Russian Orthodox reunification: more fodder for West Bank conflict?

Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave Russian President Vladimir Putin an icon May 17, as a token of appreciation for his contribution to the unification of the Moscow-based Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). The agreement signed earlier in the day reunited the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church, ending the generations-long breach that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Putin, who attended the signing ceremony, received from Alexy a casket with a folding icon of the Live-Giving Trinity. “Let it be a reminder of today, a day that has unified us all,” the patriarch said. Alexy and ROCOR Metropolitan Laurus signed the agreement at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. (Interfax, May 17)

The reunification has strong reverberations for resurgent Russian nationalism—and may have been closely monitored by the US intelligence services. Last November, as unification talks were underway in San Francisco, a British ROCOR priest named Andrew Phillips claimed that the CIA had bugged the discussions—although his only evidence was a “mysterious black SUV” parked nearby. (Interfax, Nov. 7)

Time magazine’s coverage of the reunification noted:

Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime’s major ideological resource. Thursday’s rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state’s main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument… The Church’s assertiveness and presence is growing — with little separation from the State.

The unification deal could have repercussions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank:

One of the first tests of the new union will be in the Holy Land, where the ROCOR maintains religious properties — and has had run-ins with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate in the past. In 1997, for example, Yasser Arafat forcibly turned over the only Christian church in Hebron, run by the ROCOR, to the ROC.

As the New York Times noted at the time (July 11, 1997):

Intervening in an old dispute between rival Russian Orthodox churches, Palestinian police have forcibly evicted expatriate monks and nuns from Hebron’s only Christian church and have given it to representatives of the Russian patriarch in Moscow. The action…came three weeks after Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made an official visit to Israel and formally asked Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, to recognize Moscow’s claim to pre-Revolutionary Russian church properties under the authority’s control…

Clerics of the expatriate church bitterly charged that the Palestinians beat their monks and nuns in expelling them, while the Moscow-based church charged that the expatriates have refused to share access to Russian shrines with the Russian church in whose name they were maintaining them.

The focus of the dispute is a site acquired by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1868, which includes an ancient oak that was declared to be the spot where Abraham entertained three angels. The site was a major attraction for Russian pilgrims before the revolution, and is the only functioning Christian shrine in Hebron.

According to a May 17 report on Asia News, the reunification does not mean the end of ROCOR:

…the Church in exile [ROCOR] however will maintain a certain autonomy: it will continue to appoint its own priests, it will maintain control of its properties and daily affairs and it will have the right to send representatives to the annual bishops conference in Moscow.

The Time report says that ROCOR properties in the Holy Land should not change administration—while adding that “some observers remain skeptical.”

But as the blog Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion finds, the Palestinian Authority is not the only body known to have meddled in Orthodox Christian affairs in the Holy Land. Bartholomew notes a murky land deal by which Israeli settlers gained a lease to Greek Orthodox property in East Jerusalem, leading to a major scandal and the deposition of the Greek patriarch Irenios by the church Synod. Irenios blamed his treasurer, Nicholas Papadimas, who (apparently) remains missing after two years. The blog wryly notes: “Israel has continued to back Irineos…despite Irineos’ tendency to refer to Jews as ‘the descendants of the crucifiers of our Lord’.”

Perhaps an opportunity for more monastic slugfests?

See our last posts on Russia and Israel/Palestine.