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:

"In connection with the massive spread of false information that distorts the words of the Ecumenical Patriarchate spokesman, Metropolitan Emmanuel (Adamakis) of France, following the meeting of the Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchs in Istanbul on August 31, 2018, the following should be clarified: in his statement, Metropolitan Emmanuel did not say that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had decided to grant autocephaly to the church in Ukraine," the UOC-MP said in a statement.
It noted that Metropolitan Emmanuel had said after the meeting that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had decided to consider all the ways how the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church might be proclaimed.

To cut to the chase: The leader of the tiny church in Constantinople, the symbolic leader known as the "first among equals" in Orthodoxy, could attempt -- repeat ATTEMPT -- to grant autocephaly in several ways. One would be to recognize a Ukrainian leader that most Orthodox leaders consider a schismatic renegade, a figure who is not in communion with most Orthodox believers around the world. That would almost certainly create even more chaos in a bitterly divided region.

I am only scratching at the surface of this many-layered ecclesiastical onion.

Now, with all that in mind, try to figure out what is going on in this Associated Press story about Russia, hackers and the Bartholomew-Kirill meeting. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- The Russian hackers indicted by the US special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.
The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders.
The Istanbul-based patriarch is currently mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian hackers are known as the "Fancy Bear" group. I will leave it to others to decide the degree to which Fancy Bear and the Moscow Patriarchate are dancing together. Of course, I am sure (cue: sarcasm mode) that American and European spooks have played no role whatsoever in this drama.

No, what concerns me, in this AP story, is how the claims of the ecumenical patriarch are accepted as pure fact, with zero attempt to talk to scholars on both sides who understand what is happening here in terms of Orthodox tradition, as opposed to global politics.

For example, consider this:

Patriarch Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, sought by the Ukrainians. It would be a momentous step, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.

Wait: What does "denomination" mean in this context? 

Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month.
“If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role,” said Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”

Here is the key question, if you believe that religion has anything to do with this story: What role will the rest of the world's Orthodox leaders play in all of this?

You see, no matter what most journalists seem to think, the ecumenical patriarch is not the Pope of Rome.

In Orthodoxy, there is no one man who can push the Tomos of autocephaly button and have that decision accepted at all Orthodox altars. The Orthodox often leave things messy until the faith's churches around the world can work out the details.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox church has millions and millions of members and the ecumenical patriarch's flock is tiny, shrinking and oppressed. There are loud voices (in Turkey and elsewhere) that see evidence of CIA support for his cause.

This is a long and complicated AP feature. Once again, I am not attempting to comment on the charges, back and forth, linked to the Fancy Bear investigations. 

I am simply noting that the religious details in this story are way, way to simplistic and one-sided. This does not mean that I think journalists should rush to accept the Russian view of things, either. That would be just as bad as what happened here -- with the view from leaders in Constantinople presented as gospel truth.

No, what we needed here was some evidence that this story involves more than politics. We needed the voices of Orthodox experts who have some idea how Orthodox polity really works when facing complex issues of this kind.

Also, it didn't help that the one quote addressing the Orthodox history of Kiev was placed at the very end:

Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia,” said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.
“Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Payne said. “That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are … it’s sacred to the people and to Russian identity.”

Ponder those words: in terms of history, "Kiev is Jerusalem" for Orthodox Russians.

Stay tuned.

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