During the last week of March, a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) headed by Metropolitan Kirill, chairman of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, visited Iraq, according to the Russian news agency RIA, March 25.
Such a visit — the first of its kind — may sound intriguing, since the Orthodox Christians in Iraq are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch, and there would not seem to be a reason for a Russian delegation to make a visit. An informative article by Andrew Evans on the Russian Orthodox Church and post-Soviet international relations, in the March issue of Religion, State & Society sheds some light on the matter.
The ROC had been active at the international level during the Soviet period, acting on behalf of state interests (peace campaigns, participation in international ecumenical meetings). Afraid of becoming marginalized in the new context, it seems intent “to continue to play its former Soviet role of peacemaker and diplomat” while developing an independent influence of its own.
There are agreements between the ROC and several ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Evans adds. In the former Soviet territories (i.e. the so-called “Near Abroad”), the ROC acts as a “symbolic advocate” of Russian minorities. It would like to see the Former Soviet Union as an “Orthodox-influenced ideological space”. Beyond Russia and the FSU, the ROC acted in the Balkans on the basis of religious and cultural links between Russia and Serbia.
According to Evans’ analysis, the ROC fulfilled in Serbia “its traditional Soviet role as peacemaker, while also promoting Russia’s international authority and redefining the former Soviet sphere of influence in religious terms”. This is compatible with its own aspirations in terms of ecclesiastical leadership (which not infrequently conflict with those of the Patriarchate of Constantinople). In its international activities, the ROC does not have the same constraints as state diplomacy. Countries as well as international organizations are becoming aware of the new, post-Soviet role of the ROC as a factor in Russian international relations, notes Evans, who is not only a former Mormon missionary in Ukraine, but also a former analyst for NATO.
While the European Union (EU) has not yet successfully developed relations with the ROC, some communication already takes place through the permanent mission of the Greek Church in Brussels. NATO is also seeking a dialogue with the ROC.
(Religion, State & Society, Vol. 30, No. 1. Address: Keston Institute, 38 St. Aldates, Oxford.OX1 1BN, England)
— By Jean-François Mayer