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October 6, 2022

Two fragile patriarchs

Russian Patriarch Kirill’s visit has prompted two types of reactions in Romania. Some worryingly saw the patriarch as President Putin’s agent of influence, who allegedly tried to enter the EU’s besieged fortress through a religious breach. Others tried to trivialise a meeting that, normally, should have nothing out of the ordinary, a meeting between two hierarchs of the same Christian denomination.

Both are right, albeit both are wrong. Russia would have looked differently today if this “byzantine” cooperation between the president and the patriarch, between a state dominated by new authoritarianism and a Church that regained plenty of its old social influence, had not existed. This efficient duo does not stop at the borders of Russia but accompanies the foreign policy – extremely active and even aggressive – of the new post-soviet superpower. Even more so since Russia has been engaged, for several years, in an offensive against NATO’s new expanded structure, trying to provoke, as much as possible, divergences between the members of an EU that is difficult to harmonise.

In other words, Kirill does not hesitate to use his authority as the religious head of the biggest national Church to promote the geopolitical interests of Vladimir Putin’s regime. From this point of view, the appropriate breach for the Romanian gate of the European fortress is precisely religion. More precisely, Orthodoxy.

The Romanian one, just like most of the world today, has serious reactionary springs. Let us not forget we are approaching a referendum meant to constitutionally block future potential amendments brought to the statute of marriage in favour of homosexuals. It seems a marginal topic, but its religious backdrop can ravage the political climate of a country like Romania.

When Kirill talks about the EU as a land of sin he mainly refers to the rights of homosexuals and other liberties in terms of sexual life. His rhetoric is comparable to a series of fake news, based on skilful falsification of the moral truth of the dominant values in Western societies and in Russia respectively. The truth is that the latter is to a far greater extent a land of sin, from a Christian standpoint, than EU countries are.

The Russian model is one of multiform violence, in which human personality is degraded through a series of abuses of the various types of abuses. And, in the meantime, the pot calls the kettle black, drawing the spotlight away from its significant shortcomings in terms of political and social ethics. In this sense, Patriarch Kirill is just as insolent as President Putin. And just as eager to win followers. Orthodoxy is a good excuse to play, without complexes, Russia’s geopolitical card.

But those who saw in this visit a much more trivial gesture are also right. Orthodox patriarchs should meet more often and easier. At least as a form of confessional fraternity. After all, the dispute between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Russian one, concerning the canonical territory from the current Republic of Moldova precedes the incumbent patriarchs.

The conflict started in the time of Daniel’s predecessor, Teoctist. The latter tried to reinvent himself after his collaborationism in the final years of communism, staking on the new nationalist card. Since Mircea Druc’s Moldovan Government was in conflict with the Russian speakers to the east of the Dniester – who were backed by volunteers from Russia and especially by a Russian army corps –, the Government from Bucharest encouraged the reactivation of a metropolitan church dependent on the Romanian Patriarchy, at the expense of the Russian one.

This political split of Moldovan Orthodoxy has been persisting for a quarter century, but the irony is that some Romanian ultranationalists are today closer to the Orthodox hierarchs subordinated to Moscow. So Teoctist’s experiment – carried out with the decisive support of then-President Ion Iliescu – did not pay off much, so much so that not even the Russian Patriarchy sees it as a too painful thorn today.

But this visit is not as bellicose as some believe either, nor as commonplace as others think. Patriarch Daniel wanted to strengthen his position, especially before those Orthodox circles that accuse him of insufficient attachment to tradition. And, at the same time, he has thus managed to strengthen his position before some local politicians who, regardless of their orientation, will hesitate even more to make an opponent out of him, being aware of his capacity to mobilise the Orthodox masses against certain initiatives that are too “reforming,” especially in terms of mores.

In his turn, Patriarch Kirill has come out from the isolation he condemned himself to by refusing to take part in the great Pan-Orthodox synod. At the same time, he has extended the area of a discourse that may have seemed limited solely to the national space. Russia is staking on its alleged cultural alterity to provoke its political opponents, but it is not counterproductive for it to expand its ideological basis beyond the country’s borders too, to the benefit of a new seductive ideological empire.

But Kirill and Daniel have another vulnerability problem. Both Churches they represent have behind them decades of collaborationism with totalitarian states. At first, Lenin and Stalin did everything to destroy Russian Orthodoxy, but the devastating war with the Nazis and their allies changed the Soviet tactic.

The Church was tolerated and subjected to state policy, something that also happened in the satellite countries in Eastern Europe. The martyrs of the communist era were paid homage in Bucharest this year with the occasion of this visit. But it is difficult to establish who was strictly a martyr in the name of religion and who was mostly a political victim. Post-war communist ambiguities when it comes to religion seriously complicate today’s assessment.

In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised on a massive scale, but most of those concerned died during the interwar period. The Romanian Orthodox Church has hesitated, because it risks declaring saints opponents who had been part of far-right groups. Moreover, post-soviet ambiguity in relation to the past has partially compromised these canonisations.

Kirill has backed Putin’s strategy of paying homage to the victims while at the same time eulogising the executioners. So that Stalin is seen today by the Church itself as brutal but undeniably a meritorious patriot. That is how the Romanian Orthodox Church sees “Red Patriarch” Iustinian too, who combined care for Orthodoxy with support for the social changes forced by the communists.

After all, both Kirill and Daniel are fairly fragile patriarchs, willing to strengthen their positions in a world that is increasingly challenging the religions’ pretences to wield the influence of old. At any rate, not even in Russia does the Church have the privilege and prestige it had during the era of the Czars.

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