Nikolaos Stelgias

Nikolaos Stelgias

Game of Thrones in the Orthodox Church

The Ecumenical Patriarchate takes on Moscow

Within the Orthodox Church an epic tale like the popular book and TV series “Game of Thrones” is taking place. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul's Fener, is at the epicenter of this historic conflict.

Back in 2018, Orthodox Churches of the Balkans such as the Ukrainian, were attempting to sever their ties to the Russian Church which has significant authority in the area and influences smaller churches, such as its ally the Serbian Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate instead of reaffirming the Russian Church’s authority chose to offer its support to the Balkan churches and therefore caused the wrath of Moscow.

As the power struggle between the Russian and Ecumenical patriarchates intensifies, the Russian Church is demanding greater recognition of its size, wealth, and power. In addition to the ecclesiastical power struggle about ecumenism, Constantinople challenges Russian positions on many issues such as the relations with the West, Ukraine, and North Macedonia. The biggest thorn in the Constantinople-Moscow relations is the Ukrainian issue.

More specifically, Patriarch Bartholomew infuriated the Russian Church by recognising the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's autocephaly, or ecclesial independence, in 2019. After this development, the Russian patriarchate severed relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The crisis in the Ukrainian Church deepens

Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of Ukraine's independent Orthodox Church, has written to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of Orthodox Christian leaders, requesting that Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, be declared a heretic for his theological support of the Ukraine war and stripped of his right to lead the Russian church.

The letter was approved at a synod meeting of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on the eve of the feast day of the Baptism of the Kyivan Rus, on Wednesday (July 27). The Ukrainian government has also designated the feast day, which commemorates the baptism of mediaeval Kyiv, as the Ukrainian Statehood Day.

“Each murdered child, each raped woman, each destroyed residential building and temple is not only a war crime but also an act of renouncing Christ,” the letter reads. “The moral responsibility for the committed crimes rests not only on the direct perpetrators but also on their ideological inspires — Moscow Patriarch Kirill and like-minded hierarchs who for decades propagated the ethno-phyletic and racist doctrine of the “Russian World” and are now blessing the attack on Ukraine.”

According to the July 27 letter, Kirill aims to “radically increase the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia … and in this way impose hegemony and the dictates of the Moscow Patriarch on the Orthodox world.”

The letter cited the Declaration on the Russian World Teaching, published in March, which calls out the “Russian World” teaching as heretical and further “rejects all forms of government that deify the state (theocracy) and absorb the Church, depriving the Church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice.”

Τhe letter speaks to concerns for the entire global Orthodox Christian community. “It is important to understand that the ideology of the modern ROC (Russian Orthodox Church) contains a threat not only for Ukraine,” the letter states, “but also for the entire Orthodox world.”

“Russia is a country that for centuries linked its identity with Orthodoxy” the letter also says, but it has since “been insidiously replaced by a civil religion that is apparently based on Orthodox tradition, but alien to the spirit of the Gospel and content of the Orthodox faith of the Holy Fathers.”

The religious dimension of a historical confrontation

The religious aspect of Ukraine's and Russia's historical confrontation is the tension in relations between their churches. Shortly before the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Fener, achieved independence, infuriating Moscow.

A solemn council met in Kyiv in December 2018 with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, created a new church, and elected Metropolitan Epifaniy as its leader. Patriarch Bartholomew formally recognised the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as a separate, independent, and equal member of the worldwide Orthodox communion in January 2019.

The recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was completely self-governing, was the culmination of decades of efforts by Ukrainian believers who desired their own national church to be free of any foreign religious authority. Therefore the Orthodox Church of Ukraine claimed autocephaly in Orthodox terminology.

The worldwide Orthodox Church is divided into 14 universally recognized, independent, autocephalous or self-headed churches. Each autocephalous church has its own head, or “kephale” in Greek. Every autocephalous church holds to the same faith as its sister churches. Most autocephalies are national churches, such as the Russian, Romanian and Greek Orthodox churches. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine claims also its place among the other autocephalous churches having secured the blessing of its independence by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.

