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Mixed Feelings In Macedonia As A Russian Orthodox Church Rises

  • Elisabeth Braw

Russian businessman Sergei Samsonenko (holding shovel) helps lay the cornerstone for the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox church in Skopje.

Russian businessman Sergei Samsonenko (holding shovel) helps lay the cornerstone for the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox church in Skopje.

SKOPJE -- When Macedonia's senior cleric blessed the construction site for a Russian Orthodox church last year, he said it would be "a piece of the Russian soul" in the Balkan state.

But some Macedonians fear the church may also be a chunk of Russian muscle in their tiny country.

At the groundbreaking ceremony in the Skopje municipality of Aerodrom in June 2014, the man who turned the first sod was Sergei Samsonenko, a rich Russian businessman who owns Macedonian handball and soccer teams.

The Holy Trinity church will "closely link the two nations, since there is a huge spiritual closeness," Samsonenko said, according to local media. The ceremony was also attended by the Russian ambassador.

Archbishop Stefan, the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, blessed the site where the Holy Trinity building is to be completed this year.

While the nation of 2 million already has about 2,000 churches, Stefan said that "today's act of setting the foundations of a Russian church is [an] extremely important [one] that will contribute to the rapprochement of Russia and the Macedonian people and represents a bridge for further rapprochement."

Others suspect Russia may have more in mind than rapprochement.

In conversations with RFE/RL in Skopje, officials expressed concern that Russia may try to use the Orthodox Church to advance its interests in Macedonia.

One official said Russia -- which Kremlin critics have long accused of using its natural gas and oil riches as levers of influence in Europe -- may see putting up churches as a means of increasing its foothold in foreign countries without causing alarm or vocal opposition.

"Building churches is seen as a good thing. How can anyone argue with that?" the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Widening Influence

It's a concern echoed in other European countries where new Russian churches have been built or planned.

"For the past two decades, Russia has been trying to get all these Orthodox parishes that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow after the Russian Revolution back under the jurisdiction of Moscow," said Irina Papkova, a scholar specializing in Russian politics and religion at Georgetown University in Washington.

"But in the case of some European parishes this hasn't worked out. So Moscow said, 'Fine, you do as you like, but we'll build churches throughout Europe that belong to the jurisdiction of Moscow,'" said Papkova, author of the book The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics.

After the militantly atheist Bolsheviks took power in the 1917 revolution, many Russian Orthodox churches around Europe transferred their allegiance from the Patriarchate of Moscow to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is "first among equals" in the Orthodox Christian world but has a smaller flock than the Moscow Patriarchate and is often seen as its rival.

Soviet security agencies went on to kill thousands of priests while enlisting thousands of others as informants. The Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a huge revival since the 1991 Soviet breakup, but to some its reputation is tainted by allegations that many clerics, including its current leader Patriarch Kirill and his predecessor Aleksy II, were KGB informants.

Skopje's Holy Trinity, due to be completed this year, is one of several churches abroad that have been initiated under Aleksy or Kirill, who was elected in 2009 after his predecessor's death and has vocally supported President Vladimir Putin.

Prominent members of the Orthodox clergy preside over the laying of the cornerstone for the Holy Trinity church.

Prominent members of the Orthodox clergy preside over the laying of the cornerstone for the Holy Trinity church.

The construction of a two-year-old Russian Orthodox Church in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, was financed by sources linked to Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin ally who heads state railroad company Russian Railways.

Estonian intelligence agencies allege that some of the money meant for construction of the church was channeled to pro-Moscow politician Edgar Savisaar's party, which mostly represents ethnic Russians.

In Paris, a Russian Orthodox cathedral nearing completion has been financed by the Russian government, and in Strasbourg, a Russian Orthodox church is going up next to the European Parliament.

In a November visit to Serbia, which is trying to balance a European Union membership bid with its traditional ties to Russia, Patriarch Kirill accused Europe of abandoning Christian values. His trip to Belgrade came a few weeks after Putin, deeply at odds with the EU over the conflict in Ukraine, was welcomed there with a military parade.

"The Russian Orthodox Church supports many of the same goals as the Russian government, both at home and abroad, for example the concept of a Russian world as a counterbalance to the Western world," said Thomas Bremer, a professor of ecumenical studies and Eastern churches at the University of Muenster, Germany, and the author of the recent book Cross and Kremlin. "And wealthy Russians try to gain influence in many places, so it's no surprise that they should help finance church construction."

Samsonenko owns the Macedonian handball team Vardar and last year purchased a soccer club, FK Vardar, which had been run by the city of Skopje.

Kremlin-Kirill Alliance

The Macedonian Orthodox Church, a breakaway denomination that also has dioceses elsewhere in Europe as well as in North America and Australia, reports to neither Moscow nor Constantinople.

But Bremer said there's a reason that it is embracing the novel Russian presence in Macedonia.

"Macedonia has a troubled relationship with Greece, so at the church level it makes sense to establish closer relations with Russia," he said.

For the Kremlin, at a time when relations with the West are tense and Russia finds itself in need of friends abroad, Kirill has become an important ally.

"In some ways, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin work closely together, but only when their interests coincide," said Papkova. "That's the case in Serbia. And a lot of Russian politicians position themselves as Orthodox and use the language of the church, but it's not clear that they're acting in the interest of the church."

In Paris, the five-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral complex rising near the Eiffel Tower, which is to open next year, will include a primary school and a cultural center.

It may project a sense of a Russian presence, but it is not clear how many people will attend its services -- Paris already has a Russian Orthodox cathedral, one not under the jurisdiction of Moscow.

The external relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Neither did the Macedonian Orthodox Church.