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Tibetan Buddhist leaders face “Me Too” rage

Dr. Andrea Galli

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A series of reports of sexual and physical abuse against high-ranking Tibetan lamas and teachers are shaking Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world.  What began as a trickle of complaints is slowly growing into a constant stream of very public accusations. The fury risks destroying the long-standing image of Tibetan Buddhism as a religion rooted in morality and benevolence, with the alleged actions by some of its most famous exponents seeming to be driven more by lust, greed, and corruption.

An increasing number of alleged victims have begun to come forward, raising questions about how such abuses, apparently widespread in Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world, can remain under the radar of public consciousness for so long. The developments have a striking resemblance to the case of the powerful Hollywood movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, accused after decades of being a serial sexual predator. The claims against Weinstein eventually triggered the “Me Too” movement and a flurry of similar charges against other prominent figures in the industry.

Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, met a delegation of alleged victims who claimed to have been abused by previous or current Buddhist teachers. The delegation presented to the Dalai Lama the testimonies of twelve victims of these abuses. According to the Spanish news agency Efe, reported the BBC, one of the delegations claimed that at first, the Dalai Lama seemed reluctant to listen to their stories, but that after 10 minutes of conversation became “more receptive”.

The controversy threatens to plunge Tibetan Buddhism into the same kind of controversy that has involved the Catholic Church for decades. During this time, Catholic leaders have vigorously sought to minimize any suggestion that sexual abuse in its ranks was prevalent, characterizing a series of scandals that have shattered over the years as isolated incidents and stating that these were internal issues that should be addressed outside the public spotlight.

It was only since the election of Pope Francis as its head that the Catholic Church has sought to deal more transparently with the murky side of its past. In August the Pope met with several victims who had been abused by the clergy during a visit to Ireland and roundly condemned decades-long efforts from within the Church’s ranks to cover up such abuse.

A fallen star

A number of accusations have been leveled against Sogyal Lakar Rinpoche, founder of Rigpa, an international network with some 100 different centers across 40 countries. Sogyal was forced into retirement in 2017 in the wake of mounting sexual and physical abuse claims. He no longer heads Rigpa.

Sogyal, whose book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sold millions of copies and made him an international celebrity, long enjoyed the support and endorsement of the Dalai Lama, in return helping to fill the coffers of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. That was despite the allegations of abuse against him, which go back more than two decades. They included a widely reported case in 1994 when an American student brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against him alleging sexual and physical abuse, which he had perpetrated under the guise of curing her “bad karma”. Few details reached the public, however, as the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

In spite of this, the Dalai Lama continued to give his tacit endorsement to Sogyal, visiting communities under his care and appearing with him publicly on a number of occasions. For example, the two were pictured together alongside the then French first lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy at the inauguration of the Lerab Ling teaching center in southern France in 2008, reputedly the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the west.

Powerless to intervene?

The Dalai Lama’s objection that given his predominantly spiritual role, he is unable to interfere in the day-to-day running of Tibetan Buddhist communities, rings hollow. When it comes to more arcane doctrine, he has had no qualms about condemning worship of the Dorje Shugden deity, a practice he has condemned as a “danger to the cause of Tibet” and he considers heretic and antagonist to his power. The Dalai Lama asked Shugden acolytes to refrain from attending his teachings, effectively ostracising them from Buddhist society, with the backing of the CTA which went as far as issuing directives against them. In 2014, the CTA legislated to criminalize the worship of this deity and produced a list of people who have voiced their disagreement with the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibitions. Both the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s official websites carry the same Dalai Lama pronouncements on Shugden. On the Dalai Lama’s site, they are regarded as religious decrees and on the CTA’s site, law.

What has stopped the Dalai Lama raising similar objections against leaders accused of sexual depravity and misconduct? For the CTA, it cannot argue, like the Dalai Lama does, that its role is purely spiritual. It would certainly have had the political authority within the Buddhist community worldwide to denounce sexual abuse wherever it was proven, to aid and encourage investigations of abuse and to withdraw moral and practical support from errant spiritual and political leaders. Instead, the CTA has abjectly failed to take responsibility for those who wield power within its ranks or their actions.

More widespread than thought

Sogyal’s abuse is not an isolated case. In fact, similar incidents have also been reported in other Tibetan Buddhist communities worldwide. Project Sunshine, an initiative that has worked to expose sexual violence in Buddhist communities, raised further allegations of sexual assault by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambala International, as well as some other leaders of the community in August this year. Headquartered in Halifax, Canada, Shambala has some 165 centers worldwide. Former Shambala disciple Christine Chandler has denounced certain spiritual leaders as “Buddhist enablers of sexual abuse”. Shambala International and a lawyer for Sakyong Mipham have denied the Project Sunshine allegations.

Another widely cited case of abuse emerged in 2011 when Lama Choedak Rinpoche, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra, was forced by members of his community to make a public apology after admitting to multiple sexual relationships he had with his female students.

Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary Lama Tenzin Dhonden, who was dismissed last November amid corruption allegations, also allegedly breached his monastic vow when embarking on a widely publicized affair with Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman. Yet he was not disrobed at the time but was only dismissed last November when a series of corruption allegations – including complaints that he demanded cash for securing access to the Dalai Lama – made him too hot for the spiritual leader to keep on. Like Sogyal, Dhonden’s transgressions were over a period of time.

One reason why such behavior went unchecked for so long is that abusive spiritual leaders were often able to put the onus on their victims, making them believe they deserved the punishment or even needed to be subjected to abuse in order to gain further enlightenment.

As former Rigpa students wrote to Sogyal Lakar in an open letter: “If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations is actually the ethical and compassionate behavior of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is” (quoted in Behind The Thanks, a book by Tibetan Buddhism scholar Mary Finnegan).

Such behavior is a far cry from what Rigpa founder’s own advice to teachers in his famous book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  In it, Sogyal wrote that “…true teachers are kind, compassionate, and tireless in their desire to share whatever wisdom they have acquired from their masters, never abuse or manipulate their students under any circumstances, never under any circumstances abandon them, serve not their own ends but the greatness of the teachings, and always remain humble.”

Easier said than done, as the saying goes, especially if there is no censure or sanction for acting otherwise. Today’s students of Tibetan Buddhism may hope their future leaders are able to live by such precepts, as well as just articulating them… but they could be forgiven for being just a tiny bit skeptical, especially when it is clear that the Dalai Lama has thus far shirked the role of a martinet of these precepts.

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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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