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May 18, 2021

Havoc of Orthodox nationalism

Among so much news of all kinds, the news of the breaking of relations between the Orthodox Patriarchy of Jerusalem and the Romanian Patriarchy is quite exotic. To the profane public, it may look like a conflict over the benefits of a property in the now Palestinian Jericho – a guesthouse for Romanian tourists. However, the distance between a simple property-related dispute and a rupture between the representatives of a Church of complete communion is striking.
The history of Christianity in the so-called ‘Holy Land’ (the only place where the Creator lived as a human) is also a history of innumerable conflicts which, in fact, depict the situation of a Church that has been fragmented and that suffered many convulsions during two millennia.

Even the administration of the most representative place for the Christian religion, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on top of the rock where the crucial even of Jesus Christ’s resurrection took place, today is in a delicate equilibrium. The various military conquests or the simple diplomatic action have followed for centuries the important motivation of assuring the right conditions for pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land’. It has been more than an adversity towards the two other big monotheistic religions – the Judaism and the Islam – it has also been about the frictions between the various Christian beliefs, primarily the Eastern and Western Christians following the schism that became official in 1054.

But this latest event now reveals tension within the very heart of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church in the ‘Holy Land’ has two main missions for half a century. First of all, it has had to survive amidst the bloody Israeli-Arabian conflict as the representative of a mainly Arab local minority. At the same time, it has tried to provide an as free as possible regime for the growing phenomenon of pilgrimage, given the magnitude air transport acquired in the post-WWII age.
As far as Romanians are concerned, the so-called religious tourism peaked after the fall of the communist regime and when Christian fervour became was free to express itself. Israel (and, afterwards, some of the territories that have become Palestinian) became the main pilgrimage destination before places such as Greece and Russia/Ukraine, primarily sought because of the saints’ relicts and famous monasteries they are home to. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Valley of River Jordan and Galilee once walked by Jesus, are now a unique destination for the piety of Romanian Christians.

In order to provide support for Romanian pilgrims, steps were taken in the very first years of the past century to build a Romanian Orthodox establishment in Jerusalem, with its own church and accommodation facilities. The vicissitudes of political events at the time delayed the completion of the construction until 1940, but the war and subsequent developments made the buildings unusable for more than twenty years. The new political context (Romania was the only Socialist country to keep diplomatic relations with Israel after the new war with the neighbouring Arab states) allowed for the buildings to be renovated and restored to their initial mission of pilgrimage support.

A Romanian monastery was also built in the Jordan Valley in the 1930s, taking over the function of the Jerusalem establishment during the period when it was virtually closed, in 1940s-1950s, but becoming inoperable once the armed conflict moved to the region which, in the meantime, had become a border area, in the late 1960s.

The third Romanian Orthodox establishment in the ‘Holy Land’, now at the origin of the differences between the two Patriarchies, was built in Ierihon in the 1990s on a donated land and with the support of late Patriarch Teoctist. But, since a gesture like that required not just inter-state diplomatic negotiations, but also an understanding with the local Church authorities, the Romanian patriarch’s good relations with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros, made the difference. However, in the context of the difficult inter-Orthodox relations in the ‘Holy Land’, it the main actors preferred to present the legitimate authority in the field – the local Orthodox Synod – with a fait accompli.

But the new Patriarch Theophilos III opposed the project and the dialogue soon came to a dead end, followed by the drastic gesture of terminating canonical liaisons. The truth is that, behind this conflict is not just the ambition of the Greeks, who dominate the Orthodox administration of the ‘holy places’ by tradition (an extension of the Byzantine Church history and of the following Fanariot epoch) to defend their privileges, but also the competition of two ecclesiological principles underlying the canonical organization of Orthodoxy.

The first principle values the political-geographic criterion: Every eparchy stands for a single Church authority, so that all the inhabitants of the region have a single hierarch and a single synod. The principle has been working ever since the beginnings of Christian history, with the ecclesial organisation replicating the political organisation.

The second principle emerged later on, and started to grow mainly when national states were born. A fierce competition followed, with every state and national Church arrogating the right to represent all ethnics no matter where they live. Hence the many conflicts of jurisdiction which seem to be coming back in various quite intricate contexts. But all this is also happening because a competition for prestige.

The Romanian Orthodox Church is trying to find the right place between two ‘colossi’  – the Greeks and the Russian – both fighting for supremacy: the former in the name of historic tradition and the latter through numbers. The strictness of keeping a de facto primacy is proverbial in the world of Greek Orthodoxy, the situation of Mount Athos being very eloquent in that respect. In spite of the fact that a majority of the ten officially recognised monasteries have survived over the centuries also thanks to a massive Romanian support, the Romanian convent there has never been upgraded to the status of monastery although it would fully deserve to.

The main problem of the modern history of Orthodoxy has been religious nationalism replicating state nationalism. Proof of its consequences is also the current conflict which started from a mere religious establishment meant to accommodate massive inflows of pilgrims. To the Orthodox, ecumenism needs to start from their backyard. Otherwise, the definition in the Nicene Creed which gives an identity to its theology – ‘one holy (…) apostolic Church’ – will become meaningless.

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