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The Conflict of Fener and Moscow Patriarchs about Church of Ukraine

Significant developments happened in the Orthodox world in the last autumn of last year. Metropolitan Epifaniy, the Archbishop of the Independent Church of Ukraine established in Kiev, and his accompanying committee arrived in Istanbul in order to receive the “Tomos”, which recognizes the independence of the Church, from the Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomeos. Ceremonies, which were also attended by the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, were held for the occasion. And in those ceremonies, Ukraine officially obtained an official independent church. While Poroshenko stated “This is a historical day, we signed a cooperation and collaborative work agreement with the Ecumenical Patriarch”, Bartholomeos stated “I believe that the decision of autocephaly will ensure all of the Orthodox people to unite.”

However, this development drove a wedge between Istanbul Fener Greek Patriarch and Moscow Patriarch like never before. Granting the autocephaly status to the Church of Ukraine is identified as the biggest separation throughout the Orthodox Churches in the last thousand years. According to the Orthodox Church of Russia, Fener Greek Patriarch does not have the authority to grant autocephaly status. This decision means that the church in Moscow and the priests in the patriarch in Istanbul cannot provide religious services together, and the worshippers will not be able to attend to the communion ceremony together. Synod, Council of the Orthodox Church of Russia, announced that they decided not to attend any activities conducted or represented by the Fener Greek Patriarch. In addition, they also stated that it is prohibited to mention the name of Fener Greek Patriarch during the worshipping throughout their churches. According to this decision, Synod will suspend all of its representatives through all concerted structures, works, and organizations.

Historical Process and the Dawn of Russian Orthodoxy

If we examine the historical development of the Russian Orthodox Church, we will have a better point of view towards the intense protests against it. Since the 6th century, the Slavs started to spread around from their region. They went all the way down to the Balkans, and they became the fundamental community in the region in half a century. The Slavs settled down to the west of the Balkans fell under the influence of Latins, while the Slavs settled down to the east of the Balkans did so under Byzantine, and they became estranged gradually. This interaction is still visible today.
During a period when the Pax Romana had dwindled away and left its place to Pax Byzantina, Russians and the other Slavic communities had taken sides with the Byzantines. With the acceptance of the Orthodox Christianity, which was entirely full of Byzantine motives, Russia had fallen under the influence of the Byzantine civilization, and they also strengthened it. Queen Olga having difficulty towards choosing between the Roman Christianity and the Byzantine Christianity in the 10th century in Kiev, which was accepted as the strongest princedom of Russia, and Prince Vladimir accepting the Byzantine Orthodoxy in 988 caused the Byzantine model to be chosen for the state government, which was purely for politic purposes.

After the Russians accepted Orthodoxy, the Russian church gained a “metropolitan” title which is associated with the Istanbul patriarch. The numinous class consisted of the Rums (Greek of Turkish nationality) who had come from Istanbul. Therefore, there was an intimacy caused by the church between Istanbul and Kiev-Russia. The most important political features of these developments about Russia are that the Orthodoxy embracing all of the essentials which underlined the unconditional sovereignty of the empire, and the socializing of the people, who were far away from each other due to their differences, because of religion.

The most important cultural development of the acceptance of Christianity is enabling Russia to have their own alphabet and written language. Together with this alphabet, which was prepared based on the Byzantine alphabet, the Russians had been separated from the European tribes with their entirely different alphabet and written language. 120 years before Vladimir accepted Christianity, there was a religious Slavic literature based on translations and the Slavic alphabet, which was prepared for the Balkan Slavs. Since this alphabet was revealed by Konstantin Kril, it was named “Kirillika” after him.

3rd Rome Rising in North

During the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, Christianity settled in Russia entirely. The organization of the church was completed, thus the Russian Orthodox Church turned into an institution where the Russian culture and their national lives were being harbored, protected, and improved. And in a short period of time, Orthodoxy started to be identified as a genuine Russian religion, and became an inseparable part of Russian national consciousness.

Russians evaluated the Turkish conquering of Istanbul, which had been accepted as the symbol of their faith by the Orthodox Christians for 1100 years, and the Byzantine Church, which consented to unite with Rome by accepting the Florence Consul, bowing to the Latins as a punishment from Allah. At this point, Moscow remained as the only protector of their real faith. Priest Philotheus stated the following about this matter: “A new Rome, the 3rd Rome, is rising from the north, and brightening the universe. This 3rd Rome will last forever, and there will never be a 4th Rome. Therefore, Moscow gained the right to be the successor of Rome by becoming a sacred place. Its duty is to become a world empire.”

Moscow was a small chiefdom when Ivan III (1462-1505) became the Knyaz of Moscow. After the passing of his first wife, he married Zoe Sophia Palaiologina in 1472, who was the nephew of the last emperor of Byzantine Basileus. After this marriage, even though a blood tie was established with Byzantine, Ivan III claimed that they are the only representatives of the world Orthodoxy, aside from letting down the expectations of the Pope. For this reason, Byzantine accepted the two-headed eagle as their own insignia as a first step, and then tried to appear like the successor of “East Roman Empire” to the Moscow Princedom. Therefore, Moscow was nicknamed as the 3rd Rome. Throughout this period, all of the traditions and rituals belonged to Byzantine were brought inside the Russian palace. Ivan III made the people accept that his authority is based on a divine source just like it was in Byzantine, and that he represented “state, homeland, and religion”.

