Kovacevic on Geopolitics

Just a few months after he was enthroned as the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in February 2009, Kirill I travelled to Istanbul to meet with Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch, historically the “first among equals” in the Orthodox Church hierarchy.

A mere six years older than Kirill, Bartholomew has held this prestigious position since 1991, the beginning of his tenure strangely coinciding with the break-up of the Soviet Union. An ethnic Greek born on the Turkish island of Gökçeada (called Imbros until 1970), Bartholomew spent much of his life in the West. He studied in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, and served as the metropolitan of Philadelphia from 1972 to 1990. [1] Over the years, Bartholomew’s political statements and actions have mirrored so closely the U.S. and NATO global geopolitical agenda that, as a result, he was fêted everywhere he went in the West. He received numerous honorary doctorates (in the U.S., at both Georgetown and Yale) and distinguished awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, which, in addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest U.S. civilian award.

There has been a long-term effort in the U.S. to make Bartholomew a statesman-type celebrity figure, the equivalent of an Orthodox “pope.” For example, he was a guest interviewee in the well-known CBS show “60 Minutes” [2] and the New York Times wrote about him in laudatory terms. [3] The U.S. mainstream media has routinely referred to him as the “leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians,” which is both de facto and de jure inaccurate because close to the two thirds of these 300 million live in Russia and ex-Soviet states and are under the direct jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill. All along, however, it appears that he has been a rather pliable religious figure who accepted the role accorded to him by the Western Establishment in exchange for various privileges. As the relations between the West and Russia began to deteriorate in the mid-2000s, it seemed certain that Bartholomew would be increasingly “instrumentalized” by the emerging anti-Russian “war party” both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Bartholomew and Kirill

The prevention of precisely such a scenario seems to have been one of the most significant reasons for Kirill’s visit to Istanbul in July 2009. The official statements made after the meeting sounded conciliatory enough. Bartholomew for instance spoke of the necessity of sending to “the pages of history, “clouds [which] have temporarily overshadowed ties between the brethren churches.” Kirill, in his turn, called for “a unified Orthodox response to the challenges of our time.” [4] However, significant disputes remained unresolved, one of which, regarding the status of the various contesting factions of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, has acquired even more prominence recently with the eruption of violent conflict in the Donbass region. One of the factions, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, not recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate but courting recognition from Bartholomew, was sharply critical of the alleged Russian involvement. Its leader Patriarch Filaret compared Putin to Cain and claimed that Putin was acting under the influence of Satan. [5]

In another attempt to resolve their differences, Kirill and Bartholomew met in Moscow in May 2010. This time they met under the auspices of Dmitry Medvedev who was then the president of Russia, while Putin was the prime minister. Medvedev, who generally followed a more liberal Western-leaning political course than Putin did in his second presidential mandate (2004-2008), was interested in making lasting peace with Bartholomew and perhaps bringing him on to the Russian side. He stated that the “strengthening of the dialogue … between two sister churches is …. especially important for Russia.” [6] The same sentiment was echoed by Patriarch Kirill who once again insisted on the unity of the Orthodox Church. “We, all Orthodox churches, local Orthodox churches, are parts of one church: we belong to this single church: that is the right orthodox ecclesiology: there is only one Orthodox Church,” Kirill said.

Bartholomew, however, was not swayed. He rejected Medvedev’s and Kirill’s pleas for the equality of all local Orthodox churches and for the politics of compromise in forming the unified Orthodox front. The role he had been assigned by the Western centers of power was to insist on his ultimate authority over all other patriarchs, because this meant the existence of permanent discord, which is in line with the long-term Western imperialist strategy of divide et impera in Eastern Europe and beyond. And so, as required by this script, Bartholomew prefaced his remarks with “we as the mother church,” [7] emphasizing his supposed primacy. It was clear that no inter-Orthodox reconciliation was to be expected any time soon.

Who is the Pope’s Best Friend?

The rivalry between Bartholomew and Kirill only intensified over time. It soon spilled into their relations with other religious leaders and the most globally prominent among them, the Pope. Considering that he was enthroned as the patriarch in 1991, Bartholomew has had very long and cordial relations with various popes. He met with Pope John Paul II no less than four times. [8] During their last meeting in November 2004, John Paul II returned to Bartholomew the relics of two very important figures in the history of Christianity, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian, brought to Rome in the Middle Ages. This was interpreted as a significant step toward closer cooperation between the Western and Eastern branches of once unified Christianity.

It is important to note that in this way, just like the U.S. mainstream media, John Paul II constructed the public image of Bartholomew as his equal on the Orthodox side. It is likely that John Paul II, a native of Poland, also had other political and personal reasons for doing. He had always conceived his life-long theological opponent, the Russian Orthodox Church, as being under the control of the Russian intelligence community and serving the geopolitical goals of the Russian state, whether Communist or not.

