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Islam and the Other: the al-Wala wal-Bara Doctrine

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Muslims’ own image is that they are peaceful tolerant human beings, while the non-Muslims are aggressors, imperialist-colonialist occupiers. Therefore, it is the role of Islam to retaliate and fight back against oppression and evil as a defensive policy.

This ethnocentric approach explains the Muslims self-image of being always the victim who takes only defensive measures, while the Kuffār are always the war-instigators.

This duality is a conspicuous characteristic of Arab-Islamic political culture. It means that Muslims can viciously attack at almost every situation possible and at the same time to cry out they are victims being under oppression and aggression. They can perpetuate obscene inhuman acts of violence, to terrorize and intimidate, while they accuse the other of colonialism, apartheid, racism, and Islamophobia.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Sha‘rawi, the al-Azhar Egyptian exegetes, explains in his book al-Jihād fil- Islām that Islam is in no way aggressive violent, that it does not live and expend on the sword, and that it does not coerce the infidels to convert to Islam or be killed by Jihad. Islam tolerates the non-Muslims and bases its approach only on peace, mutual security and cooperation, and not on war, killing and coercion. Jihad is defensive and intends to repulse hostility and to fight back oppression and aggression. The call of Islam is only through Da‘wah and good intentions.            

This idea is so common among the Muslims that they wholeheartedly believe in it, and that is why Islamic propaganda, the Da‘wah, the political deceit of the Kuffār, the infidels, is so successful. It also explains how Islam is the most ethnocentric religion and political culture. It differentiates the world between Dār al-Islām against Dār al-Harb; between the good and righteous society and the bad and unclean society; it is the right against wrong; and it is the pious against the evil-doers; it is Paradise or Hell. There are no legitimacy, consensual recognition and acceptance of the other, unless he becomes Muslim or he is subdued to Islamic rule.

Moreover, everything in Islam is perfect, un-comparable and un-imitative: Allah is the one and only. Muhammad is the seal of all prophets, the perfect human and the most praised and blessed one; the man with Nûr Allâh (the light of Allah) and ‘Isma (immunity of error) who was sent as a mercy to the world, “the excellent example” for the believers to be entirely imitated, wholeheartedly admired, and totally followed without any doubt or question. The Qur’ān is the perfect replica of the mother book which exists eternally in heaven, a literary masterpiece ever written that no human can imitate. Islam is the perfect religious system, the only supreme ultimate true religion upon Earth; and the Muslim believers are the favored, the best of all peoples ever rose upon mankind, with three objectives commanded upon them: to seize power over the universe, to subjugate the world under the Sharī‘ah, and to establish a world Islamic Ummah.

That is where the doctrine of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ operates. Literally it means the total loyalty to Islam and the total disavowal and enmity to the other. It has become one of Islam’s main foundations and of paramount importance, directly representing Imān, and is second only to Tawhīd, the oneness of Allah. The total allegiance and love are only to be given within the Islamic community, and rejection, hate and enmity against the other is commanded, based upon Qur’anic foundations.

In his introduction to the book of Sheikh Muhammad al-Qahtani, al-Walā’ wal-Barā’, Sheikh Abdar Razaq Afīfī, Deputy President of the Department of Guidance and Member of Board of Great `Ulamā’ of Saudi Arabia, declares:

The subject matter is of paramount importance and utmost interest: it is concerned with one of Islam’s main foundations, which has two major prerequisites of true faith: al-Walā’ is a manifestation of sincere love for Allah, his prophet and the believers; al-Barā’ is an expression of enmity and hatred towards falsehood and its adherents. Both are evidence of Imān.

Ibn Taymīyah, the medieval exegete, one of the most cited authorities by Wahhabi jurisprudence, has referred to the issue:

Whoever loves for the sake of Allah, and hates for the sake of Allah, and whoever seals a friendship for his sake, or declares an enmity for his sake, will receive the protection of Allah. No one may taste true faith except by this.

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ and the Kuffār

The issue of the Kuffār, infidels, is one of the most important in the Qur’ān. The amount of verses devoted to the Kuffār is huge: 64% of the total Qur’ān; 81% of the Sīrāh; and 37% of the Hādīth; that is 60% of the Sharī‘āh is devoted to the Kuffār. The Qur’ān makes it clear that Islam is not about universal brotherhood, but about the brotherhood of believers only under Islamic Ummah, and the total denunciation of the other. There are over 400 verses in the Qur’ān alone that describe the torment in Hell-fire that Allah has prepared for the Kuffār. The Qur’ān dehumanizes the Kuffār, being vile animals and beasts, the worst of creatures and demons. They are perverted transgressors and partners of Satan to be fought until religion is Allah’s alone. They are to be beheaded; terrorized; annihilated; crucified; punished and expelled; and burn in Hell-fire. The believers must fight the Kuffār as a constant matter.