The Establishment of Patriarch of Moscow

The most significant feature of 1580s was Moscow establishing a new patriarch. Tsar Boris Gudunov wanted to gain the support of all members of the Russian Church, and make Moscow a religion center at the same time, thus he established a patriarch in Moscow. And the conditions to actualize this were convenient. Because, the representatives of Istanbul, Antakya and other church centers had been coming to Moscow for a while and requested financial aid from the tsar. In fact, Tsar Ivan had sent a considerably high amount of money once to the patriarch in Istanbul, and wanted to win the hearts of the Christian community living inside the Ottoman borders. Moreover, majority of the orthodox people living in the Balkans, Istanbul and east had already started to see the Russian Tsar and Russia as the protector of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox world had 4 patriarchs: Istanbul, Jerusalem, Antakya, and Alexandria. Russia’s desire was to have the fifth patriarch to be established in Moscow, and Istanbul Patriarch Jeremias visited Moscow in 1588. Boris Gudunov wanted Jeremias to join Russia. When Jeremias leaned towards this offer, Moscow had taken a huge step towards establishing the fifth patriarch. Therefore, Moscow Metropolitan Iova was announced as the patriarch of Moscow. And in 1590, Istanbul patriarch approved the fifth patriarch to be established in Moscow and Iova’s the first patriarchy of Moscow in the Council of the Orthodox Patriarchs. Thus, the tsar and the patriarch became side by side just like they were in Byzantine, and the Russian Orthodoxy had received the highest position amongst the eastern churches.


Consequently, Russian Orthodox church started working on the Slavic communities, including Ukraine. Russia started to take control of the land of today’s Ukraine as of the 1600s. And in 1686, Ukraine was included under the jurisdiction of the Church of Russia. Despite the approval of the then Fener Greek Patriarch Dionysius IV, the antecedent Fener Greek Patriarch Synod revoked this decision. I must add here that whether the decision of Fener Greek Patriarch Dionysius IV was legitimate or not is still a matter of ongoing debate between the Moscow Patriarchy, Ukrainian nationalist priests, and Fener Patriarchy. And the matter of which church’s numinous field will Ukraine be a part of is closely linked with the level of legitimacy of the decision taken in 1686.

When it was 18th and the 19th centuries, nationalist theologists such as Katkov, Komyakov, or Professor Lamanskky started to use Orthodoxy for the purpose of bringing the Slavic communities together. According to the 19th century enlightened individuals such as Khomyakov, Kirievsky, and Shishkov the Greek-Orthodox sect was the sole sect of Christianity which was true and clean (meaning not altered). Catholicism and Protectionism had been altered with the influence of Roman civilization and scholasticism, and Europe was gradually getting stuck in a vulgar materialism. The foregone conclusion brought decline towards sentimental values in every field of life. On the other hand, Russia had received a clean (not altered) Christianity from Byzantine without being subject to antique culture and managed to maintain it as it was. The “mir” organization (the land being the common property of the people) preserved in Russia caused the individuals to crystalized, and prevented the personal properties to increase. The civilization of Europe had started to “decay”. On the other hand, Russia will keep growing as a fresh existence. Starting form this point of view, some of the enlightened individuals of the 19th century reached to “Messianism” before long. According to the Messianic view, the Russian religion will not only save Russia, but Europe as well. After Europe would come under the domination of Russia, the life in Europe would start over and formed again according to the fundamentals of the Orthodox religion.

According to the idea suggested by historian and theologian Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantine is the religious unity established by the Slavic tribes from 6th century to 16th century for around 1000 years. Therefore, in one sense, Russia must take control of the regional political generation which involve Armenia, Ukraine, Moldovia, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and Cyprus. This unity, which was religious based on its origins, could be accepted as the mission of 3rd Rome that is adapted for today. Pobedonostsev, who is the head of the Sacred Synod and the most important management mechanism of the Church or Russia, had been granted access from the tsar in order to Russify all of the nations which were not Russian or Orthodox and lived in Russia.

October Revolution and Churches

As a result of the October Revolution in 1917, the Soviet administration, which was established over the former Tsarism Russia lands, was approaching religion with suspicion in the first place. As of the 1930s, they wanted to remove religion by using force. While tens of thousands of priests were either killed or sent to exile, tens of thousands of churches were either shutdown or demolished. However, Stalin foresaw that the oppression policy will have adverse outcomes during the World War II, and resorted to soften this policy. Moreover, especially after it was obvious that the Germans would lose the war, the subject of whether the Soviet Union, or the American-English allegiance would take control over Eastern Europe and the Balkans was brought up. Stalin wanted to dominate Easter Europe and the Balkans, but he had seen that this could not be achieved by communism propaganda singlehandedly. Therefore, in order to religiously influence these countries, he had the Moscow Patriarch reestablished in 1943. The US, who realized that the Soviet Union would use religion in order to influence Eastern Europe, increased its support to Fener Greek Patriarch. Thus, Fener Patriarch and Moscow Patriarch created the religious front of the Cold War.

