Russian Church in Africa: causes and effects

01 January 2022 22:01
Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore. Photo: UOJ Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore. Photo: UOJ

The Synod of the ROC announced the creation of its own Exarchate in Africa. What was the reason for this decision, and what are its consequences for Universal Orthodoxy?

On December 29, 2021, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church announced the creation of an African Exarchate, consisting of two dioceses: North African and South African.

These dioceses include 54 African countries, i.e. all the states of the continent. In addition, the Synod received 102 African priests in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, who had previously submitted petitions with a corresponding request.

The Synod appointed Archbishop of Yerevan and Armenia Leonid (Gorbachev) Metropolitan of Klin, Patriarchal Exarch of Africa, and entrusted him the administration of the North African Diocese and temporary administration of the South African Diocese.

What do the canons say?

From the point of view of the Alexandrian Patriarchate (in all but name – Phanar), this is a non-canonical decision, since the ROC has created a parallel structure in a foreign jurisdictional territory. The admission of Alexandrian clergy to the Russian Church should be also considered non-canonical, from the point of view of Patriarch Theodore.

Of course, a detailed analysis of all the canonical grounds for the creation of the Exarchate of the ROC in Africa requires a separate article. But even now we can say that both the first and second arguments of the Alexandrian Patriarchate have no force in the current situation. Why?

  • Phanar violated the canonical boundaries of the ROC, accepting schismatics from the UOC-KP and the UAOC into communion, renaming them into the OCU (although before that, viz. for 330 years, it had not disputed the Kiev Metropolis as part of the ROC);
  • Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria initially would call on the Ukrainian people to unity with His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry (in the fall of 2018), held a relatively neutral position for a long time (almost a year), but in 2019 he commemorated Epifaniy as the canonical primate of the Church in Ukraine during the Divine Liturgy;
  • In 2021, Patriarch Theodore concelebrated with Dumenko, which means he violated a number of canonical rules (in particular, the 11th Apostolic Canon), according to which he himself backslid into schism;
  • Thus, Patriarch Theodore fell away from the Church, which means that he can no longer be considered as a canonical bishop, the ruling bishop in African lands;
  • In the same way, all those clergy and hierarchs, who agreed with the recognition of the schism and did not oppose the decision of their patriarch to concelebrate with the schismatics, fell away from the Church;
  • Those priests and laity of Africa, who did not agree with the recognition of the schismatics, were left without a patriarch and without a bishop;
  • This means that the decision to accept them under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church is consistent and corresponds to the spirit of the canons due to the recognition by Patriarch Theodore of the Ukrainian schism.

The decision to accept Africa under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church is consistent and, due to the recognition by Patriarch Theodore of the Ukrainian schism, corresponds to the spirit of the canons.

Moreover, the historically canonical territory of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, according to the rules of the Church, is Egypt, Libya, Pentapolis. The jurisdiction of the Church of Alexandria was extended to the entire African continent only by Patriarch Meletios (Metaxakis) in the twentieth century. The Russian Church (like other Local Churches) simply observed a tacit "status quo" in relation to these territories.

Furthermore, the priests who became part of the ROC did not violate anything. As Protodeacon Konstantin Marchenko quite rightly noted, “Canon 15 of the Protodeutera Council excuses separation from the Patriarch and Metropolitan if he preaches a heresy that has already been condemned. OCU is an ethnophyletic structure (such structures are usually built with the slogans: ‘an independent state – an independent church’ – Ed.), however, ethnophyletism was condemned by the Council of 1872, in addition, the decisions of the Moscow Councils of 1992 and 1997 (regarding the anathema to Filaret – Ed.) were not canceled in a canonical manner."

Concelebration with the OCU, Fr. Constantine believes, is "the recognition of heretics", which means that Patriarch Theodore "has already fallen into heresy". Well, the fact that there was no conciliar condemnation of the head of the Alexandrian Church only means that “now it is not Byzantium and many things are purely technically impracticable. Well, so far there is no way to convene a Council against Bartholomew, Theodore, Ieronymos and all the sympathizers of the OCU." This means, according to Father Protodeacon, that the priests of Africa who have transferred to the Russian Church are right from the point of view of the canons.

