Patriarch Kirill

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

Orthodox Christians around the world are waiting to find out what did, or did not, happen in a high-stakes meeting the other day between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Russia.

The issue was one of the most important, and symbolic, landmines in the history of Orthodox Christianity. That would be Kiev, a city that represents the "Baptism of Rus' " in 988 (click here for background), when Orthodox faith entered the world of the Slavs.

For the massive Russian Orthodox Church, everything begins in Kiev. The presence of the great Kiev Pechersk Lavra -- a monastery founded in 1051 -- only raises the stakes in this struggle for control of holy ground.

The Associated Press ran a feature before this showdown that mixed in spies, hackers and a hint of Donald Trump-era craziness. But before we get into all of that, let me offer a sample of the confusing news -- the word "Byzantine" applies here -- that followed the meeting.

KIEV (Sputnik) -- Reports about the decision to grant autocephaly to an Ukrainian church allegedly taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate are false and distort the reality, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) said on Saturday.

On Friday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the parties discussed "issues of mutual interest." Following the meeting, Ukrainian media reported that Patriarch Bartholomew had allegedly informed Patriarch Kirill of Constantinople's decision to grant Ukrainian church with autocephaly.

What, you ask, does "autocephaly" mean? It literally means "self-headed." Thus, the leader of an autocephalous church does not answer to a higher ranking metropolitan or patriarch.

Currently, the church In Ukraine that most Orthodox believers consider canonical (as opposed to two competing flocks, as I discussed in this 2009 column written in Kiev) is linked to Moscow. Back to that news report:


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Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

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Russia honors Kalashnikov, a man whose faith was too complex for this New York Times story

Russia honors Kalashnikov, a man whose faith was too complex for this New York Times story

When the average news consumer reads the word "Kalashnikov," what is the first thing that comes to mind?

That would, of course, be an image of the AK-47 -- one of the world's most famous combat weapons, used in countless wars and, yes, acts of terrorism.

But what if the creator of that famous weapon was a devout religious believer -- an Eastern Orthodox Christian, in this case -- who late in life expressed, in writing, a deep sense of shame and remorse about many of the deeds committed with the weapon bearing his name? Would this be an interesting angle to include in a New York Times feature story about his legacy and Russian rites to honor him (in this case with a large public monument)?

Of course, I think that the answer is "yes." However, I am an Eastern Orthodox layman, so I am a bit biased about things like that. This is the kind of information that I am talking about:

... Kalashnikov did not have a simple life. In his old age, he was deeply tortured by the knowledge that his rifle was used to do evil, even though he knew his weapons were also used to destroy evil and defend the Motherland.
In an attempt to find peace, like Nobel and Oppenheimer, this old weapons designer also turned his eyes to a quiet life in the hopes of seeing a silver lining. Seeking redemption, he wrote a letter to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church, saying:
“My soul ache is unbearable and has one irresolvable question: if my rifle took lives, does it mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, aged 93, a peasant woman’s son, an Orthodox Christian in faith, am guilty of those people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?"
Though he was told, reportedly, that he was not condemned for this, his sadness continued.

With that in mind, it's interesting to note the role that religion played in this recent Times feature: "Giant Monument to Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47, Is Unveiled in Moscow."

MOSCOW -- A towering monument to Lt. Gen. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, the Soviet rifle that has become the world’s most widespread assault weapon, was unveiled ... in the middle of one of central Moscow’s busiest thoroughfares.
The ceremony took place to the sounds of Russian military folk music, the Soviet anthem, Orthodox prayers and words about how his creation had ensured Russia’s safety and peace in the world.

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Rome meets Russia: Media bury role of persecution in historic summit (# LOL update)

Rome meets Russia: Media bury role of persecution in historic summit (# LOL update)

Did you hear about the historic meeting that will occur today between the media superstar Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and All Russia? Is there up-front coverage of this in your newspaper this morning?

The meeting is taking place in Havana for the expressed purpose of voicing support for persecuted Christians facing genocide in parts of the Middle East, primarily -- at the moment -- in Syria and Iraq. There is very little that Rome and Moscow agree on at the moment, when it comes to ecumenical matters, but Francis and Kirill are both very concerned about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in that devastated region.

Have you heard about this in major media?

If you are interested, this was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in. I also wrote about the background of this meeting in a previous GetReligion post ("The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting") and in this week's "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate.

Now, call me naive, but I thought that this meeting would receive major coverage. This is, after all, the first ever meeting -- first as in it has never happened before in history -- between the leader of the pope of Rome and the patriarch of the world's largest branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Syria is also in the news, last time I checked. There is a possibility that Americans -- this is a nation that includes a few Christians who read newspapers -- might be interested in a statement by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on the massacre of Christians in Syria and elsewhere.

I guess I am naive. It appears that the meeting in Cuba today is not very important at all. I mean, look at the front page of The New York Times website.

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Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

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What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

So here is the top of the Reuters report:

MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.
Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.

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