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CLASH OF THE PATRIARCHS: A hard-line Russian bishop backed by the political might of the Kremlin could split the Orthodox Church in two.

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This article was originally posted on The Atlantic by Robert F. Worth.

In late august of 2018, Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, flew from Moscow to Istanbul on an urgent mission. He brought with him an entourage—a dozen clerics, diplomats, and bodyguards—that made its way in a convoy to the Phanar, the Orthodox world’s equivalent of the Vatican, housed in a complex of buildings just off the Golden Horn waterway, on Istanbul’s European side.

Kirill was on his way to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the archbishop of Constantinople and the most senior figure in the Orthodox Christian world. Kirill had heard that Bartholomew was preparing to cut Moscow’s ancient religious ties to Ukraine by recognizing a new and independent Orthodox Church in Kyiv. For Kirill and his de facto boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, this posed an almost existential threat. Ukraine and its monasteries are the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church; both nations trace their spiritual and national origins to the Kyiv-based kingdom that was converted from paganism to Christianity about 1,000 years ago. If the Church in Ukraine succeeded in breaking away from the Russian Church, it would seriously weaken efforts to maintain what Putin has called a “Russian world” of influence in the old Soviet sphere. And the decision was in the hands of Bartholomew, the sole figure with the canonical authority to issue a “tomos of autocephaly” and thereby bless Ukraine’s declaration of religious independence.

When Kirill arrived outside the Phanar, a crowd of Ukrainian protesters had already gathered around the compound’s beige stone walls. Kirill’s support for Russia’s brutal behavior—the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the bloody proxy war in eastern Ukraine—had made him a hated figure, and had helped boost support in Kyiv for an independent Church.

Continue reading at The Atlantic.

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