Moscow scuppers Orthodox gathering

Moscow scuppers Orthodox gathering

The Greek Orthodox clergy waiting for their patriarch in Bethlehem. Source: Wikimedia

A gathering of Orthodox Christian leaders has opened in Crete without the Russian delegation amidst warnings of a “simmering religious war”.

The Holy and Great Council has been planned for 55 years and was intended to unite various branches of the Orthodox Church and discuss its role in contemporary society. The last such meeting took place in 787AD but tensions, largely between Russia and Ukraine, scuppered the plans.

“This great and holy council will carry the message of unity… it will help to escape the deadlocks of the present,” Patriarch Vartholomaios of Crete told the media.

It began as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the first among equals for all Orthodox clerics, led prayers on Sunday ahead of the week-long summit.

In contrast with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox churches are independent and have their own leadership. Patriarch Bartholomew intended to discuss issues such as fasting and relations with the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church split from Catholicism in the Great Schism of 1054 and some Orthodox Christians still regard Catholics as heretics.

First the Bulgarian delegation pulled out in earlier this month, after questioning the agenda and the seating plan. The Georgian and Russian delegations followed. The three countries’ churches are closely aligned.

Orthodox clergy are distinguished by their elaborate headgear and bushy facial hair because they take literally instructions in the Old Testament prohibiting shaving. The affluent Russia branch represents 130 million of 300 million Orthodox followers. Its head, Patriarch Kirill, is the second most significant see and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin

“We have made a decision that we will not be able to take part in the all-Orthodox synod if other churches do not go,” said Russian Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. “All churches should take part … and only in this case the decisions of this assembly will be legitimate.”

The Antioch branch, based in Syria, also refused to attend because they are involved in a dispute with the Jerusalem branch over who should control a Qatari contingent of the denomination. It has been suggested by analysts that Kirill was looking to disrupt the meeting to undermine Bartholomew, based in Turkey, to strengthen his position.

The Russian church also oversees the branch in Ukraine. But Ukrainian MPs have overwhelmingly voted to request Bartholomew sets up a “unification council” to form an independent and recognised branch which would not be directed from Moscow. This would loosen Russia’s influence in Ukraine and undermine relations between the warring neighbours.

The Economist magazine wrote: “Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has already warned Patriarch Bartholomew that any move to detach Ukraine from Muscovite authority would be devastating for the relationship between Orthodox Christianity’s two most important sees, those of Constantinople and Moscow.”

The Russian media has referred to a “simmering religious war” but Kirill said he hoped a full meeting could be held in the future.

Kirill visited Greece in May with Putin on a trip to the monastic sanctuary of Mount Athos.

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