The Qur’ān tells Muslims to be compassionate with one another but ruthless to the Kuffār, it is commanded that the Kuffār must not be taken as friends. “Hostility and hate” exist between them forever until the Kuffār “believe in Allah alone.” They are unclean people who wish to extinguish the light of Allah. Bernard Lewis has put it:

Islam is still the ultimate criterion of group identity and loyalty. It is Islam that distinguishes between self and other, between insider and outsider, between brother and stranger… the ultimate definition of the other, the alien outsider and presumptive enemy, has been the Kāfir…  

The Qur’ān and other religions

The Qur’ān says that all other religions as such are cursed by Allah. All those who join idols, or false gods to Allah, or invent lies about him, or deny Allah, or change even one word of Allah’s Book, or does not believe in Muhammad — are to be “seized wherever found and slain with a slaughter.”

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle.”

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been made victorious with terror, and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.”

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ by the Tawhīd

A second aspect of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ is when the Muslims solemnly declare the Tawhīd: La Illāh ila-llâh (there is no god but Allah), it means they clearly state that all other religions are denied, sinful and unlawful. According to Ibn Taymiyah:

It is not possible to achieve complete happiness by loving Allah, except by the full rejecting all other things. This is what the words, “There is no god but Allah” mean; this is the spirit of Dīn.

On many verses, the Qur’ān reiterates the commandment that it is forbidden to associate other gods with Allah, and Islam should be adhered to become the only legitimate religion on earth. It is followed by the swear-belief that Muhammad is his messenger, that his conduct embodied Islam and Qur’ān. Muhammad’s words are absolutely the best to follow, being religiously unassailable. Moreover, the mission of Muhammad is to all humanity, so actually humanity must obey Muhammad as much as Allah. Those who disobey Allah and his messenger will be led into the torment of Hell-fire to live forever. Tawhīd will never be achieved on earth until the believers apply the doctrine of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’, by total following of Muhammad’s way of life, al-Sirāt al-Mustaqīm.

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ by the prayer

In each of the five daily prayers, Muslims declare the total allegiance and submission to Islam and objection to the other, as appears in Surat al-Fātihah, 1:5-7

Guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom you have favored, not of those against whom there is wrath, nor of those have gone astray.

Those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the Jews, and those who go astray are the Christians. al-Tabari (838-923), in his Tafsīr, cites Surat al-Ma’idah 5:60, which name the Jews as those with whom Allah is angry with, turned into apes and pigs; and al-Mā’idah 5:77, which name the Christians as those who go astray from the right path. Narrated by Adi bin Hatim: I asked Allâh’s Messenger about the statement of Allâh ‘not (the way) of those who earned your anger,’ he replied: ‘They are the Jews; ’and ‘not those who went astray,’ he replied: ‘they are the Christians.’

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ and the supremacy of the Muslims

Another aspect of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ is based on the Qur’anic declaration that the Muslims are the best of all peoples ever raised up for mankind, and their profit is a luxurious life in Paradise. Islam is the perfect religious system, beyond and above all other religions. It clearly declares that its aim is to subjugate the world under the Sharī’ah, until Islam is the only religion upon earth. Its utmost goal is the establishing of a world Islamic Ummah under the Khilāfah, Caliphate.

The believers follow in total submission and devotion to Allah, and are “kneeling and bowing in reverence, seeking Allah’s favor in acceptance; their mark is on their foreheads from the effect of prostrations.” That is why the believer whose heart is at peace welcomes with a smile death and all worldly obstacles. Death is seen as the most desired result of life. This is according to the verses in Surat al-Fajr: “Return to your Lord, pleased and well-pleasing. Enter among my servants, and enter my Garden.”  

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ and the ‘Just war’ (Siyār)

The last aspect of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ is related the issue of war and peace. Since the world is divided into two distinct realms: Dar al-Islām and Dar al-Harb, the normal and only justified relationship is a state of infinite war. There is no peace in Islam toward the other but temporary, elaborated by Majid Khadduri. Islam has no concept of “Just War,” since any war directed against the Kuffār, whatever are its grounds and circumstances is morally justified and religiously legitimized. A lasting peace between Dar al–Islām and Dar al–Harb is impossible, until Dar al–Harb no more exists.