After John Paul II passed away in April 2005, Bartholomew continued the same type of relations with his successors, Benedict XVI and Francis I. He even attended the inaugural mass of Pope Francis in March 2013. [9] The two of them have so far signed three joint declarations, the most recent being in April 2016 on the Greek island of Lesvos, calling on the international community, both in the West and the East, to address the tremendous and traumatic suffering of the refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia. [10]

However, the meeting on Lesvos took place under the shadow of Pope Francis’s earlier, February 2016 meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba. This was the first time in history that the pope met with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. “Finally, brother” were the words with which Francis greeted Kirill. [11] This was a great breakthrough for the Russian Orthodox Church diplomacy and positioned it as a much more formidable rival to Bartholomew for the primacy in the Orthodox world than ever before. In fact, some observers claimed that this, in fact, was the main reason Francis also met with Bartholomew shortly afterwards.

The Pan-Orthodox Summit in Crete

Bartholomew’s and Kirill’s recent meetings with the pope were, in my opinion, attempts to rally domestic and international support for setting the agenda at another unique event in the history of the Orthodox Christianity, the Pan-Orthodox Council, the gathering of all universally recognized national Orthodox churches, which has not convened for more than 1,000 years. Initially scheduled to take place in Istanbul, it was moved to the Greek island of Crete (most likely for security reasons) and scheduled for mid-June 2016.

However, the rhetoric between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, ultimately grounded in the different geopolitical commitments of their leaders, increasingly sharpened and the Russian Orthodox Church, together with three allied churches, the Bulgarian, the Georgian, and the Antiochian Orthodox Churches, decided to pull out of the meeting altogether. [12] The Serbian Orthodox Church vacillated until the last moment, but ultimately decided to attend, which can be seen as a victory of those who are closer to the pro-Western as opposed to the pro-Russian factions with the church. In the end, only 10 out of 14 recognized Orthodox churches participated in the work of the Council, making its deliberations and decisions invalid for most of the Orthodox world represented by the Russian Orthodox Church. In other words, those who have worked against the “united Orthodox front” called for by Patriarch Kirill had a reason to rejoice once again.

Bartholomew and Fethullah Güllen?

Not long after the conclusion of the Council, on July 15, 2016, a coup d’état was attempted against the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but was unsuccessful in attaining its objectives. Erdoğan accused the exiled cleric Fethullah Güllen and his network in Turkey and abroad for the planning and organization of the coup attempt. A few weeks later, an article entitled “Will Ankara Take Aim at Patriarch Bartholomew?” appeared in the online journal Oriental Review, an independent Moscow-based geopolitical publication. [13] It was signed by a retired U.S. ambassador and high-level State and Defense department official Arthur Hughes and chronicled the history of good relations between Güllen and Bartholomew. [14] The article implied that Bartholomew supported the coup-plotters and that therefore should be sanctioned (perhaps even exiled) by Turkey. Obviously, that would spell the end of his influence in the Orthodox world.

Soon, however, Hughes wrote to the editor of Oriental Review as well as to the various U.S. media outlets, denying the authorship of the article and calling it “a total fabrication.” [15] He also refused to speculate as to who could have submitted the article under his name, claiming that he has “no experience or involvement in Turkish matters nor matters of the [Orthodox] Church.” Well, the least that can be said is that Hughes must have had at least some involvement in “Turkish affairs” considering that he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in the 1990s. [16]

Be that as it may (and intelligence agencies have long been known for planting articles under the names of living, dead, or non-existing individuals), the claims of this article go directly in favor of Patriarch Kirill’s positions. The fact that it was first published in Russia also raises suspicions. However, the links of friendship and cooperation between Bartholomew and Güllen can hardly be denied. After all, when asked in 2012 about Güllen’s possible return to Turkey, Bartholomew replied: “We really love him. We hope he comes back soon.” [17]

All this shows that the struggle for the institutional control over the future direction of the Orthodox Church, driven by rival geopolitical agendas, is picking up steam. Although Patriarch Bartholomew has had the upper hand for a long time, Patriarch Kirill’s efforts should not be underestimated.


1. https://www.patriarchate.org/biography

4. http://incommunion.org/2010/01/10/news-fall-2009-2/
6. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/7851
7. Ibid.
8. https://www.apostolicpilgrimage.org/meetings-of-popes-patriarchs
9. Ibid.
10.https://www.patriarchate.org/common-declarations-between-popes-and-ecumenical-patriarchs/-/asset_publisher/mQachZJu0upV/content/joint-declaration-by-pope-francis-ecumenical-patriarch-bartholomew-and-archbishop-ieronymos-ii-16-04-2016 ?inheritRedirect=false&redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.patriarchate.org%2Fcommon-declarations-between-popes-and-ecumenical patriarchs%3Fp_p_id%3D101_INSTANCE_mQachZJu0upV%26p_p_lifecycle%3D0%26p_p_stat%3Dnormal%26p_p_mode%3Dview%26p_p_col_id%3Dcolumn-1%26p_p_col_count%3D1
12. http://interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=13017
13. http://orientalreview.org/about/

Originally published by Newsbud, October 18. 2016.

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