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Russian Orthodox Church Sets Out To Be 'First Among Equals'

Kirill was named patriarch of Moscow and all Russia on February 1.
Kirill was named patriarch of Moscow and all Russia on February 1.
Is the Russian Orthodox Church set to launch a "new crusade" -- at home and abroad?

Father Daniel Sysoyev, a prominent Russian missionary, recently urged the opening of an Orthodox "base" in Kyrgyzstan from which to launch a proselytizing "offensive" across mostly Muslim Central Asia. Speaking at a forum in Moscow on February 17, Sysoyev said the church should open theological faculties in Bishkek universities and "use Kyrgyzstan as a base for all of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and China."

Central Asia, he said, could prove fertile ground. After all, since 1992, a half-million Central Asians have become Protestant converts. And Catholic missionaries, the priest added, successfully set up a Kyrgyz diocese in just a few years.

Bakyt Murzubraimov, chairman of the theology department at Osh State University in Kyrgyzstan, dismisses Sysoyev's ideas as "nonsense" that would never work in Central Asia. But the priest's remarks, and others by senior Russian clergy, reinforce a sense that Kirill, who took over as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on February 1, intends to intensify his church's politically fraught mission at home and in Russia's "near abroad" -- with the apparent full blessing of the Kremlin.

"The Moscow Patriarchate is devoted to the idea of a Great Russia," Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Freedom, told Deutsche Welle on February 16. "Evidently, [Kirill] wants it to be the 'Putin Church.'"

Kirill, as metropolitan of Smolensk, once said the Russian church should hold first place among all other Orthodox churches, including the Church of Constantinople, which is traditionally considered "first among equals" in the galaxy of Orthodox patriarchates. "We are the rightful heirs of Byzantium," Kirill has said.

Reeling In Ukraine

While Central Asia may be a fanciful target for Russian Orthodoxy, Ukraine is shaping up to be the prime battleground where Kirill's bold ambitions will be put to the test.

Historically, the Ukrainian church answers to the Constantinople Patriarchate. And despite efforts by Russia through the centuries to control Kyiv's church, the Orthodox world has always maintained that the church in Ukraine -- and the Baltics, Belarus, and Moldova -- remains outside Moscow's canonical jurisdiction.

Ukrainian Orthodoxy is currently split into three churches, including one that is loyal to Moscow. But the Russian church now looks set to test that chaotic status quo in a bid to bring most of the Ukrainian faithful under Moscow's leadership.

According to Igor Frolov, spokesman for Russia's Union of Orthodox Citizens, Russia's global resurgence hinges not on natural-gas pipelines or foreign policy, but the battle over control of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. "If the Russian church loses Ukraine and thus loses its position as the major Orthodox Church, it will harm the whole civilizational Russian geopolitical project," Frolov told a conference on religion in Moscow on February 17.

Does Kirill have the Kremlin's blessing?
Frolov added that Kirill "has the qualities" not only to unite all Orthodox churches around him, but to displace the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, as the Orthodox world's symbolic leader -- its "first among equals."

Frolov also said the Russian church should be as powerful and effective as the Vatican, which oversees the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. Orthodoxy currently has some 200 million faithful worldwide, but Frolov said that under Moscow's stewardship, "we have every right to say that we need our Orthodox billion."

But does Kirill actually seek to take over the Orthodox world? "Doubtless, there are contrasts between Constantinople and Moscow," says Father Romano Scalfi, an Italian Catholic priest and expert on Orthodoxy.

"There are reasons for this. Moscow has the biggest church in Orthodoxy; Constantinople has only a few hundred faithful," Scalfi adds. "Still, I don't see Moscow trying to take over from Constantinople, but rather seeking to influence things more -- which is perhaps natural, given its size."

But that might be small comfort for some faithful in Ukraine.

Yelensky, the head of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Freedom, says he fully expects the Moscow church to intensify its missionary activities in Ukraine. More broadly, he says the two countries' political relations will be increasingly projected into the religious sphere, with a resulting rise in tensions between the churches.

Going Too Far?

But if the Moscow Patriarchate follows through with such an aggressive strategy, many believe it will backfire.

"As a person who stands for the interests of ethnic Russians and the Russian state, [Patriarch Kirill] will get little understanding [from other Orthodox churches], particularly in Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus," says Nikolai Mitrochin of the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen.

In an interview with the newspaper "Moskovsky komsomolets," Sergei Bychkov, a religious historian and analyst, noted: "Kirill is very active and belongs to a breed of reformers. I think we could end up with a schism because many bishops, particularly those from abroad, don't like his reformist tendencies."

Finally, there's the Orthodox battle within Russia itself. Supporters of the church and its efforts to influence Russian social life -- despite a constitutional separation of church and state -- are in the ascendance since Kirill's election, according to some observers.

That impression was bolstered by reports on February 24 that the church will be granted the right to own the land on which churches and its other buildings are located -- making the Moscow Patriarchate, in effect, Russia's biggest landowner.

Lyubov Sliska, deputy speaker of the State Duma, sparked a chorus of fiery reaction recently when she stated that the Russian church must be free to influence the country's social life -- a clear reference to the church's controversial bid to introduce courses on "basic Orthodox culture" in Russia's public schools.

Such efforts to rock the secular boat, in Russia's uneasy mix of ethnicties and faiths, are dangerous, says Rafik Mukhammetshin, rector of the Russian Islam University in Kazan. "We live in a secular state," he says. "Religious values play their role in the state, but this doesn't mean religion should become ideology."

RFE/RL's Russian, Ukrainian, Kyrgyz, and Tatar-Bashkir services contributed to this report

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