How will the Phanariots respond to the creation of the Exarchate?

On December 30, 2021, the Alexandrian Patriarchate expressed "sorrow" over the appearance of the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa, referred to the Fathers of the Church and Priest George Florovsky and promised that "the decision of the Russian Patriarchate will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of the Synod of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, and then appropriate decisions wil be made."

It is clear the Phanariotes and their “overseas friends” are worried along with the Alexandrian Church, because they understand that the Russian Church may not stop there. The African dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church are a "big clue" that there may be further creation of similar structures in Greece and Turkey. More precisely, in the territory of those bishops who recognize the OCU.

Hence, there is no doubt that the reaction of the Alexandrian Patriarchate and Phanar will be quite resolute and predictable: a break in Eucharistic communion and a demand from other Local Churches to intervene and influence the ROC.

In addition, Phanariots will definitely try to use the imaginary "trump cards" that they have. For example, they will threaten the Serbian Church with legalizing the Macedonian and Montenegrin schisms.

In relation to other Churches, the Phanariots will try to speed up the process of recognizing the OCU as much as possible. So, in April 2022, the head of Phanar planned the preparation of chrism, to which the Primates of the Local Churches and Epifaniy Dumenko would be invited. Accordingly, the consent to perform this rite together with the schismatic will mean recognition of him as the legitimate primate of the Church in Ukraine.

Such a step (in fact, reminiscent of blackmail), according to the Phanariots, is supposed to stop the Russian Church. But this is not the case. Because it is high time to dot the i's and finally decide who is in schism and who is in the Church. Until now, some Local Churches have not spoken up about the Tomos and the OCU and are trying to appear neutral. Nevertheless, it's high time they did it now.

Moreover, in terms of creating an Exarchate in Africa, the ROC showed it can give quite a clear and adequate answer. At the moment, the ROC stands out as the leader of conservatism in Orthodoxy, and therefore there is a high probability that if other Churches fall into schism, traditionally-minded believers from other countries will join the Russian Church.

In turn, Patriarch Theodore and his co-Hellenes in the person of Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Ieronymos and Archbishop Chrysostomos will do everything possible to discredit the Russian Church and present this step as a "hideous crime."

Well, the Russian Orthodox Church might foresee the possible reaction of the Phanariots and won't be taken aback.

Threats, Blackmail and Intimidation: How Africa Deals with Dissent

But besides the fact that thunder and lightning will hit the ROC from the side of the "ecumenical" patriarchy, those priests who decide to leave the Alexandrian Church will also catch it.

The fact is that this Church has 41 bishops, about 500 clergy (as of 2005), about 1 million believers, 43 dioceses, about 1000 parishes and 6 monasteries. If we assume that over 15 years the number of priests has not grown very significantly (this is most likely the case given the sluggish missionary work of the Greeks in Africa), then the transfer of hundreds of clergy under the omophorion of the Moscow Patriarch is a disaster for the Alexandrian Church.

Back in early October, pro-Phanar resources disseminated information that 6 African bishops were ready to leave for the ROC: Metropolitans Meletius of Carthage, Seraphim of Zimbabwe and Angola, Macarius of Nairobi and Kenya, Innocent of Rwanda, Athanasios of Cyrene and Bishop Neophytos from Nieri and Kenya. If this is true, then the influence of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, already so insignificant on the African continent, will come to naught.

Patriarch Theodore was warned that backsliding into schism would lead to huge problems within the Alexandrian Patriarchate. But he preferred to pretend that nothing was happening, and everything was under control in Africa. However, this is not the case.

Patriarch Theodore was warned that falling into schism would lead to huge problems within the Alexandrian Patriarchate. But he preferred to pretend that nothing was happening, and everything was under control in Africa. However, this is not the case.

For example, back in December 2019, 27 priests signed an open letter to Patriarch Theodore, in which they spoke out against the recognition of the OCU, since "such a responsible decision was made without asking the opinion of African clergy, although it is the Africans who make up the majority of the clergy and parishioners of the Patriarchate of Alexandria."