Jihad reflects the normal relations existing between the believers and the Kuffār. There are no unbelievers or disbelievers in Islamic scriptures but only Kuffār. That is why the Islamic wars are Futuhat, in the sense of opening the world to the call of Islam, whereas the Kuffār wars are Hurub. Any territory conquered during history by Islam becomes Waqf, never to be returned, while any territory conquered by the Kuffār is considered occupation that must be returned by force. By this reasoning all territories of the Kuffār must be occupied and subdued by Jihad.

When the entire world becomes Dar al–Islām, submission to Allah will be the law of the whole universe, and Jihad al-Akbar reigns. Until then, war is the normal and lasting state of affair (Jihād al-Saghīr). Jihad as a Just War against the Kuffār appears as follows: Qur’an – 24%; Sīrah – 67%; Hādīth – 21%. The total Sharī‘āh – 31%.

Domestic realm: al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ and al-Tā’ifah al-Mansūrah

The issue of Walā’ wa-Barā’ has also a domestic framework. Salafi-Jihadi groups and the Wahhabi Muslims believe they are the Saved Sect (al-Tā’ifah al-Mansūrah), the only group who has the correct Islamic beliefs. They are the real Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamā‘ah, while all other manifestations of Islam have deviated from the ‘straight path’ (Sirāt al-Mustaqīm), and by that destined for hell as ‘apostates’. This principle is the basis of Takfīr doctrine the Jihadists use to identify their domestic Muslim enemies and to justify their elimination, as we see in Dawlat al-Khilāfah al-Islāmiyah.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s concept of Takfīr, includes the command that anyone who does not show sufficient levels of Walā’, allegiance to ‘true Muslims’, and adequate Barā’, rejection of ‘sinners’, is at risk of committing apostasy. Abū Qatāda, the Jordanian-Palestinian preacher, has written on the subject. al-Tā’ifah al-Mansūrah reinforces Jihadists’ self-belief being righteous; strengthen their mutual solidarity; and allows them to fight opposition to their views.

This has also to do with the issue is Tāghūt (false deity). Muslims have an obligation to struggle against Tāghūt on the mere assumption that it is against Allah or what Allah has revealed. This approach of Tāghūt depends on religious rulings issued by Wahhābi clerics, yet it is defined as anything that is antithesis of Islamic monotheism. ‘Abd al-Majīd bin Muhammad al-Munī‘, a leading scholar for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, explained that in order to achieve Tawhīd, which is the highest requirement of every Muslim, one must explicitly reject Tāghūt, otherwise he is an apostate.

Tāghūt is at the heart of the Salafi-Jihādi struggle against Arab-Muslim regimes that do not comply with their Islamic conceptions, and it legitimizes religious rationale behind their terrorist attacks. These are also based on the Hādīth: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” Salafi-Jihadi groups can accuse any ruler who implements a political system that conflicts with their exact interpretation of Islam as being Kafir.

al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ and al-Fitrah doctrine

The Fitrah doctrine is the Islamic concept of human nature, as the right action of submission to Allah. Fitrah is associated with the Dīn, as how Allah has created mankind and universe. Islam is called Dīn al-Fitrah, the religion of human nature, because its laws and its teachings are relevant to all universe and human beings.

The highest important Islamic use of Fitrah is the belief that actually all mankind from eter¬nity are Muslims. Allah, having created humankind, took a covenant with them that they all will believe only in Islam and obey only him and his messenger. All babies who come to the world were born Muslim, and only their cruel inconsiderate parents have changed their religion. The proof comes from the Old and New Testaments: all Jewish and Christian patriarchs and prophets were Muslims who preached Islam from the outset, and clearly testified that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah and the ‘Seal of all Prophets.’

In Sūrat al-Baqarah, Abraham prayed: “make us submit, oh Allah to your will.” Later on one finds Jacob’s sons declaring: “We shall worship your Allah and the Allah of Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, the one and only Allah; and to him we submit.” And later on, Jesus declares: “I am indeed a slave of Allah. Allah is my lord and your lord, so worship him alone.” Then he asked: “Who will help me in the way of Allah?’ And his disciples answered: we shall be the helpers of Allah. We believe in Allah; and you are our witness that we submit and obey.” In Sūrat al-Nisā’, one learns that Jesus, son of Mary, was only an apostle of Allah.

