The Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate are increasingly worried that there will be new moves toward autocephalous status for the Orthodox churches in Belarus and Moldova in the coming weeks, moves that could help push these countries even further from Moscow’s orbit as autocephaly has already done in the case of Ukraine.
Religious affairs specialist Milena Faustova says that “the closer the August 24 date of the visit of Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Universal Patriarch, to Ukraine approaches, “the more often in the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian diplomatic corps frighten themselves and others with the idea that a church split will spread across the entire post-Soviet space.
Indeed, these concerns informed comments by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Orthodox churchmen on the occasion of the commemoration of the anniversary of the Christianization of Kyivan Rus, an event that is increasingly a bone of contention between Moscow and Kyiv.
The two places where the future course of development of Orthodoxy appear most in play and thus are generating the greatest concern are Belarus and Moldova. In Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is backing the current situation in which the Moscow Patriarchate controls most of the Orthodox there. But that could change.
When she visited the United States at the end of July, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya visited the cathedral of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in New York, an action that prompted suggestions by some that she plans to appeal to the Universal Patriarch to grant Belarusian Orthodoxy more generally autocephalous status.
Her aides played down this possibility, pointing out that Tsikhanouskaya is committed to the separation of church and state and would not take any step that would compromise that principle. But because Belarusian autocephaly would weaken Moscow’s position in her country, many suspect she supports the idea, Faustova says.
Meanwhile, in Moldova, there have been developments which are disturbing Moscow. Media there last week reported that the pro-Western Moldovan President Maia Sandu has decided to promote autocephaly in order to limit Moscow’s ability to use the Orthodox church there against her and her policies.
This has sparked fear in Moscow because while Sandu has been focused primarily on secular issues and while Moldova has separation of church and state enshrined in its constitution, Romania, which Chisinau increasingly follows, has made the church a state structure and its priests and hierarchs state employees.
Thus, seeking autocephaly for Orthodoxy in Belarus could open the way for a further rapprochement between or even the unity of Moldova and Romania, something Moscow is completely opposed to.
More generally, Aleksey Makarkin, a Moscow political commentator, says, these individual conflicts are part of the larger struggle between Moscow and Constantinople for primacy in the Orthodox world and any move in either Belarus or Moldova will be read elsewhere as an indication of their relative standing.
Complicating the situation still further, Markain says, is this: those in Belarus and Moldova, as is the case in Ukraine, most interested in autocephaly are not those who attend church but those who identify as Orthodox and view the whole question of autocephaly as a political rather than religious or doctrinal issue.
“In Belarus,” he continues, “autocephaly ideas are less popular because there is no center of attraction” around which they can form. “People simply do not know where to go if they want to leave, at least so far. As concerns Moldova, then the local church [hierarchy] is one of the most conservative parts of the Moscow Patriarchate, if not the most conservative.”
That means that the more liberal Moldovan government has both greater interest in and possibilities to serve as a catalyst for change. And while this possibility hasn’t attracted much attention hitherto, the situation could change quickly and radically if Sandu and Bartholomew reach an accord.
For background on the autocephaly issue in Belarus and Moldova, see:
- Autocephaly for Belarusian Orthodox would Condemn Church There to ‘Death,’ Moscow’s Churchman in Minsk Says and
- Fight over Subordination of Orthodox Hierarchies Spreads to Moldova .