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.
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