In its outrageous impudence, Islam declares that there are proofs of Muhammad’s prophecy in the Old and the New Testaments. They quote Deuteronomy 18:17-9 and 34:12 that promise the coming of Prophet Muhammad as the seal of all prophets. In Deuteronomy, 33:2, when they quote: “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran.” For the Muslims, Sinai is the place where the Moses spoke to Allah and received the Taurât; Seir, is the place where the Jesus received Divine Revelation; and Paran is in Mecca in which Allah manifested himself to mankind for the last time through his revelation to Muhammad.

This is the basis of Islamic Messianic conversion. Aslim – Taslim was the strategy, the slogan-message that Muhammad sent to the non-Muslims, literally meaning “submit and you will be safe”. This was accepted by all Muslim leaders: Da’wah Qablal-Jihād: the call to submit to Islam before Jihad war. Nowadays, the Da’wah, the propagation arm to deceive the infidels, works effectively to conquer the world by conversion, and the Fitrah doctrine has become the means to achieve it.

Summary

The doctrine of al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ signifies critical importance to understanding Islamic worldview and its conceptions towards the other. Befriending believers and battling infidels are critical pillars in Islam. It is so important that is it second only to Tawhīd, the oneness of Allah. Faith is incomplete without it, including renouncing and fighting domestic rulers. It is the criterion of distinguishing between the believers and the enemies of Islam. That is why Tawhīd will never be achieved on earth until the believers apply al-Walā’ wal-Barā’, by total following Muhammad’s way of life, al-Sirāt al-Mustaqīm.

According to the Fitrah doctrine, it is the deep Islamic belief that Islam has the obligation to rule the world and to impose its Sharī‘āh on humanity. The Kuffār who resist Islam and do not accept it by their own free choice are responsible for the persistence of violence and the absence of world peace. If only they were to accept the unavoidable reality and submit to the propagation of Islam, then the Muslims would not have to use al-Barā’ and would not have to resort to Jihad to kill them. Submission is the only solution to world peace and it is for the best interest of humanity.

He who wishes to understand why the Muslims hate us so deeply; why Islam is a murderous automatic machinery system of hatred against the other; why this venom is so thoroughly implanted in every Muslim from infancy — al-Walā’ wal-Barā’ doctrine is the source and the answer.

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Serious Drawbacks in Ukraine’s Adopted ‘Church’ Bill

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On January 17, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) passed the bill No. 4128 on new amendments regarding the subordination (denomination) of religious organizations and the procedure of state registration of religious organizations with the status of legal entities. The relevant law No. 2673-VIII was signed by President Poroshenko on January 28 and came into force on January 31, 2019.

Though the bill was designed to simplify the process of changing the religious subordination of a religious community, it actually introduces a new, more complicated scheme of registration and reregistration for religious organizations of all confessions including Protestants.
So, reregistration becomes not just a long-lasting process full of red tape but also is rather expensive. Thus, according to Art. 15 of the Law of Ukraine “On State Registration of Legal Entities, Individual Entrepreneurs and Public Organizations”, the signature of every community member must be authenticated by a notary.

Moreover, the law No. 2673-VIII requires to submit a new charter of a religious community along with the list of the Assembly participants, which is an unjustified state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations and infringes believers’ right on confidentiality of their religious views envisaged in Art. 4 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”.

It’s worth noting that a request to submit the community members’ signatures contradicts European standards, for example Point 25 of the Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities published in 2015 by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR):

Any procedure that provides religious or belief communities with access to legal personality status should not set burdensome requirements.68 Examples of burdensome requirements that are not justified under international law include, but are not limited to, the following: that the registration application be signed by all members of the religious organization and contain their full names, dates of birth and places of residence; that excessively detailed information be provided in the statute of the religious organization; that excessively high or unreasonable registration fees be paid; that the religious organization has an approved legal address; or that a religious association can only operate at the address identified in its registration documents. Such requirements would not appear to be necessary in a democratic society for the grounds enumerated in international human rights instruments. Also, religious or belief communities interested in obtaining legal personality status should not be confronted with unnecessary bureaucratic burdens or with lengthy or unpredictable waiting periods. Should the legal system for the acquisition of legal personality require certain registration-related documents, these documents should be issued by the authorities.

There is another unjustified burden for the religious activity of brotherhoods, missions, religious schools – they are required to submit documents confirming the right to own or use the property where they are registered. It is also impossible for newly formed religious communities to comply with the new demand (according to Art. 14 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”) to hand in a “properly authenticated copy of a document on the right of property or usage” since the community cannot obtain any property rights without becoming a legal entity first.

