With Belarus seeking autocephaly, Moscow is even more isolated among Orthodox
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is on the “homestretch” to the Tomos, the decree that recognises its independence from the Russian Patriarchate. Now Belarus too is seeking the same right from Constantinople. The declaration of the Moscow Synod on 14 September suspending Eucharistic communion with Constantinople was met with the stony silence of the other 13 canonical Orthodox Churches.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Events associated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s accession to independence are following each other at a fast pace. In Belarus some people now want Constantinople to grant their Church the Tomos, the autocephaly decree. Archbishop Sviatoslav (Lohin), head of the relatively small Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church issued a statement to this effect yesterday.

Unlike Ukraine, where Orthodox are divided in three jurisdictions under Moscow, Kyiv and Constantinople (plus Greek-Catholics linked to Rome), almost all Orthodox in the country ruled by President Lukashenko are subject to the Kyiv Exarchate, which depends on the Moscow Patriarchate, who appointed the current Exarch of All Belarus and Metropolitan of Minsk Paul (Ponomaryov).

Yet the status of the Church in Belarus is historically very similar to that of the Ukrainian Church, even more to that of the Polish Orthodox Church, which obtained autocephaly from Constantinople in 1948, in agreement with the Moscow Patriarchate to which it belonged.

The Russian Empire held all these territories between the 18th and 20th centuries, but the ecclesiastical jurisdictions followed separate paths. In general, all Eastern Slavic Orthodox are rooted in the Baptism of Rus' in Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine. If the latter obtains autocephaly in October, as everything suggests, it is hard to see how it could be refused to Belarusian Orthodox.

This could be followed by others demanding autocephaly, like the Baltic countries, some parts of the Caucasus, Transnistria and Moldova, all in some way dependent on Moscow, which would then lose many of its jurisdiction. The vast but thinly populated territories of European and Asian Russia would remain, but with a relatively limited number of churches and dioceses. The process could also affect Greek Catholic communities, which are not present only in Ukraine, dating back to the Union of 1596, signed in the Belarusian city of Brest-Litovsk, on the border with Poland.

The main effect would therefore be to isolate Moscow from the rest of universal Orthodoxy, like at present. The declaration of the Moscow Synod of 14 September suspending the Eucharistic communion with Constantinople was met with the stony silence of the other 13 canonical Orthodox Churches.

So far, no Church has followed Moscow in its opposition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, refusing to name Bartholomew in the liturgy or refraining from concelebrating with the priests of Constantinople, as the Russian Orthodox are doing. Despite various statements by patriarchs and metropolitans in favour of Moscow, including that of Pope Francis in Rome last May on the "only patriarchate" for Russians and Ukrainians, no one has uttered a word since 14 September, leaving Kirill alone to deal with Bartholomew.

The Moscow Patriarch has had a lot of time to reflect upon the events that have marked inter-Orthodox relations in recent years, especially following his refusal to attend the Council of Crete in 2016, evidently afraid that the Ukrainian question might come up, against the backdrop of the war that broke out in the Ukraine in 2014. The meeting at the Fanar on 31 August was too late, as the decision had already been taken after two years of official consultations between Constantinople and all the other autocephalous Churches, including Moscow.

Meanwhile, two Constantinopolitan exarchs, Ukrainian-American bishops Daniel and Hilarion, are proceeding swiftly with the necessary consultations. On Monday, they met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who reiterated the centuries-old yearning of Ukrainians for the autonomy of their own Church, and the historical proximity to the patriarchate of Constantinople.

After the meeting, one of the two delegates, Archbishop Daniel, said the fateful words, “the process of granting autocephaly to Ukraine is on the homestretch." The two exarchs have invited all the bishops of the various jurisdictions, including that of Moscow, to meet and talk. Everything suggests that many will respond positively.

Under the circumstances, Moscow will not be able to hold most of the faithful still attached to it. It will also have a harder time trying to convince others that it is on the right side when all the other Orthodox are on the other.