By Paul Goble
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church insists that its “canonical territory” — the former Soviet space — must remain inviolate. Indeed, that is the basis of its opposition to the Ukrainian autocephaly. But Moscow reserves the right to violate the canonical territory of other Orthodox churches if they disagree with it.
A year ago, to express its anger at the Ecumenical Patriarchate for extending autocephaly to the Ukrainian church, the Moscow Patriarchate began opening its own churches not only in Turkey, the backyard of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but across its canonical territory in Asia (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/04/moscow-patriarchate-goes-on-offensive.html).
Now, Metropolitan Ilarion, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, says that he “does not exclude” the possibility that Moscow will establish its own churches in Africa if the Patriarchate of Alexandria “supports the Ukrainian split” (credo.press/228296/).
The churchman says that Moscow had always recognized Africa as “the canonical territory” of the Alexandria Patriarchate but that it understood that to mean the northern part of the continent. According to Illarion, Alexandria added “all Africa” to its title only in the 1920s. Before that it had exerted influence only in the north.
Moscow supported that extension at the time and when it opened churches in Africa, they were canonically part of Alexandria. But now that patriarchate is supporting Ukraine and the earlier paradigm must be changed. Russian priests in Africa have no longer recognize the supremacy of Alexandria, and many in that church oppose its approach to Ukraine.
Ilarion’s threat in the first instance is part of Moscow’s campaign against Ukrainian autocephaly, but it entails at least potentially a far greater threat to Africa and the West. There are very few Russian Orthodox in Africa, and any churches established there will likely be filled with FSB officers masquerading as priests.
Such use of the church abroad as cover for intelligence officers has long been a Soviet and Russian tradition. Given Vladimir Putin’s interest in expanding Moscow’s influence in Africa, it may very well be that that possibility is far more important than the internecine church conflicts this church debate is nominally about.