Another contradiction is that during reregistration, religious communities must produce “the original registration certificate of the religious organization’s charter” as such document is not determined by the Ukrainian legislation and cannot be issued or demanded.
As the adopted law No. 2673-VIII stipulates, one of the reasons for rejecting the documents for registration is “their non-compliance with the existing requirements”, but it is not stated by which acts these requirements are set. This enables the authorities to voluntary decide whether the submitted documents comply or not with the requirements and leads to corruption.

Moreover, according to the same law No. 2673-VIII, if the authorities decide to reject the registration documents without reviewing them or refuse to register the charter, they do not have to provide to the religious organization a written response with all remarks related to the papers and an explanation in what manner the legislation was not complied with.
Obviously, such an irresponsibility of the registration body paves the way for a biased revision of the submitted documents and increased corruption risks.

Shortly before the second reading in the Parliament, churches, religious and public organizations appealed to the deputies to correct the above-mentioned drawbacks but contrary to the Verkhovna Rada’s regulations, the lawmakers were not permitted to do so.

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Patriarch Theophilus to decide whether to concelebrate Liturgy with the new Ukrainian Church hierarchs

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Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem

On the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany, the 19th of January, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko will visit Jerusalem. As part of this trip, a meeting with his Holiness Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem is planned.

The Ukrainian leader will be accompanied by several bishops of the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine, who are expected to serve with the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. At least this scenario is persistently promoted by the Ukrainian side with the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Israeli authorities and American diplomats.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established as the merge of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) at the Unification Council on the 15th of December, 2018, and received a Tomos of autocephaly on the 6th of January this year. Currently, the new Ukrainian religious entity is in communion only with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and is still to be recognized by other Autocephalous Churches.

As a source in the Jerusalem Patriarchate is quoted by the Orthochristian.com website, one of the two former hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) who joined the OCU at the Unification Council, Metropolitan Alexander Drabinko, is among Ukrainian bishops who may concelebrate with Theophilus III.

At the same time, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has not yet agreed to receive the OCU representatives and concelebrate with them: due to the unresolved status of the OCU, joint prayer with its hierarchs can seriously affect the reputation of Theophilus III. First of all, there is still no official decision by the Holy Synod of the Jerusalem Patriarchate on the new Ukrainian Church. Other Local Orthodox Christian Churches also consider it necessary to investigate the Apostolic succession of the OCU bishops thoroughly first, as well as to find a solution to the problem of the former UOC-KP parishes in the canonical territories of the four Autocephalous Churches.

Although Alexander Drabinko is portrayed as the most preferable representative of the OCU for the hierarchs of the Local Churches to meet with, questionable reputation of this defrocked UOC-MP bishop also plays an important role here.

Will Patriarch Theophilus III agree to take the risks entailed by the concelebration with the OCU hierarchs, including Metropolitan Drabinko? Will the external pressure prevail over the opinion of the hierarchs of the Jerusalem Patriarchate? Now it’s up to His Holiness Theophilus to decide.

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The Evolving Orthodox Triangle Constantinople – Kiev – Moscow

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Churches think in centuries and are not bound to short-term political mandates. On January 5, 2018 the Patriarch of Constantinople implemented his decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a move that upset Moscow. To understand the current developments, it is worth looking back at this centuries-long history of fluid relationship between Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow.

Constantinople-Kiev: Christianization

In 882, Oleg of Novgorod moved his capital to Kiev and continued the work of Rurik to unite Slavic tribes, setting the stage for the history of Kievan Rus. The prediction of Saint Andrew was unfolding. It is said that during the first century, when Andrew the Apostle traveled to what is now Kyiv, he climbed onto a hilltop overseeing the Dnepr River. There he planted a cross, prophesizing the future of the great Christian city and the role it would play.

The Slavs were a loose union of tribes, whilst Constantinople was flourishing. In 980, Vladimir the Great ruled in Kiev and endeavored to consolidate and expand further his territories. In 988, he conquered the city of Kherson, in Crimea, where a bishop see had been established since the fourth century. Although accounts vary on the conversion of Vladimir, what is clear is that the Byzantine emperor sent his sister Anna to marry Vladimir, uniting Kiev and Constantinople. When Anna arrived, Vladimir converted to Christianity, restored Kherson to Constantinople, and returned to Kiev with Crimean ecclesiastics. It is undeniable that economic and political reasons influenced his choice to convert as his agenda leaned toward the Christian world.