Also, some bishops of the Alexandrian Church spoke out against the Ukrainian schismatics. In particular, Metropolitan Jonah of Uganda, who asserted that Patriarch Theodore made the decision to recognize the OCU single-handedly.

Apparently, it was for these reasons that the head of the Church of Alexandria had recently launched an unprecedented activity in the dioceses entrusted to his spiritual guidance, and it was evident that he was trying to somehow make up for lost time. Burt he failed. Instead, his subordinates resorted to wild pressure on the priests and to methods of persuasion being very different from those prescribed in the Gospel.

For example, we know of cases when Greek bishops (in particular, Bishop Agathonikos of Tanzania) intimidated priests who did not agree with the recognition of the OCU, threatened them with murder, blackmailed them, expelled them from parishes, accused them of bribery and in every possible way prevented them from expressing their opinion on the Ukrainian issue.

In addition, there is another story told by Father Georgy Maksimov: “The Greek Bishop Agathonikos summoned Fr. Ambrose and demanded that he sign a paper supporting the decision of Patriarch Theodore. He refused. Then Bp. Agathonikos cut his salary in half. Fr. Ambrose did not change his opinion ... On December 10, 2021, Vladyka Agathonikos removed Fr. Ambrose from the post of rector of the temple and ordered him to move out of the temple room with his family as soon as possible. And the next day, at the instruction of the Greek bishop, some people tore off all the ‘Russian’ icons in the church and threw them under the door of Fr. Ambrose. This incident shocked a lot of Orthodox priests in Tanzania, who said that even the pagans cannot do such things.”

These stories testify not only to the general attitude towards African priests on the part of the Greek hierarchs, but also to the spirit that reigns among those who recognized the OCU.

Therefore, is it any wonder that Africans are much more appealed to Russians than Greeks? Hardly. On the other hand, the number of those joining the exarchate will grow, which ultimately will lead to the Alexandrian patriarchy degenerating into a marginal and purely Greek structure on the continent. Furthermore, they never hid their identification with Hellenism. Moreover, they put it at the forefront and as a missionary goal. It was not for nothing that Patriarch Theodore called on seminarians to preach Hellenism in Africa, rather than Christ, and declared that the Church of Greece fully satisfies the needs of the Alexandrian Patriarchate. Well, now it will be even easier to do it ...

What's next?

Father Georgy Maksimov writes that “the Alexandrian Greeks still do not believe and cannot comprehend the scale of their disaster. However, it’s small wonder given their monstrous isolation from their own African flock, when most of the Greek bishops do not even live in Africa ... My getting familiar with local realities convinced me that the modern Greek mission in Africa is largely a ‘Potiomkin village’ (a false impression that everything is fine, a whitewash – Trans.), exploited by a handful of Greek bishops in order to collect money from Greeks from other countries. Not all Greek bishops are like that, but many are. Africans are not fools and they see it too. Their irritation with the Greeks has been accumulating there for a long time. Africa deserves better."

The Greeks of Alexandria still do not believe and cannot comprehend the scale of their disaster.

Archpriest Georgy Maximov

On the other hand, Russians have no arrogance towards Africans, no sense of superiority and national or religious exclusivity, nor do they have any desire to promote Hellenism under the guise of Christianity.

In addition, Russians are ready to really help the population of African countries, which is very important in the conditions of total poverty in which these people live. And in this sense, to say that Russia will "buy" the loyalty of Africans to the Russian Orthodox Church is cynical and wrong simply because people in Africa barely survive, and the task of the Church is to help them. Who prevents the Alexandrian Patriarchate from fulfilling this task? No one. This means that the Russian Church should not be hindered either.

The appointment of Bishop Leonid to the see indicates that the ROC is serious about developing its mission in Africa and is not going to be content with "crumbs from the table of its masters." This means that new theological seminaries, Sunday schools, regular schools and so on will be opened.

If Vladyka Leonid does everything properly, then soon the former glory of Africa as one of the outposts of the Church may be revived in Universal Orthodoxy.

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