By Paul Goble
That the current crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey should affect Muslim states in Eurasia and Muslims within the Russian Federation is no surprise, but it may not have occurred to many that this conflict threatens to have negative consequences for the Orthodox in both Russia and Ukraine.
That is because it has already disrupted relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Universal Patriarchate and casts doubt on whether the scheduled All-Orthodox Assembly will take place in the spring in Constantinople or whether it might be shifted to the Universal Patriarchate’s “reserve” base in Chambesy, Switzerland, or even postponed altogether.
And these problems in relations between the two patriarchates could have an impact on the possibility, long sought by Ukrainian churchmen, that Bartholemew, the universal patriarch, might bless the idea of Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly in deference to Turkish government interests and hostility to the pretensions of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In an article in the new issue of “NG-Religii,” Oksana Kotkina and Vladislav Maltsev point out that “the deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations is putting a number of issues before the Russian Orthodox church, first and foremost whether to take part in the All-Orthodox Church Council in March 2016 (ng.ru/ng_religii/2015-12-02/1_conflict.html).
The church’s Office of External Church Ties has said that Moscow Patriarch Kirill has not yet cancelled plans to attend, but Metropolitan Ilarion, who heads that office, put off a planned trip to Istanbul for negotiations with the Turkish government and presumably the Universal Patriarch as well immediately after the Russian plane was shot down.
Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev, an independent Orthodox commentator, suggested that the Universal Patriarch could easily move the meeting to Chambesy in Switzerland where he maintains offices if the situation between Russia and Turkey deteriorates. He expressed “surprise” that Ilarion had cancelled his visit.
According to Kurayev, the upcoming meeting appears unlikely to take up and decide any major questions, although it is possible that Bartholemew, who is ill, might use the occasion to make one or another dramatic move, quite possibly on Ukrainian autocephaly or indeed on the more general issue of “canonical territories.”
The archdeacon said that the only obvious casualty from a cancellation would be Russian Orthodox pilgrimages to Turkish religious sites. But that is not a serious issue: “Pilgrimates are not a bad thing, but there is no necessity for them. We aren’t Muslims, and Turkish holy places aren’t Mecca.”
Another Russian commentator, Boris Knorre, a specialist on religious affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, suggested that it was likely that the assembly would simply be postponed, especially given the militant comments of some in the Moscow hierarchy who have talked about the need for “a holy war” against Muslims and Turkey.