Although the Byzantine emperor appointed the head of the clergy in Kiev, he faced opposition from the Kievan princes who did not endorse a filiation of churches from Constantinople, nor did they submit to the emperor’s authority to make Kievan Rus a colony of the Byzantine Empire. Relations with the empire were complicated: Constantinople did not mingle directly in Kiev’s internal affairs but would not let the princes interfere in religious matters. In other words, the authority of Constantinople over Kiev was exerted through the clergy, who enjoyed considerable powers in Kievan Rus. As a consequence, the first inclination toward creating an independent church appeared. Yaroslav the Wise proclaimed Hilarion of Kiev the first non-Greek metropolitan in 1049. Nonetheless, Constantinople regained control over the appointment of the head of the church in Kiev. Constantinople never bestowed upon Kiev the right to appoint its own Slavic metropolitan, establishing a red line that would trigger immediate action from Constantinople. For centuries to come, the position would mostly be held by Greeks, who remained outside of internal Kievan politics. As Kiev had grown to be a major economic center, it was in Constantinople’s interest to stay on good terms with its Slavic neighbor, gaining importance on the international scene.

Yaroslav the Wise passed away in 1054, a key date as it is the year of the schism between Rome and Constantinople.

Kiev choses Constantinople over Rome

Opinions on rites and theological elements diverged over time between Rome and Constantinople, in part because of linguistic differences. Latin became dominant in the West while Greek was the language of choice in the East. Because of the status of language as a major cultural vehicle, the use of different languages impacted religious rites. Gradually, Rome imposed the closure of churches following the rites as practiced in Constantinople and Constantinople did the same to churches following the practices of the Western Church. Eventually, the Roman pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054.

Humbert of Silva Candida, the papal legate who delivered the excommunication to Patriarch Michael Cerularius, decided to stop by in Kiev on his way back to Rome from Constantinople. The newly converted Kievan Rus represented an attractive potential ally for Rome, especially given that the young federation of Slavs was expanding in size and importance on the international scene. Since integrating with this new community of Christians would strengthen their hand against Byzantium, Rome’s envoy visited the Grand Prince of Kiev with the aim of convincing him to join Rome. Yet Yazislav, the new Grand Prince of Kiev, refused any allegiance to Rome. The clergy in Kiev would remain on the Orthodox side with Constantinople in the great East-West schism.

But rivalries amongst Slavs were fierce. In 1169, the pious Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal Andrey Bogolyubsky sacked Kiev and took many religious pieces, including a highly revered Byzantine icon of the Mother of God of Odigitriya, one of the holiest in Russian Orthodoxy. He initiated the construction of many churches in Vladimir-Suzdal, near today’s Moscow and converted more Slavic tribes. He is also renowned for having made the first attempt to set up a new eparchy to compete with Kiev. Around the year 1170, he bypassed the Kiev Patriarchate and directly requested of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Luka Khrizovergus, that he established an eparchy in Vladimir. He also asked for the new metropolitan to have the same rank as the one in Kiev. The patriarch declined his request, but the competition with Kiev had begun.

Moscow enters the scene

The Mongol invasion spread quickly from east to west and reached Kiev in 1240. The city was destroyed and almost its entire population was dispersed. Kiev, the beautiful jewel of a city was shattered. Some sixty years after the destruction of Kiev, the city was still not recovering. So, the metropolitan Maksim moved his residence from Kiev further east to Vladimirin 1299. Nonetheless, he kept his title of Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus. The transfer of the religious center from Kiev was a major move, the consequences of which greatly affected the future of Orthodoxy and lay power as well. At that time, the Mongol dominated the region. The first union of Slavs, the Kievan Rus had disappeared and new states had not formed yet.

In a short span of three decades, major events shaped the face of the new power that emerged in Moscow, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Moscovy.

Under the relative religious tolerance of the Mongols, the church consolidated its power and the metropolitan Piotr moved to Moscow in 1325, giving the sign that the city was one of the leading politico-religious centers.

In the meantime, Constantinople was mired in its own problems and the Eastern Roman Empire was suffering through its last days. As the Vatican was entering the Renaissance era, it was eager to end the 1054 schism, especially to its own advantage. Thus the Catholic pope was well inclined to help Constantinople, which had asked for help and unity in resisting the Ottoman threat. At the Council of Florence in 1439, the Catholic Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople signed an agreement that should have put an end to the schism. At that time, Constantinople was still appointing the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus, and it counted on the support of Moscow to endorse the agreement. But reality dictated otherwise as Russia had gained much distance from Constantinople and its issues. The Patriarch of Constantinople died soon afterward, and it was decided that his signature was nonbinding for the Orthodox churches. Only Constantinople still hoped that the union with Rome would save them from the Ottomans. But a decade later, in 1453, Constantinople fell under the control of the Ottomans.

