Putin has now ordered Russian troops into Donetsk and Luhansk. The first major conflict between two Orthodox Christian nations since Stray Dog War in 1925 has probably just started. This conflict (the resolution of which was perhaps the only significant achievement of the League of Nations) was clearly and simply a territorial dispute. On the face of it, so is the current conflict in Ukraine. But appearances can be deceiving. Make no mistake about it, if there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, it will be a religious war. The sooner Westerners recognize this reality and catch up on the details, the better.
There is a very recent precedent for this. At the beginning of this century, in the aftermath of September 11, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was—rightly to be clear—receives considerable attention. At the same time, many rushed to assure the world that these young men who flew planes into buildings and stoned unveiled women in the streets, did not represent “true Islam”.
Far fewer have made the far more accurate observation than Osama bin Laden and Abdolkarim Soroush represent real and legitimate positions within Islam, because traditions are complicated and people with very different worldviews can plausibly claim the same historical community. If you need further evidence, remember that both Greg Locke (who believes that witches have infiltrated his church) and Leshia Evans (who calmly looked at the police during a demonstration against the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) are both devout Christians.
This reality sometimes leads to conflict, especially in historical times characterized by significant change and instability. Western Christianity saw its tensions boil over during the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation, which not only caused permanent fissures within Western Christianity, but also the Thirty Years’ War, which killed between 25% and 40% of the entire German population.
These conflicts also provided much of the ideological impetus for modern European colonialism, as an exhausted Catholic Church went in search of new converts (à la the Spanish conquistadors) and self-confident Calvinists (à la Plymouth Pilgrims) went in search of land. on which to build their new Jerusalem, ensuring that many non-Western Europeans suffer and die from the consequences of this internal conflict.
Likewise, the tensions that motivated terrorists in New York, Paris and London were largely internal to Islam, raising concerns about how Muslims should respond to Western modernity, after centuries of being left behind. exterior, and often in opposition to its powerful allure. As the Arab Spring uprisings suggested, the conflicts of the early 21st century were not a “clash of civilizations”, but a confrontation in a civilizationthe crescendo of a forty-year conflict.
This same drama is playing out in Orthodox Christianity right now. Like Muslims, Orthodox Christians have spent most of the modern era in an uncomfortable dance with the West. Throughout this time, Orthodox Christians have disagreed about what their relationship should be to the liberal, secular, rationalist world. And this conflict has come to a head, breaking down the old ethnic and national lines that have so long defined identity in the Orthodox world.
On one side of the conflict is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the culturally and linguistically Greek cleric who has historically claimed the leadership of Orthodoxy. For a good part of a century, the Patriarch of Constantinople moved towards the West and undoubtedly many of its values. The current holder of the Apostolic Throne of St. Andrew speaks the language of human rights, religious freedom and trust in science. This position stems in large part from the precarious role of the patriarchy as the representative of the minority religion in Turkey.
At the same time, the Patriarch of Moscow, having recovered much of the former political influence of his post in post-Soviet Russia, set about leading not only the traditionalist Orthodox cause, but acting as support and symbol for religious conservatives around the world.
Let the battle begin.
Ukraine has been an early and persistent flashpoint in this conflict. In 2018, the Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (state known in the Orthodox world as autocephaly). The fallout has been significant, although it is not obvious to most observers that the fallout is significant Where Related. Most recently, on December 29, 2021, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Churchannounced his decision to establish a patriarchal exarchate in Africa – essentially a colonial outpost – which is expected to include 102 clerics in eight countries.
So what’s the problem ?
The big problem is that all the clerics newly under the patronage of Moscow were previously members of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Synod of Moscow explicitly links its decision to create the new exarchate and to welcome this clergy to the decision of the Patriarch of Alexandria. ‘Alexandria to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Now that the conflict has shifted to Africa, its political implications have become even more stark. The Orthodox Church in Africa is neither rich nor large. With the exception of some large Greek communities in Egypt and South Africa (who are decidedly not looking for a new Russian bishop), the relatively few African converted communities on the continent are neither financially nor politically well off. powerful – yet.
Modern Russia also has designs on Africa, where it seeks to compete with China and Western powers for influence on a continent of natural resources and growing markets. And there is no doubt that Russia has in recent years increasingly sought to use the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of foreign influence: in Ukraine, Serbia, Western Europe and the United States. A tactic made possible only by the will of the Moscow Patriarchate to impose itself as the leader of the conservative Orthodox cause.
This makes the small indigenous African Orthodox community a valuable geopolitical asset, in addition to being religious. And in turn, this new African battleground shows why it is high time for those outside the Orthodox world to start paying many greater attention to the conflict between Moscow and Constantinople, because it is both the source of the troubles and a proxy war. Everything you need to understand about Russia’s current conflict with the West – politically, economically and culturally – is in this pitched battle between black-robed clerics.
And while the story may be unfamiliar and the setting strange to most who live in Europe and North America, there is a story and setting here that can no longer be ignored. Because, as we learned the hard way during the War on Terror, if we pretend that a conflict outside the West is only about the West, we run the risk of missing important nuances that expose us to serious disappointments and losses in the years to come. come.