Russian press warns of ‘Orthodox war’ over Church split

MOSCOW: Russian media on Tuesday (Oct 16) warned of one of the gravest crises in the history of the Orthodox Church after the Moscow branch announced it would break ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The rupture on Monday came after the Istanbul-based clerics ruled to grant independence to the Ukrainian Church, a move Russia has long campaigned against.

A meeting of the Holy Synod of Russian Orthodox Church in Minsk, shown in a picture distributed by(Photo:AFP)

Constantinople’s decision last week ended more than 300 years of Moscow’s control over Orthodox churches in Ukraine and affects millions of believers in Russia and Ukraine.

The religious split comes amid deep political tensions, with Ukraine fighting a Moscow-backed uprising in its east.

RBK business daily warned of a "war between (Holy) Synods" on its front page, referring to the Churches’ ruling bodies.

A Russian expert on religion, Roman Lunkin, told RBK that Moscow’s move has created "two warring Orthodox worlds".

Izvestia, a Kremlin-loyal daily, quoted the Moscow Church’s warning of a threat "of the destruction of the unity of global Orthodoxy".

Monday will enter Orthodox history as "one of its darkest days," wrote Izvestia.

The newspaper said the split between the Constantinople and Moscow Churches – the highest-status and largest Orthodox Churches respectively – followed on from the two greatest upheavals in Christian Church history.

The front-page article referenced the Protestant Reformation of 1517 sparked by German theologian Martin Luther, and the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches in 1054.

Now each of the branches of the Orthodox Church "will have to choose with whom to be – Constantinople or the Russian Orthodox Church", Izvestia wrote.

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Media including government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote with regret that Russians will no longer be able to go to pray at Mount Athos in Greece, a major destination for pilgrims and tourists that is under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

The Ukrainian president and lawmakers have backed independence for the country’s currently divided Orthodox Church and see it as striking a blow against Moscow’s influence in Ukraine.

Relations broke down during the Maidan uprising of 2014 followed by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent separatist conflict in the east.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s head, Patriarch Kirill, is seen as a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that the Kremlin was watching developments "very carefully and with a great deal of worry".

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meanwhile said the Russian Orthodox Church was following the Kremlin down a path of self-imposed isolation.

"Just as Russia opposed itself to the entire world community with its aggressive imperial policy, now the Russian Church is on the path of self-isolation and conflict with the world Orthodoxy," he wrote on his Facebook page.