Moscow-based bishops decided to emancipate themselves from Constantinople, which had compromised with the Catholics to save itself, yet was now under Muslim rule. For the first time, Moscow elected its own head of the church, independently from Constantinople. Although the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church was recognized only in 1589, the church became de facto independent in 1448, with Jonah as its first metropolitan. One of his first objectives was to maintain religious unity in territories over which his predecessors had authority. Eventually, in 1458, the canonical territories over which the metropolitan professed corresponded to those over which the Grand Prince of Moscow ruled. This transition was reflected in his title, which changed in 1461 to Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus. The Russian Church was now an actor of importance that saw itself as the guardian of Orthodoxy, the Third Rome.

The new Autocephalous Church asserts itself

The remaining element was the recognition of autocephaly by Constantinople. Without the approval of its peers, the self-proclaimed autocephaly has no validity in the Orthodox world.

The Ottomans imposed heavy tributes on patriarchates that fell under their territorial control. Economically weakened, the patriarchates lost considerable weight, especially Antioch, which had been weakened and forced into exile several times due to centuries under the dominion of Arabs and crusaders. In 1586–1587, the patriarch of Antioch, Joachim V, engaged in a journey to collect donations from other Orthodox churches. In Moscow, the future tsar Boris Godunov offered his support and seized this political moment to stir ambitions of an official autocephaly. Two years later, the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, traveled to Moscow with the same objective of collecting money. During his stay, he would have discussed with Boris Godunov the possibility of remaining the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch but being based in Russia. Finally, after lengthy negotiations, Jeremias II decided to give autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Church and returned home. The recognition was made official in 1589 with the concurrence of the other three original patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

In 1589, the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time had a patriarch at its head, Job of Moscow. There were now five patriarchs: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Moscow. And the tsar was the guardian of Orthodoxy.

Kiev, the Tsarist Empire and the church

Peter the Great launched many reforms to modernize Russia, following European model. He replaced the patriarchate with a committee termed the Holy Synod, placing a bureaucrat, the Chief Procurator, as its de facto head and the tsar’s eyes and ears in the church. With authority over religious matters and control over the appointment of bishops, Peter succeeded in relegating the church to the status of a ministry or state department, with clerics placed in charge of spiritual matters.

Catherine the Great continued the policies of Peter the Great. She entertained the Austro-Russian idea of dissolving the Ottoman Empire. As part of this scheme, she nurtured plans to embark on a “Greek Project”: re-establishing a Greek Byzantine empire to replace the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had gained ground in continental Europe. For instance, she supported the Daskalogiannis Rebellion in Crete in 1770, in which Cretans rose up against the Turks. In reality, she was rather indifferent to religion: she embraced the project, promoted by Prince Potemkin, for geopolitical rather than religious reasons. Yet it did not materialize, and no alliance with Austria came into being. In 1783, Catherine decided to annex Crimea, putting an end to the revolts occurring there and, most importantly, pushing the Ottoman Empire back across the Black Sea. Crimea became a Russian province and part of Novorossiya or “New Russia” in 1784.

Religion politics in Russo-Turkish Wars

Eventually, tensions between the Russian and Ottoman empires had reached a climax, and war broke out in 1787. The conflict lasted for five years but was decided to Russia’s advantage. Russia was therefore able to consolidate its positions around the Black Sea but never captured Constantinople, the gateway to the Mediterranean’s warm waters and an Achilles heel for Moscow to this day. Even though the Treaty of Jassy, signed at the end of the war on January 9, 1792, recognized the Russian territorial gains, relations with the Ottoman Empire remained tense. Russian expansion benefited from momentum on the world scene shaken by the French and American revolutions. Consequently, nobody really reacted to Russian expansion until the situation in France had stabilized. But Napoleon reaction was short-lived.

Alexander’s victory over Napoleon gave him a new sense of divine mission, and by 1814, the tsar had grown more religious and prone to messianism. His religious awakening triggered his initiation of the Holy Alliance between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Signed in Paris in 1815, this alliance aimed to promote Christianity but was also a reaction to the Napoleonic Wars. The Great Powers wanted to ensure a balance of power in Europe and avoid revolutions. During the two hectic decades that followed, the Catholic Church remained strong and Napoleon III pursued a pro-Catholic agenda, as proven by his 1849 expedition to restore the pope. He posed as the champion of Catholicism in Europe, which in part explained his decision to engage in the Crimean War against Russia.

With its territorial gains and advances well into the Black Sea region, Russia represented a growing threat for the Ottoman Empire and its French and British allies. Paris, together with London, backed the Ottoman Empire, whose western territories in the Balkans saw many uprisings, such as those of the Orthodox Serbs and Orthodox Greeks.

The trigger of the Crimean War of 1853–1856 was religious, but the roots were indisputably linked to the fear of Russia’s growing influence in the weakened Ottoman Empire. At the beginning, quarrels between Catholic and Orthodox monks arose in Palestine about their prerogatives. As the matter had reached serious levels, Tsar Nicholas I intervened and asked the Sultan to recognize the right of Russia to protect the Christians of the Ottoman Empire according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed after the war of 1774. This right gave the Russian Orthodox Church further predominance over the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The document also gave Russia access through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. This privilege was certainly not pleasing to France or England.

Catholic France declared that it wanted to have authority over the Eastern Christians, a decision contradicting a previous agreement that gave Russia the right to protect Christians. The French Catholic Emperor Napoleon III promised support to the Sultan if he were to resist this Russian “aggression.” Stung by the humiliating conditions of the treaty following the Ottoman defeat, the Sultan agreed. Consequently, a new war erupted between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. As promised, France, joined by England, intervened in support of the Sultan to preserve the territorial integrity of his empire.

The protection of holy places and Christians became the source of an international war with several fronts around the Black Sea, including in the Caucasus. The war was eventually lost by Russia, which was then forced to hand over several territories around the Black Sea. As a result, France gained influence in the Holy Lands.

Moscow – Constantinople Competition

World War 1 put an end to both Russian and Ottoman empires. Under the Soviet, religion was undermined, priests were killed and churches destroyed. So, the Russian church found itself in a state of confusion when the Soviet government collapsed. The church was divided and weak. During the final years of the twentieth century, the ROC stabilized and consolidated its power over its canonical territory thanks to the support of the Russian authorities. It also reasserted its stance within the Orthodox Church worldwide. By far the largest in terms of parishioners and with growing wealth, the Russian Orthodox Church overshadowed the patriarch of Constantinople.

The later did not enjoy much freedom under the new Turkish rule. In addition, it had lost jurisdiction in the Balkans in the nineteenth century. Turkish authorities imposed that the Patriarch should be a Turkish citizen, usually of Greek origin, and such candidates are rare. All in all, the Patriarch of Constantinople has been in an increasing difficult position for centuries, and Moscow has proved to be a strong challenger. In 2016, the ROC asked to convene the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete and not in Istanbul as Turkish authorities had downed a Russian jetfighter deployed for operations in Syria. Based on this security argument, the Council agreed to change location. Nonetheless, local Orthodox churches, namely the Bulgarian Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, and the Serbian and Georgian Orthodox churches refused to participate because of disagreements over the agenda. The ROC suggested solving those issues to guarantee full attendance, even if it meant postponing the Council. Eventually, the disputes were not resolved and the ROC decided to cancel its participation. By so doing, the ROC expressed a defiant message about the role and authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Tensions never resolved and the situation in Ukraine added insult to injury in the relation between Constantinople and Moscow.

Moscow – Kiev: rivals once more

Since the mid seventeenth century, Kiev remained largely under the rule of the Tsar and then Soviet Moscow. Ties binding Ukraine and Russia were strong especially in the field of alimentation, industry and energy.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the Western European World and Russia have tried to attract Kyiv into their respective spheres of influence, a game from which Kiyv benefitted. In 2014, the tables turned drastically with the Euromaidan revolution that toppled President Yanukovych.  Incapable of averting Ukraine’s choice of the EU, Moscow was concerned that Ukraine might ally with NATO. Russian authorities treated the situation as a security matter and actively supported the separation of the autonomous region of Crimea and its attachment/annexation to Russia. The situation spiraled out of control and a kinetic conflict erupted in the Donbas, leading to serious readjustments in international affairs.

Against the backdrop of the complex international relations prevailing in the early twenty-first century, interests of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state have overlapped in Ukraine. The question of religion and allegiance to the Kyiv or Moscow patriarchate has become a matter of identity and call for resistance among some Ukrainians against Russia in 2014. This unfortunate confusion resulted in intra-Orthodox confrontation with the killing of orthodox priests and the destruction of orthodox churches. In a vicious circle, religious and political differences fueled each other.

Many critics have interpreted the positions of the Russian church and the Russian authorities as two sides of the same coin. Consequently, the Russian church became synonymous with Russian interference in Ukraine, and as such the separation as we see it unfolding was almost a fait accompli.

The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is another turn in this fluid relationship between the three historic cities of Constantinople, Kyiv and Moscow. And it is hardly to be the last move…

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