02/12/2022, 08.00
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Russian Africa, churches and cannons

by Stefano Caprio

The defection of Alexandrian priests to the Russian patriarchate seems unstoppable. The real “canonical war” within Orthodoxy is being played out today in Africa where Moscow's interests are as much spiritual as they are material, pastoral, political, liturgical and military.


The Russian exarchate of Africa

The “Russian invasion” of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the titular see of Byzantine Christianity in the African continent, continues to create great turmoil among Orthodox.

The break took place after a minor event, the concelebration on a remote Mediterranean island of the Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore II (Horeftakis), Greek namesake of the "pope" of the Copts, with the metropolitan of Kyiv Epiphanius (Dumenko), reviled by the Russians because of the autocephaly granted to him by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (Arhondonis), Moscow’s great adversary for supremacy among the Orthodox.

The loss of Alexandrian priests defecting to the Russian patriarchate seems unstoppable. On 10 February, another 15 went over to the exarch for Africa appointed by Moscow, 54-year-old Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachev), a faithful follower of Patriarch Kirill (Gundayev), who was Moscow's representative to the patriarchate of Theodore for over a decade, so much so that he organised a meeting in Cairo with President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009.

Leonid served for a long time in the Russian army and air force, since he was already a subdeacon and patriarchal aide, and his dual military and ecclesiastical services are an important key to his professional and clerical career.

The new exarch contributed to the integration of Orthodox chaplaincies in the Russian military, and performed diplomatic services everywhere. He was patriarchal representative in Argentina, and was recently appointed exarch of Armenia, operating in the Caucasian lands closest to Moscow, working out a deal with Karekin II, the Catholikos of the Apostolic Church.

He followed developments in the Church of Ethiopia and the bilateral talks between Russian Orthodoxy and the Indian Malankara Church, finally obtaining the title of patriarchal vicar as bishop of Klin, a town in Moscow province. 

All these titles and assignments have frantically accumulated according to the “fits and starts” typical of Kirill's style of management, who likes to move his closest aides like video game pawns, when he has to find a solution to the most burning issues.

Leonid welcomed new Russian-African priests during a “pastoral assembly” in Meru, a town in eastern Kenya, where most Orthodox clergy of the Eparchy of Nyeri switched to Moscow, despite the pleas and threats of excommunication by Bishop Neofit (Kongai), a Kenyan who grew up among the Greeks. 

The priests arrived at the meeting on motorbikes from distant parishes, wearing only an under-cassock (podroznik), partly because of the weather and partly for lack of money, which will now be generously guaranteed by Moscow.

In fact, the version by the Russian patriarchate is that “one could not but respond to the request of so many African priests,” eager to join Moscow because of the unacceptable scandal of the “Ukrainian schism”.

As Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), patriarchal "foreign minister", said recently, “the Christians of Africa need the protection of Russia, not because of our will, but because of the situation that has been created. We created the Exarchate to offer a canonical refuge for African priests, who do not intend to follow Alexandria in legitimising the Ukrainian schism.”

The Russians have long been sending missionaries to serve the Russian-speaking believers in African countries, and now everything is being turned into eparchies and structures of “canonical reception”.

Moscow has repeatedly reiterated that “it will be forced” to open Russian parishes even in Turkey, in Bartholomew’s backyard, already home to substantial numbers of Russians; however, so far only a few chapels have been set up within consular districts. 

For now, Greece is not threatened. Archbishop Ieronymos II (Liapis) of Athens has recognised the Metropolia of Kyiv, even though the Russians decided to officially break relations with the monastic communities of Mount Athos, where many Russian monks reside.

At least the other two patriarchs of the traditional ancient "pentarchy", in which Moscow has inserted itself in modern times in place of "heretical" Rome, have remained neutral.

Patriarch Theophilos III (Giannopoulos) of Jerusalem can only try to make the best of a difficult situation, since the Holy Land is home to every type of Christian canonical structure, whilst Patriarch John (Ioannis) X (Yazigi) of Antioch has always been on the side Moscow, both for personal reasons (he grew up in Soviet times along with the future Patriarch Kirill), and for objective territorial reasons,  Syria is close to Russia and is now under its political and military protection, after the war with the Islamic State group.

