinople would violate the principles of Orthodoxy and the whole system of relations would be destroyed.

The “Ukrainian issue” seems different, it lasts longer – for three centuries – but the basis is the same: Ukrainian believers want their own church, and they are not yet under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchate. It seems that the Ukrainians will find the Orthodox autocephalic grail faster than the Macedonians, perhaps because the global game is bigger. After the annexation of Crimea, after encouraging rebellion and military assistance to separatists in Donbass, Russia is on track to lose the ecclesiastical battle with Ukraine.

On August 31, Russian Patriarch Kirill traveled to Istanbul to pressure Bartholomew to reject Kiev’s demands for autocephaly. After three hours of talks, Kirill said it was a “dialogue between two brothers” and “there is nothing secret in the meeting”. Maybe there was nothing secret, but the next day the hierarchs of the Patriarchate gathered in a three-day sessions, Bartholomew announced that he was in charge of giving autocephaly and announced the sending of two emissaries to Ukraine.

This dispute – which is in charge of Ukrainian believers – lasts for three centuries. Christianity came to large Russian territories in the 10th century through the state of Kievan Rus’, which is the predecessor of the Russian empire. The headquarters of the Russian church was in Kiev until the 17th century, when he was moved to the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the 10th century, Ukrainian believers have always been directed towards spiritual guidance towards Constantinople, the center of Byzantium. It continued after the fall of Byzantium.
In ecclesiastical history, things sometimes appear to have stood still in time, and now the Ecumenical Patriarchate wants to have a crucial influence in deciding what to do in Ukraine.
The main problems and a sort of religious war between Kiev and Moscow began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A year earlier, the Russian Patriarch Alexy II granted a self-governing status to the Ukrainian church, but it remained part of the Russian church. There are now three Orthodox churches in Ukraine – the first is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has wide autonomy within the Russian church. The second is the Kiev Patriarchate founded in 1992, led by Patriarch Filaret, who is anathematized by the Russian church as an apostate and traitor. And the third is the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church founded in 1921 as an act of resistance to Moscow and reprisals during the Soviet regime.
To whom will Bartholomew give autocephaly now? Last spring, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had a six-hour conversation with Bartholomew and his choice is the church of Filaret. Especially because during the revolution in 2014 and the events the church of Filaret stood on the side of the protesters, and the Ukrainian office of the Russian church chose to keep silent. The figures say that the number of believers between these two opposing churches is equal. According to some information, the Orthodox grail in a form of tomos should come from Constantinople in Kiev at the end of this month.
During the Russian Empire, the Orthodox Church was part of the state system. After 1917, the church was placed on the margins of society, and the priests were persecuted. After the arrival of Vladimir Putin in power, the Russian Church became part of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist ideology in order to cement influence in the Orthodox world, and thus promote Russian interests.

The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church can not only provoke major divisions in the Orthodox world, but geopolitically it will be a serious blow to Russian interests and the Kremlin’s strategy. As if it were part of the Kremlin propaganda machinery, the Russian Church announced through a statement that “autocephaly will be a brutal invasion of the Moscow Patriarchate’s uncontrolled territory. Such actions will not remain unanswered”.

The MOC has not said much, but with some blessed impatience it expects the outcome of this battle between the patriarchs Bartholomew and Kirill. The possible decision for autocephaly of the independent Ukrainian church of Filaret will pave the way to break free from the canonical chains of the SOC.

Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik