Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church and Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Ecumenical Patriarchate continue to present opposite views.
by Massimo Introvigne
The International Religious Freedom Summit 2021, organized in Washington DC by former U.S. Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback was a very successful event. As Brownback noted, among the achievement of the Summit was the participation of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations.
Hilarion’s participation obviously did not mean that all issues of religious liberty for which the United States have criticized Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church for its cooperation with Putin’s regime, have been solved, nor that they are close to a solution. There are no signs that Russia is backing off from its persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities, although it is encouraging to see that dissenting voices criticizing the most rabid anti-cultists such as Alexander Dvorkin are emerging within the Russian Orthodox Church itself.
The aftermath of the Summit is showing that one issue where positions remain distant is Ukraine. In 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an autocephalous church whose canonical territory is Ukraine. Certainly, this was within the prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but the recognition of an independent Ukrainian church separated from the Russian Orthodox Church was also a strong political statement of Ukraine’s independency from Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and continues to believe that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is the only canonical representative of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian question brought the relationships between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church to an all-time low, and at the OSCE and other international fora Russia and Ukraine routinely trade accusations that the UOC-MP is discriminated in Ukraine and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is prevented from operating in Crimea and areas of Eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian militias.
One interesting feature of the International Religious Freedom Summit was that not only Russian media, but Metropolitan Hilarion himself, had attacked in the past Ambassador Brownback as being part of the alleged American plot to establish the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. On the other hand, there is little doubt that on general issues of religious liberty, including problems Christians have in defending their traditional positions on the family in the West, Hilarion and the Russian Orthodox Church are closer to Brownback and the Republican Party than to the Biden administration.
Upon his return to Russia, Hilarion told RIA Novosti that Brownback “played a significant role in the legitimization of the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was actively involved in lobbying for this project, I spoke quite frankly with him, stated my position on this question.” Hilarion was, however, criticized by the most conservative and nationalist elements in the Russian Orthodox Church for his participation in the Summit.
They also noted that another speaker at the Summit was Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, a province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. He gave a powerful speech, criticizing the rising tide of religious nationalism.
Elpidophoros noted that “even as the Russian Federation morphed into its present form, the newly freed Russian Orthodox Church struggled to rebuild its place in society. Its cooperation and support of the State has been a way to regain its former glories. Yet, it is the state itself that has benefited from the ‘Religious Nationalism’ created by the reborn Orthodox Church within its borders. Precisely because the Moscow Patriarchate maintains much of the contours of the old Soviet Union. The close relationship between the state Foreign Ministry and the Church Department of External Relations [whose head is Hilarion, n.] is well known.”
“Through the networks of the Moscow Patriarchate, Elpidophoros went on to say, the Russian Federation is able to exert influence in the new nation-states that emerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ukraine is a case in point, where a local Orthodox Church was established, legally and canonically, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, yet the Moscow Patriarchate continues to maintain its own entity. This is clearly in the interests of the Russian Federation which benefits as much, if not more, from its ‘Religious Nationalism’ as the Church does from its ‘Nationalistic Religion.’”
In turn, Elpidophoros was accused of heresy by conservative Orthodox for having embraced at the Summit a notion of religious liberty close to the one of the post-Vatican-II Catholic Church and not part of the Orthodox tradition.
“Religious nationalism” has a long history in the Russian Orthodox Church and did not start with Putin, as a recent anthology documented. It is a tradition that makes it difficult to embrace pluralism, religious liberty, and a dialogue with the West. Yet, as Ambassador Brownback implied, a difficult dialogue is better than no dialogue.