The smallest Orthodox Church in Europe converted into a "test-ground" for Ankara's political technologies

A
s the April constitutional referendum in Turkey approaches Recep Erdogan has promised to "hold Europe accountable" for the unjust attitude towards Turkish emigrants. So now the referendum has taken place. Despite the statements of European observers and politicians about violations during the vote Turkish president celebrates his victory.

But anyway, he has no time to relax: the hype in liberal circles about violation of human rights in Turkey grows bigger while the voters are expecting to see the results of the given promises. Supporters (51,4%) want to see the enemies of Ankara defeated by "the mighty hand of their leader" while the others (48,6%) with even greater impatience anticipate a fail of the government on the international scene which will give them an opportunity to crash AKP on the pretext of their ineffective policy and inability to solve the problems of the nation.

What response will come from Mr. Erdogan? For now we can only observe an exchange of mutual threats between Brussels and Ankara without actual actions: Erdogan threatened to open European borders for emigrants, in exchange Brussels threatened to stop negotiations about Turkey's membership in the EU, and Turkey finally claimed that it had no big need in that… However there are signs that go unnoticed to the mainstream mass media but they prove that Ankara is confident and ready to start to act.

Erdogan's hidden leverage surprisingly is Patriarch of Constantinople – Bartholomew, who has a "first among equals" position in the Orthodox world. A "battleground" to try this leverage in action opened in Czech and Slovak republics. The ultimate target for Bartholomew was the autonomous and autocephalous Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church (the CSOC).

Back in 2013, the Constantinople Patriarchate (CP) tried to introduce its two archbishops into the Holy Synod of the CSOC on the pretext of assistance in solving some internal problems and misunderstandings in the CSOC. When this attempt failed, CP tried another strategy: during meetings with CSOC bishops in January and May 2016 CP demanded certain amendments in the CSOC charter that will bring it closer to the "Tomos of autocephaly of CSOC" issued by CP in 1998. It turns out that unlike the Tomos given to CSOC in 1951 and unrecognized by CP (the Russian Orthodox Church Tomos) the CP Tomos of 1998 gives autocephaly to CSOC on certain conditions. In particular, CP demanded guaranties that in case some inner misunderstanding should arise in CSOC they would ask CP for advice and help because CP was their "Mother Church". A bunch of other amendments implied formal independence for CSOC while placing it under total control of CP.

So, CSOC summoned a special Synod commission that met with CP representatives in Wien on 8-9 March 2017. Then Metropolitan Rostislav (Patriarch Bartholomew settled his conflict with Rostislav before Crete Council and admitted his position of the Primate of the Church in January 2016) appointed an extended Synod meeting on the 5th of April 2017 in Bratislava (Slovenia). It was dedicated to implementation of the new amendments in Tomos of autocephaly in the Church's charter.

Taking into account that believers of CSOC make only 1% of the population in their countries, the whole event should have gone unnoticed. This is the way of a prudent manager to test a new strategy without taking a big risk in case of failure. And really, still we don't see the results of the April Synod meeting in Bratislava.

The Holy Synod was to accept the new amendments secretively and thus create predispositions for a future intervention of CP in the affairs of another autocephalous church. In perspective – CP supporters will bring to light any problems and mistakes of CSOC bishops and escalate the situation – this will be a handy tool for manipulating the church under control of protégés bishops from CP "Mother Church".

However Ankara's Czech and Slovak "project" of taking control over a foreign religious entity faced a strong push-back from the local bishops and parishioners. Some sort of "CSOC independence" movement started to draw public's attention to the possible problems of changing the Church's charter according to CP plans. In response, groups of anonymous activists supporting the changes started to distribute agitation materials criticizing CSOC leadership and claiming that CSOC problems won't stop without CP's intervention and help. Thus we see that charter changes are not some trivial standard procedures and the above mentioned amendments are not a simple precaution in case of problems – these are steps of Ankara's plan of intervention in CSOC with a political interest.

And here some new details came to light – they affect not only Orthodox believers but all people in Czech Republic. Particularly, you should know that after CSOC loses its autonomy and falls under Patriarch Bartholomew, CP will get access to the money that Czech government gives to the Church according to the "restitution law". By the way, this law is already a subject for social discussions and complaints of taxpayers. The situation will only escalate in case of new obligations to donate money to foreign religious authorities.

Thus, it stands clear that CP (that is experiencing a crisis because of ambiguous attitude of its sponsors – Greek and US business elites – towards Donald Trump) will get a big financial profit by taking control over CSOC: it's commonly known that Czech government promised to give a symbolic sum of 3 billion Euros back to religious organizations by year 2030. It's symbolic, because the EU promised to pay Ankara 3 billion Euros as financial assistance for accommodating refugees. That's not all, Czech Republic also plans to give churches 2,5 billion Euros for unrecoverable property (earlier taken from them or destroyed).

In case of a successful realization of the Ankara's plan CP will gain not only money but also "reputation points". CP is already imposing the idea of its sole leadership and ultimate power in the Orthodox world, in fact Patriarch Bartholomew aspires to become an analogue of Pope in "the Orthodox variation". After CSOC this scheme may be used to partially or totally take control over the following Churches: Church of Greece (about 97% of country's population), Romanian Church (74%), Albanian Church (25%) and Polish Church (1.5%). Together they amount to a large community that can be used as a political power in Europe, with this leverage Erdogan will be able to exert pressure on the leaders of the countries in question and other EU members. For example: the Orthodox and Catholic parishioners can unanimously claim a better policy towards refugees and the politicians will have to open all boarders. Or another scenario: Orthodox and Catholics will unite to provoke national hatred among local people against migrants saying that migrants are a threat to the Christian identity of Europe. This, in its turn, will lead to a further marginalization of refugees and destabilization of the situation…

No doubt, Turkish president is an experienced politician and plans to set a big political game, predict the future dynamics "on the field". We see that the present situation with CSOC has a long pre-history. But that's only a probe of power. Whether it will be successful and set a start to a series of "coups" organized by Constantinople to take control over independent autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox world – this also depends on the actions of EU politicians, relationships of CP sponsors with new US President and believers' attitude towards all this. Time will tell how effective Erdogan's plan is and if he succeeds in "punishing" eurobureaucrats this way.

Jelena Rakocevic

Jelena Rakocevic holds a Master degree from the State University of Montenegro (International Relations). Currently she is a part-time staffer in country's National Tourism Organisation and a self-employed florist designer. Jelena belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church and lives Podgorica, Montenegro

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