By Paul Goble
It has been the longstanding policy of the Moscow Patriarchate that the borders of what it calls its canonical territory are independent of any changes in the political borders within that space. As a result, it did not move to absorb Russian Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after 2008 or in Ukraine’s Crimea after 2014.
Instead, it opted to leave the situation undefined in the first two and did not move to take direct control of the Russian Orthodox Church in Crimea until earlier this year in response to a decision by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine’s decision to declare its administrative independence from Moscow.
Now, Putin’s declaration that Russia is annexing four Ukrainian territories has confronted the Moscow Patriarchate with a difficult choice, changing its own policy to fall in line with the Kremlin or maintaining its own position and putting itself at odds with the Russian powers that be.
So far, Patriarch Kirill has decided to avoid making a clear choice. As was the case eight years ago when Putin annexed Crimea, the head of the Russian church did not attend the ceremony at which Putin carried out his latest Anschluss. Kirill’s aides said he was suffering from a covid infection, but many see this as a diplomatic illness.
Clearly, once again, the ROC MP does not want to change its canonical borders just because political ones have, lest it undermine that principle and further antagonize even the church’s allies abroad let alone give its opponents yet another ground for seeking to isolate the ROC MP or even sanction Kirill personally.
Roman Lunkin, a specialist on Orthodoxy at Moscow’s Institute of Europe says that the situation in fact gives the Patriarchate “a quite broad range of choice” among various possible arrangements for administering the bishoprics in the newly absorbed Russian territories (ng.ru/ng_religii/2022-10-04/9_538_questions.html).
The Patriarchate could “leave things as they are as it did for eight years with Crimea,” the scholar says, at the level of law but not practice. It could take those parishes and bishoprics who expressed a desire to be part of the ROC MP under the direct control of Kirill personally. Or it could change its policy and absorb the churches of the new Russian regions.
According to Lunkin, those who are critical of Putin’s actions will be critical of the Russian Church regardless of which choice it makes because the ROC MP will take de facto control of these churches as it did in Ukraine even if it does not acknowledge that officially and de jure.
Other Christian denominations in the Russian Federation, however, are wasting no time in taking action to absorb their co-religionists in the Donbass. Among them is the Union of Evangelical Baptists whose head, Bishop Sergey Ryakovsky says that the Russian body will create one or several bishoprics for the new Russian territories.
That may matter as much or more than the delaying tactics of the ROC MP as officials estimate that between 10 and 25 percent of the population in these Ukrainian lands are in fact Evangelical Christians and not Orthodox ones. Thus, they will boost the size of the Evangelicals within Russia relative to the ROC MP, yet another challenge to Kirill and his church.