Russian and Ukrainian churches clash in Istanbul

Russian and Ukrainian churches clash in Istanbul

Istanbul is going to be a stage of an unusual political struggle on Friday, Aug. 31 in the form of religious power sharing in the region. 

It is not about the Alawite and Sunni factions in Syria nor the Sunni-Shiite confrontation in the form of the Saudi-Iran fight.

It is about the future of the Orthodox Church in the form of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Patriarch Kirill of the Orthodox Church of Moscow is scheduled to pay a visit to Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul on Aug. 31 in a bid to convince him not to approve the claim for independence by the Kiev Church from Moscow. The Patriarch in Istanbul said nothing on the issue but the meeting would take place at Kirill’s request to discuss “bilateral relations of interest,” according to an Associated Press dispatch.

The Ukrainian Church wants to have “ecclesiastic independence” from the Church of Moscow and all of Russia since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backs secessionist militants in Eastern Ukraine. It needs the approval of Patriarch Bartholomew, since he is recognized as ecumenical by all other Orthodox Churches. Bartholomew and Kirill had their last meeting in Switzerland in 2016.

Bartholomew does not publicly say anything on the matter due to political pressure. During his visit to Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call with Bartholomew on April 4, where it was reported that the Patriarch congratulated Putin for his re-election. Only five days after, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko paid a visit to Bartholomew in Istanbul, where he was on a visit to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan.

Poroshenko thinks the independence of the Ukrainian Church is a matter of his country’s “independence and national security.” Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergei Naryshkin also visited Patriarch Bartholomew on May 13 after having a meeting with his Turkish (MİT) counterpart Hakan Fidan on terrorism and Middle East issues.

If approved, the independence of the Church of Ukraine from Church of Russia is believed by observers to be a blow to Moscow’s claim for a transnational role. For example, the Macedonian Orthodox Church also wants to have its independence from the Serbian one. That is why there are reported Russian efforts to understand Bartholomew’s intentions in advance.

On Aug. 27, AP reported that the United States special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted Russian hackers in July for trying to steal information from Orthodox Christian leaders, as a part of his investigation on claims of Russian interference with the U.S. elections in 2016, won by President Donald Trump. AP reported that Patriarch Bartholomew, who is among the world’s top Christian leaders, was one of the figures targeted by the hackers, who are called the “Fancy Bears.” The report said the hackers targeted 4,700 e-mail addresses, but as it is known, Bartholomew does not have one.

The Aug. 31 meeting in Istanbul is likely to have an influence on regional politics as well.

Orthodox Christians, Russia, Ukraine