By Paul Goble
Since Ukraine’s Orthodox gained autocephaly and even more since Russia launched its expanded invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Russian Orthodox churches in the former Soviet West have been under pressure from the governments in those post-Soviet states to adopt an anti-Moscow line and even to separate from the Moscow Patriarchate via autocephaly.
But that drive, powered primarily by the governments involved rather than forces within the church, had been far less noticeable in the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. But now that is changing. In Kazakhstan, there is talk about pursuing autocephaly and it is coming not from the state but from within the Orthodox hierarchy there.
Moreover, and perhaps most ominously from Moscow’s point of view, while the Orthodox church in Kazakhstan is persecuting those among its leaders who are most opposed to Moscow and who favor autocephaly, other church leaders are saying that autocephaly for Kazakhstan is “inevitable” (ng.ru/ng_religii/2023-07-04/9_553_partyarch.html).
If that happened, then the Moscow Patriarchate would lost more than half of the remaining parishes and bishoprics it still has beyond the borders of the Russian Federation; and the push for autocephaly elsewhere in Central Asia and more generally would almost certainly accelerate.
The public push for distancing the Kazakh Orthodox and pursuing autocephaly has been led since the time of the expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine by Archmonk Iakov who until recently has been close to Metropolitan Aleksandr, the head of the Russian church in Kazakhstan.
He publicly denounced the invasion and signed letters protesting the Russian church’s slavish following of the Kremlin line. And he gave online interviews in which he called for the Orthodox church in Kazakhstan to break with Moscow and pursue autocephaly so that it could control its own destiny.
That sparked both widespread discussion in Kazakhstan and efforts by Metropolitan Aleksandr to calm the situation by simultaneously forcing Iakov to move to a less prominent church home and yet maintaining relations with him, lest the dissident churchman break completely with the hierarchy.
That approach did not silence Iakov. He continued to speak out against Moscow and its war in Ukraine and to demonstratively use Kazakh rather than Russian in church services, something that won him support from Kazakh-speaking Orthodox but offended the sensibilities of Moscow and Moscow’s churchmen in that republic.
Then, the metropolitan on June 19 forced Iakov to take a sabbatical from his church work having ruled that his political statements were incompatible with his standing as a priest. In leaving, however, the monk called for “the denazification and demilitarization of the Russian Orthodox Church,” hardly a sign that he has fallen into line.
But the metropolinate has not broken completely with Iakov. Archpriest Aleksandr Suvorov of the Almaty Orthodox Cathedral, says the monk is basically a good man who has spoken too publicly about politics. But then the archpriest made a declaration that is sure to upset Moscow.
According to Aleksandr, “no one is ready” for autocephaly just now. But I’m sure it’s inevitable in the near future. This is an objective historical process” because Moscow Patriarch Kirill by his behavior regarding the war is driving all Orthodox outside of the Russian Federation away. The archpriest called for convening a council to discuss Iakov’s ideas.
Other supporters of Iakov are pushing for more radical steps: they are using social media to call on the monk to appeal directly to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and even to assume the leadership of “a local exarchate of Constantinople” in Kazakhstan, exactly the path Orthodox in Ukraine followed to achieve autocephaly there.