An ambiguous visit


After he refused to take part in the great Orthodox Synod in Crete last year, Patriarch Kirill is coming to Bucharest, for a meeting with regional flavour. The host, Patriarch Daniel, wants to pay homage, alongside the heads of the other Orthodox Churches that experienced the communist regime, to the martyrs of the said era. Or, rather, he wants to festively mark his first decade at the helm of Romanian Orthodox believers. At any rate, Kirill’s visit is an undeniable PR success.

What the ecumenical patriarch failed to achieve is hereby achieved by the Romanian one. Kirill is not only the leader of the largest Orthodox Church in the world, but he is also the representative of a reactionary front that has sympathisers almost everywhere, even in Romania. He is a key ally of President Putin, whose regime has been ideologically built on opposition toward Western values that lay at the foundation of the European Union. And Russian Orthodoxy, imperial for the past several centuries, even during communism, has thus found a new support to loudly express its confessional, but also cultural, difference from the rest of Christendom.

By being against the West, Russian Orthodoxy kills two birds with one stone: it distances itself from a strongly secularised society, but also from the other Christian denominations, which it considers fundamentally heretical. On the other hand, without loyal patriarchs, Putin would not have been as powerful as he is now. Consequently, Kirill does not represent solely a very numerous Church, but also a global centre of power. This is also the stake of his refusal to consort with other Orthodox Churches less attached to reactionary ideologies. He comes to Bucharest because there is no need to sign any agreement that would somehow tie his hands. He comes here because during the imperialist period of communism – after the Second World War – the Russian Orthodox Church was used by Stalin to subjugate the European countries located on this side of the Iron Curtain more easily.

He also comes because he is trying to break the solidarity of the Churches that took part in the Synod in Crete. Patriarch Daniel, for instance, has been more of an adversary to him until now, because they both inherited the litigation – quarter of a century old – from the former Soviet Moldova, where Romanians reactivated a Metropolitan Seat that had operated during the interwar period. After all, Daniel is now trying to tend to his popularity. On one hand, local reactionaries reproach him for being too open toward the West and the Catholics – a disproportionate accusation at any rate, but just good enough to stoke some opposition, especially among monks. On the other hand, a growing number of Orthodox believers are moving away from their Church’s official line, marred by various scandals. Scandals – financial or sexual – that have put a part of the clergy, excessively preoccupied with wealth and pleasure, in an unfavourable light. Even more so since the pharaonic project of a new cathedral in Bucharest is swallowing enormous sums of money year after year, sums of money that some politicians offer with a lot of open-handedness, confident in the electoral profit of such investments.

But the stated purpose of the meeting – the commemoration of martyrs from the communist era – is not one that the two Churches understand the same way. The Russians – who during the first communist decades faced the ruling power’s attempt to destroy any religion, starting with the one widely in the majority – experienced wide-scale persecution. An impressive number of priests and bishops were killed, and many ended up in the Gulag because of religious reasons too. The war changed Stalin’s tactic, which used the Orthodox Church to stimulate defence against the Nazi invasion.

So that the European countries that the Soviets then occupied did not face the banning of some denominations – except for the Greek-Catholic Church. But the attempt to win allies within the clergy was used on a wide scale, for ideological and totalitarian control purposes. That was Romania’s case, where a person close to the local communist leader was propelled as patriarch. That is why in the case of most clergymen and fervent believers who ended up in prison, the reason was mostly political. Even though there was also a strong anti-religious current, and religious freedoms were drastically limited, only political accusations were officially invoked. So that the oppressed were in far smaller number and most of the time associated with former interwar parties. Some of them had been legionnaires – the expression of local fascism with strong Orthodox nuances. That is why the Romanian Orthodox Church still hesitates to canonize the so-called “prison saints,” out of fear of political implications difficult to control. Some local reactionaries are thrilled with the visit of Kirill, seen as a role model of open anti-Occidentalism and as the spearhead of a more aggressive Christianity. They are thrilled because they also see him as Putin’s man, the guarantor of an alternative world to the current European Union. Several years ago, Moscow hosted a great exhibition on the communist period.

The Russian Orthodox Church was extremely involved, but the message was extremely ambiguous, far from a clear rejection of communism. After all, all reactionaries, starting with the local ones, yearn for the authoritarianism that the communist ideology also promoted so diligently. So that Kirill’s visit to Bucharest, apart from any diplomatic stake, has a significant dose of ambiguity.