Putin’s war could trigger ‘Russian colonial aggression’ in former USSR, expert warns | World | News

Orthodox church: Ukraine invasion ‘increasing strain’ says Pepinster

Ukraine is cracking down on its Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) leaders. So, when Metropolitan Pavel Lebed got a knock at the door, it’s likely that the Kyiv monastery head wasn’t surprised. Metropolitan Pavel, who runs the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, is closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, his branch previously loyal to Moscow clergy. He is but one church leader who follows the ROC’s teachings across the former Soviet Union, leaders who are being closely watched by the authorities for fear that they may be inciting religious and nationalistic hatred among their congregations.

Now, one expert has described the churches to as “outposts of Russian colonialism”, warning that they could become “aggressive” in the face of a crisis such as the Ukraine war.

The ROCH claims exclusive jurisdiction over the Eastern Orthodox Christians — regardless of their backgrounds — who reside in the former Soviet Republics, bar Georgia which has its own Orthodox Church.

Many of the worshippers across the disbanded union are either ethnic Russians or were brought up under Soviet rule.

Dr Katherine Kelaidis, Director of Research and Content at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, believes these religious outposts have complicated and troubled relationships with national identity and nationalism — things that have in the past and could in the future lead to serious disagreements.

Metropolitan Pavel Lebed speaks to reporters after his followers refuse to leave the church (Image: GETTY)

View of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv. Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra,...

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is famous for its underground cave systems — and ties to Russian Orthodoxy (Image: GETTY)

Asked whether the pro-Moscow churches in countries outside Russia posed a danger, she explained: “I think it’s a legacy issue. These are the outposts of Russian colonialism and colonial aggression.

“In many places this is true. Georgia, for example, we’ve just seen the demonstrations about the Russia-West split.

“I was there in 2019 and one of the things I noticed was the difference with the rest of Europe: they’ll hang the flags of political parties outside the bars and pubs, but unlike in Europe where you might find a national flag and the EU flag, here, there was a Russian flag or an EU flag — but not the two together.

“It gave that sense of: are you on the side of Europe, of the West, or are you on the side of Holy Russia? And I think this is the case for a lot of these post-Soviet Orthodox churches, too.”

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Patriarch Kirill and Putin

Patriarch Kirill embraces Putin during the Orthodox Easter celebrations (Image: GETTY)

In the churches specifically, Dr Kelaidis said she believes there are two factors at play: the age-old West versus East power struggle. She added: “They see the secularism of the West and they understand the ways in which increasingly Western orientation threatens their authority within the society.

“And then underneath that is this weird relationship Orthodoxy has with nationalism, and with being an imperial religion. It’s always had a hard time with this, and Orthodoxy has always struggled with the creation of national churches.”

She went on to say that these divisions have always occurred “in moments of crisis” and that the ROC and its worshippers reverting back to conservatism and attracting right-wing figures are real threats.

Many governments outside of Russia appear to be more than aware of the risk the ROC-tied churches in their countries pose.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral and St Mary's Cathedral at sunset in Tallinn, Estonia

The Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia, is affiliated with the ROC (Image: GETTY)

Celebrations by Georgia's Orthodoxy

Georgia has its own Orthodox church but tensions with Russia remain (Image: GETTY)

In Estonia, the Estonian Orthodox Church (EOC) jurisdiction is under the Patriarchate of Moscow. It has a congregation at least seven times bigger than that of the Estonian Apostol Orthodox Church, which is not tied to the ROC, making it the most popular religion in what is a largely atheist region.

Last year, the Estonian Foreign Ministry proposed that Patriarch Kirill, head of the ROC, be placed on a sanctions list alongside the likes of President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking politicians.

Some members of Estonia’s parliament went as far as to ban Kirill and others associated with the ROC from entering Estonia.

Things are not so clear-cut in Moldova. The primate of the country’s Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir, is a Russian citizen whose pro-Moscow views are well-known.

Europe's former Iron Curtain

While the Soviet Union was officially atheist, many religions blossomed before and after its fall (Image: Express Newspapers)

Much of Moldova’s Orthodox clergy is conservative and does not wish to split from the ROC — although the church has condemned Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine.

But as 90 percent of Moldova’s population identifies as Orthodox — the majority belonging to the Metropolis of Chisinau and All Moldova under the ROC — Russian influence in the country is undeniable.

While a pressing issue, Ksenia Luchenko, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says a religious conflict in Moldova is “unlikely”.

However, she noted that it could “have very serious consequences due to Russia’s influence there, smoldering tensions in Transnistria, and the country’s geographical proximity to both Ukraine and the EU.”

Pro-Russia protests in Moldova

Moldova has grappled with pro-Russia protests, organised by Moscow-aligned opposition politicians (Image: GETTY)

She added: “For this reason, both the Moldovan government and church are for now treading carefully in order to avoid a conflict.”

Many warn that the heads of ROC-affiliated churches across the former USSR — many of whom, including Patriarch Kirill, used to be KGB agents — may begin to preach pro-Moscow and anti-Ukraine rhetoric in secret sermons.

Already have Kyiv prosecutors accused Pavel Lebed, the head of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, of inciting national and religious hatred, something he was also accused of in 2018.

The city has been trying to evict him and his followers from the monastery, but Metropolitan Lebed says the allegations have no grounds and that a “political case” is being waged against him.

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