Split in Eastern Church seems to be a fact


Eastern Europe


120 Orthodox priests from Africa have moved to the Russian Orthodox Church. This leads to a split in the universal church, Russian top officials say. Photo AFP, Eduardo Soteras

The crisis in the Ukrainian church has led to a split in the “universal” Orthodox Church. The Russian Metropolitan Hilarion confirms this. The Egyptian Patriarch says: “May God forgive them.”

Hilarion is the ‘minister of foreign affairs’ of the Russian Orthodox Church. On his own website, he says that his synod in Moscow “did not have a choice” but to embrace 102 priests from Africa. From last week, they work with the Moscow Patriarchate instead of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

The reason was that Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria recognised the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate). The independence was granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in 2019. But Moscow thinks that this decision is illegal and has consistently opposed this.

The Russian Orthodox Church sticks to the decision in 1686 to transfer the seat of the primate from Kiev to Moscow. They differ with the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Orthodox ‘Pope’) about the rules on granting the so-called autocephaly.

Division larger than just Ukraine

For a couple of years, it seemed that the Ukrainian church issue only had consequences within this country itself. There are, in fact, two Orthodox churches now, the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) and the Kiev Patriarchate (KP).

But since this week, it has been clear that the division is going much further. Late last week, the Holy Synod in Moscow welcomed 102 priests from eight countries in Africa who disagreed with the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodore. He wants to recognise the Kiev Patriarchate as an autonomous part of World Orthodoxy instead of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The consequence is that the Russian Church has to form a so-called exarchate (church province) in Africa. The new centre of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa will be in Johannesburg in South Africa. Archbishop Leonid Gorbachev will be the new Exarch of the church province, he explained on the church’s website.

According to Hilarion, priests in Turkey also do not agree with the Ecumenical Patriarch. The Russians feel obliged to give them the “pastoral care now the Patriarch of Constantinople has chosen the side of the schism”, the Metropolitan says. It is not clear how many Turkish priests are involved.


Hilarion compares the present situation with the Great Schism in 1054. “Then the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope split from each other.” It took more than 900 years before the contact became better. It is still seen as the major split in the history of the Christian church.

The way to heal the present division is to go back to 2018, before the autonomy of the Ukrainian Church, and take decisions together instead of personal decisions by the Ecumenical Patriarch. But Hilarion does not expect any change from Bartholomew. “Well, since this is the situation, the division in the World Orthodoxy is a fait accompli.”

Driven by money

Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria has answered on the Russian decision with: “May God forgive them”, as Deutsche Welle reports. Formally, Theodore is responsible for the church affairs on the African continent.

On the Ukrainian news platform LB.ua the journalist and religious expert Dmitry Gorevoy writes that it is very unlikely that the 102 priests did come to Moscow on their own. “I am sure that they will not be able to show Ukraine even on the map, as well as to say its name for the first time. In fact, the main motivation there was money.”

Gorevoy expects the Russian Foreign Ministry to pay subsidies to the African clerics for at least two or three years before moving from one to the other patriarchate. “Thus, Patriarch Kirill’s ‘African scam’ will be paid for by Russian taxpayers and then by church grandmothers”, he writes.



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