The first significant conflict after the Cold War happened because of the Orthodox Church of Estonia at the and of the 1990s. Orthodox Church of Estonia, which was established by Fener Patriarch in the 1920s, was attached to Moscow Patriarch after Estonia was conquered by the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and Fener Patriarch recognized this attachment in 1978. However, after Estonia regained independence after the disintegration of the USSR, Fener Patriarch canceled its 1978 decision, and attempted to attach the Orthodox Church of Estonia to itself again. The Estonian government, which wanted to split with Russia in every respect and integrate with the EU and NATO, requested the support of Fener Patriarch in this matter. However, because of this incident, the relationship between Moscow Patriarch and Fener Patriarch came to a breakpoint. Eventually, two patriarchs met in Odessa in 1997, and agreed on a solution, and they decided to establish two different Orthodox churches in Estonia, one of which would be attached to Moscow Patriarch, and the other to Fener Patriarch.

Basis Formed for Independent Church of Ukraine

When we consider the importance of the church to generate national identity throughout the Orthodox communities, the efforts of the nations which are mostly formed by Orthodox population to gain independent church before an independent state from sometimes (just like Bulgarians), it will be obvious that the controversy between Moscow Patriarch and Fener Patriarch about Ukraine is not an ordinary religious conflict. This conflict is a matter of Ukraine to sever all ties with Russia in every sense. On the other hand, when we consider the fact that Fener Greek Patriarch and Moscow Patriarch had tensions between each other since the Cold War, and Fener carrying out policies in parallel with the US government, and Moscow carrying out policies in parallel with Kremlin, this conflict forms the religious leg of the US-Russia conflict at the same time.


Ukrainians, just like Russians and Belarusians, is a branch of the East Slavs. Ukraine is of great importance for Russia and the West due to the fact that it is the third largest country in Europe after Russia and Turkey in terms of surface area and for their 45 million population. Majority of the Ukrainian people follow Orthodox sect of Christianity. Establishing a Church of Ukraine, which will be Ukrainian nationalist, Independent from Russia, and Wester-oriented, is considered to be very important towards creating an identity of Ukranianism. Intensive attempts towards establishing a united and independent church in Ukraine and this church to be recognized by Fener, had started exactly one year ago during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, and Yushchenko had invited Fener Greek Patriarch for the 1020th commemoration of East Slavs accepting Christianity, however, Fener Patriarch abstained from taking the Moscow Patriarch on. And now the conditions are different.

Western-oriented incidents since 2004 in Ukraine, and the Crisis of Crimea in 2014 brought Ukraine forward to the world’s agenda. Strategy experts such as Zbigniew Brzezinski who is close to the US government, and Aleksandr Dugin who is close to Kremlin, are like minded about Ukraine being of great importance for Russia. Russia might accept many of the East Bloc and Soviet republics to sever ties and integrate with Europe, but they will not accept Ukraine to do that. Because Ukraine getting under the influence of the West will not only mean Russia to lose opportunities to access Black Sea to a large extent, but also Russia will have difficulties explaining what “Russian national identity” is.

There are a few important points. First of all, presidential elections will be held in Ukraine at the end March. Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, wanted to have tangible results in order to gain the support of the nationalist population and focused on this. Truth to be told, he did have good results. Secondly, Pan Orthodox Council was gathered after 55 years of preparations in Crete in June 2016 after hundreds of years for the first time. Russia did not attend to this council. Istanbul Patriarch adapted an easy manner, and made way for Ukraine to reach to their independent church. Because Russia had not made signals for any kind of reactions in that council. Istanbul Patriarch is “primus inter pares” in the Orthodox world, meaning “first amongst the equals”. However, Russia does not recognize this. And the reason for them not to come to Crete was that they had not accepted being in fifth place.


Since Russians received Christianity from Byzantine, they respect Fener Greek Patriarch from a historical point of view and they state that Fener Greek Patriarch is the first in terms of “honor” in the Orthodox world. However, they also state that this first place is only “honorary”, and add that Fener will never have the same authorities in the Orthodox world like Vatican has in the Catholic world. Aside from this, Russia always state “we are the ones who defended Fener against the Turks once upon a time. We are also the ones who helped Fener when they had financial difficulties” and imply that they are actually the center of power. In addition, they also state that the community of Fener is limited to only a few thousand Greek Orthodox people in Istanbul, while Moscow Patriarch has “close to a community of two hundred million people” and thus they are the biggest church of the Orthodox world. Exactly from this point of view, establishment of a national church in Ukraine, and the recognition of this church by Fener and other Orthodox churches will cause around 40 million Ukrainians completely to exit the numinous field of Moscow, and this will significantly damage the leadership claims of the Orthodox Church of Russia.

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.

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