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For One Moscow Parish, Orthodox Schism May Spell End Of Unique Status

While it belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicetas is symbolically tied to the mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Constantinople Patriarchate, under whose jurisdiction Athos falls.
While it belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicetas is symbolically tied to the mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Constantinople Patriarchate, under whose jurisdiction Athos falls.

MOSCOW -- Myriad onion domes fill this city's skyline, a testament to its religious foundations. Yet among the plethora of Orthodox churches, one of Moscow's oldest fears for its status.

Tucked behind a Stalin-era skyscraper a short walk from Red Square, St. Nicetas is an "embassy church", or metochi, of Mount Athos, the male-only monastic community in Greece that the world's Orthodox Christians consider a spiritual home. While it belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicetas is symbolically tied to the mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Constantinople Patriarchate, under whose jurisdiction Athos falls.

"On paper we're part of the Moscow Patriarchate, but spiritually we represent Athos," says Father Pyotr, a St. Nicetas clergyman who withheld his last name because he is not authorized to speak on the church's behalf.

Until now, this arrangement has posed no contradiction: Russian Orthodox priests have served for centuries alongside clergy loyal to Constantinople, whose Patriarch Bartholomew is considered "first among equals" in the Orthodox Church. But on October 15, in a momentous decision, the Russian Orthodox Church forbade its adherents from partaking in religious rituals in churches under Constantinople, which includes all those on Mount Athos.

The long-awaited announcement followed Constantinople's decision to approve Ukraine's bid for religious independence from Moscow, moving thousands of Orthodox believers out of Russia's orbit in the process. It was the culmination of a years-long campaign in Ukraine, taken up with new fervor since the country's armed conflict with Russia began in 2014.

This leaves the status of St. Nicetas unclear. And it's prompted fears the parish may become collateral damage in what some are calling Christendom's biggest schism for centuries.

Unique among Russia's churches, St. Nicetas offers up regular prayers for Bartholomew, the leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and its services adhere to the schedule followed on Mount Athos. It gathers donations for the restoration of cathedrals on the sacred peninsula and prepares Russian believers for pilgrimage. Each year, it receives the relics of Orthodox saints from Greece, drawing crowds of the faithful who wait hours to kiss the glass behind which the bones of these men are kept.

Since the Russian Orthodox Church's decision in mid-October, Bartholomew's name is no longer uttered at St. Nicetas, and agreements on sharing relics are in jeopardy. Priests of the Constantinople Patriarchate who serve at St. Nicetas may be forced to leave. And on Mount Athos, some Russian priests who participate in services are now suspended from their duties.

In late October, St. Nicetas head Andrei Smernyagin traveled to Mount Athos in search of answers. Upon his return, with no official announcement yet from Greece, he said he had no comment to give.

Russian President Vladimir Putin prays during a visit to the monastic community of Mount Athos in Karyes in May 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin prays during a visit to the monastic community of Mount Athos in Karyes in May 2016.

'Weeping A Hundredfold'

Mount Athos has for centuries been a destination for Russian pilgrims. It is a repository of the most sacred Orthodox icons, and the holiest of relics. Many quote the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, one of the most revered Orthodox saints, in describing its importance to the faithful: "If we weep here, then to go there means to weep a hundredfold." Each year, an estimated 100,000 Russian Orthodox pilgrims travel to Greece, and around half of them visit the peninsula.

The monastic community has also featured in President Vladimir Putin's campaign to exert Russian soft power abroad. Putin was the first Russian president to visit Mount Athos while in office, and members of his inner circle are among its most generous benefactors. The BBC reported in October that Russian businessmen had donated over $200 million for restoration work on the peninsula since 2005.

Much of that aid has come through the Russian Athos Society, which was created with state backing that year under an official mandate to strengthen Russia's bonds with Mount Athos, according to the society's page on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate.

On October 16, the day after the Moscow Patriarchate's momentous announcement, Athos Society founder Konstantin Goloshchapov told Russian media there'd been little communication from church authorities. "They should give us instructions on how to proceed. Everyone's asking that question now, but no one's able to answer it," he said. The society's website has been down since mid-October, and representatives have not responded to phone calls and e-mail requests for comment.

'Waiting For Nightmare To End'

For now, the tourism industry appears to have been unaffected. Various Moscow-based tour agencies offer weeklong trips to Mount Athos, with prices for November starting from 44,000 rubles ($670). Three operators contacted by RFE/RL by phone said they foresaw no damage to business from the rupture in Orthodox relations, though pilgrims would have to adjust to the new restrictions.

Nikita Vedernikov, a clergyman at the Transfiguration Cathedral in Rybinsk, takes small groups of faithful to Mount Athos two or three times per year. For a small fee he delivers prayer slips from believers who contact him on social media, in the hope that if they are read out in close proximity to sacred icons and relics they will be answered sooner. Traditionally, Russian churches like the Transfiguration Cathedral have served as conduits for prayers to Mount Athos, but amid the current uncertainty some have temporarily suspended the service. So Vedernikov has actively advertised his latest trip online.

On October 20, he set off again from Rybinsk with 10 pilgrims. The group was barred from taking communion, praying in the monasteries, and kissing the relics kept there. Vedernikov used to participate in services on Mount Athos on Sundays and church holidays, but this time he could only watch. No one prevented him from joining in, he said, but until further notice his participation is liable to disciplinary measures upon his return to Russia.

"We're all hoping and waiting for a decision," he said by phone from Mount Athos. "But right now it's unclear." Asked whether the mood on the peninsula has soured toward Russians since Moscow's move to cut ties with Constantinople, he said, "quite the opposite. Everyone supports us, and everyone is waiting for this whole nightmare to end."

For now, Vedernikov and other Orthodox faithful are left hoping the Holy Community on Mount Athos, a council of representatives from its 20 main churches that governs affairs on the peninsula, will choose to side with the Russian Orthodox Church and help reinstate Russian visitors' rights to participate in rituals there. Some say they expect an announcement any day. But according to Sergei Chapnin, a religious scholar who used to edit the Moscow Patriarchate's official journal, they're waiting in vain -- Mount Athos is unlikely to risk stoking tensions further by coming out in support of one side or the other.

As for St. Nicetas, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church's department of external relations said its status was currently secure within the Moscow Patriarchate, but he wasn't able to comment on its future if Athos chooses not to sever ties with Constantinople.

On a recent visit to the parish, a calm atmosphere prevailed -- old women swept the grounds while men stood atop scaffolding to repair a chapel roof. Seminaries in long black robes waddled about, casting sideward glances at the cleanup as they headed into the church for prayer.

Parishioners are proud of the church's history -- its closure during the atheist Soviet period, when it was repurposed as a storehouse for a local film studio, its resurrection in the 1990s, and its recent transformation with generous government backing. When asked about the current standoff, they refer to God's will and prefer not to immerse themselves in the politics of it.

Father Pyotr, who has a kind, childlike smile and a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, remains optimistic.

"Of course we're worried about our Russians on Athos, who are stuck between a rock and a hard place," he said. "But our parishioners support Christ and all those who serve him -- whether on Athos, or here at home."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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