For all these and other reasons, the true "canonical war" within Orthodoxy is being waged in Africa.

Despite Moscow’s watchful eye, Greece and the Middle East will remain quite independent without raising canonical barricades, but Africa is too vast, too complex and too important to be left to rivals. 

In this case, the Russian Church is not acting out of compassion alone for priests who reject heresy, and perhaps hoping for their daily allowance, nor even for juridical-ecclesiastical stubbornness in the dispute over autocephaly and canonical territories.

The fact is that Russian interests in Africa are as much spiritual as they are material, pastoral, political, liturgical, and military.

Market for cannons

Africa is one of the main export markets for Russian weapons, and in many countries, ties have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, so that Russia is now competing with China, which has been in the continent for years. 

The situation in Burkina Faso is a case in point. On 24 January, a military coup took place closely watched by the Russians. In Ouagadougou, the country's capital, the military seized power and arrested President Marc Kabore, removing his government, and dissolving parliament.

The journalists covering the affair were quite surprised when immediately after the coup crowds backing the military poured into the streets waving Russian flags, demanding the country change its foreign policy in favour of Moscow instead of Paris.

Russian military specialists rushed to support the military of the former colony French, a throwback to similar operations during Soviet times.

Once upon a time, the Soviet Union was very active in Africa, and many Africans still live and work in Russia, where scholarships and specialized institutes were never closed.

At the height of the Cold War, in 1960, the People’s Friendship University of Russia opened in Moscow, and was later renamed after Congolese “socialist martyr” Patrice Lumumba.

Many foreign students, especially Africans, still study there. Many of them also actively participate in the life of Russian Catholic parishes; one of them, engineering graduate Corentin Ntontas, originally from Pointe-Noire, teaches Sacred Scripture at the seminary in St Petersburg.

In the past, the adversary was the United States. The end of communism forced the Russians to leave the region to the Chinese, but now it seems the time has come to take revenge against both rivals.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, a large "Russia-Africa" summit was held in Sochi with delegations from 54 African countries, three of them special strategic partners – Algeria, Egypt and South Africa – linked to Russia by very close economic and military ties that were never severed. 

Now Moscow wants to expand its ties to the least developed and poorest countries, with pledges of security and defence assistances, as in Burkina Faso.

For the Russians, weapons, technologies and military experts are the best cards, plus canonical blessings, symbolically united in the person of the exarch, Colonel Leonid.

In August 2021, weapons sales to Africa represent 30-40 per cent of Russia’s military exports, or about US$ 14 billion a year, this according to Dmitry Shugayev, director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation.

Russian military and economic aid to Africa varies from country to country – sometimes it comes from agreements between governments; sometimes it entails sending mercenaries, like in Mali and Libya.

The Central African Republic was the first African country to be visited in 2018 by the notorious Wagner Group in support of beleaguered President Faustine-Archange Tuadera. 

Wagner's operatives are financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St Petersburg-based oligarch known in the media as “Putin’s chef”, a man very much interested in mining precious stones in African countries.

There is much more to confirm Russia's interest in Africa, but one more factor is worth mentioning: African countries represent 25 per cent of all members of the UN General Assembly, and their vote is traditionally pro-Russia. 

In fact, no African countries has imposed sanctions against Russia, and now in religious affairs, Africans are choosing the Moscow Patriarchate over Constantinople, thus asserting Russian pre-eminence in Africa as well.






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See also
The Russian Orthodox Church breaks with Alexandria and sets out to conquer Africa
30/12/2019 11:03
The Greek Orthodox Church recognizes the Ukrainian Church
14/10/2019 09:15
The Greek Orthodox Church stops short on Ukrainian autocephaly. Filaret promises battle
13/06/2019 11:32
Moscow and Kiev celebrate the Baptism of Rus', but separately
31/07/2018 09:59
Two years on from autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodox Church
17/12/2020 09:13


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