The showdown in North Macedonia

The Orthodox Church's conflict is not limited to Ukraine. Tensions are also high on the church 'front' of North Macedonia. In this small Balkan country, the Ecumenical Patriarchate supports the local church's autocephaly. Serbia and its principal ally, Russia, are concerned about this development.

Recently, the government of North Macedonia wrote to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, requesting support and help for the self-proclaimed “Macedonian Orthodox Church - Archdiocese of Ohrid.” As it is evident from the correspondence, North Macedonia envisions an autocephalous church recognised by the world's Orthodox churches.

“The Orthodox people in this country deserve the independence of the church they have been dreaming of for a century,” says North Macedonia, “and expect to see the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Archbishopric of Ohrid recognised as autocephalous, with the blessing and written decision from the first among equals among the Primates of the Orthodox Churches, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate recently surprised the Orthodox world and perplexed the already strained relations with the Russian Orthodox Church by announcing full communion with the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate declared that it “welcomes into eucharistic communion the hierarchy, clergy, and laity of this Church under Archbishop Stefan, healing the wound of schism and pouring 'oil and wine' on the ordeal of our Orthodox brethren in that country.”

The schism to which Ecumenical Patriarchate is referring to took place during the period that Macedonia was part of the former Yugoslavia. Back then the Macedonian Orthodox Church unilaterally seceded from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1967.

It gained independence in the 1990s. The rest of the Orthodox Churches have never recognised the Church's move, treating it as a schismatic entity and a pariah.

The Serbian and Russian Churches have insisted on regaining autonomy within the Serbian Church.

Montenegro is also embroiled in religious conflict

The Orthodox Church's crisis also affects Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia in the 2000s. A few days ago, discussions about the church issue resulted in the government's fall in that country. The Montenegrin government was deposed in a no-confidence vote following a schism with the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church.

Just weeks after signing an agreement regulating the position of the church in Montenegro, Montenegrin lawmakers voted 50-1 to depose Prime Minister Dritan Abazovi's government.

According to the local and international press, critics argue that a special agreement with the Serbian Church is unnecessary.

Pro-Western Montenegrins have also described the agreement as a tool for Serbia and Russia to increase their influence in Montenegro amid the Ukraine conflict.

Abazovi has defended the agreement that allows to put behind the long-running church dispute in Montenegro over its property and other rights and to focus on other important issues.

Religious issues, which are extremely sensitive in the small Adriatic country that gained independence from Serbia in 2006, were a major reason for the demise of the previous two governments. Supporters of Montenegro's EU membership want to strengthen the independence of the local church causing the fury of Serbia which has traditionally maintained close relations with Moscow.

The mistake of the Patriarchate

“The war between Russia and Ukraine will end eventually, either through an agreement between the belligerents, a de facto situation, or any other cause. But the Orthodox Church's war will never end. The separation of the Ukrainian Church from the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate is one of the primary causes of this war.” According to Athanasios Photos, who is concerned about the direction of events in the Orthodox Church.

According to the columnists, “Patriarch of Russia Kirill was his predecessor's, Patriarch Alexios, foreign affairs confidant, and he followed the secret councils of the Ukrainian Church with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He tried many times within his responsibilities to prevent any notion of autonomy for the Ukrainian Church.”

Based on the foregoing, Photos believes that “the Ecumenical Patriarch was incorrect in immediately recognising the Ukrainian Church as 'autocephalous'. He needed to consider the chaos within Orthodoxy and protect its unity.”

“I have no intention of calling the Ukrainian Church's autocephaly into question. However, I can't help but comment on the grotesque things that are going on within the Orthodox churches,” says Photos, who adds: “Patriarch Kirill is commemorated in the diptychs alongside all the other primates by the Metropolitan Epiphanios of Kiev and All Ukraine.”

The same is true for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The Moscow Patriarch has discontinued commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch. This refusal, according to Church rules, separates Patriarch Kirill from the body of the Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is the order's head and the link between the other primates and autocephalous churches. At the same time, the Orthodox Churches of Jerusalem, Romania, Albania, the Orthodox Church of Poland, and other churches have yet to recognise Epiphanius. Finally, many Ukrainians who are Russian or have Russian ancestry remain loyal to the Russian Church.”


*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece on the news website 'Duvar". 

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