Rome and Moscow Fight for Control of Eastern Orthodox Church

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I prays at the Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox church on September 1, 2018 in Istanbul.
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Rome and Moscow Fight for Control of Eastern Orthodox Church

Europe is being divvied up between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy.

The conflict in Ukraine may soon cause the Eastern Orthodox Church to break apart. On September 7, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople put Orthodox Christians in Ukraine under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and Bishop Ilarion of Edmonton. This is a preparatory step to create a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church consists of 15 separate “autocephalous” churches. Ukraine is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. But considering the fact that Russian forces are currently invading eastern Ukraine, supporting rebels and killing Ukrainian soldiers, millions of Ukrainians want their own independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A Ukrainian archbishop established such a church in 1992, although none of the autocephalous churches have recognized it.

As the civil war between Ukraine and Russian-backed insurgents entered its fifth year in April, Ukraine’s parliament officially petitioned Patriarch Bartholomew to recognize an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The two bishops he recently appointed will begin preparations for the establishment of a self-governing Ukrainian church in one of the biggest overhauls to Eastern Orthodoxy in centuries.

The Russian Orthodox Church is displeased with Bartholemew’s decision. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has partnered with Russian President Vladimir Putin to use religion as a means to influence and control Ukraine. This will be much harder to do if the Eastern Orthodox population of Ukraine declares independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. The day after Bartholemew’s decision, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s External Relations Department, said that if a Ukrainian Orthodox Church is created, the Russian Orthodox will punish Bartholemew by severing relations.

This escalating standoff between Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill is a battle for the future of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew is considered to have “primacy of honor” among the heads of the 15 Eastern Orthodox Churches. But Patriarch Kirill is the head of the largest Orthodox Church and directly leads more than half of the world’s Eastern Orthodox population. Allowing the Orthodox population of Ukraine to form a new Orthodox Church would strengthen Bartholomew and weaken Kirill. And if the Russian Orthodox Church makes good on its threat to sever relations with Bartholemew, the other Orthodox churches will have to choose between maintaining good relations with Bartholemew and Ukraine—or Russia.

But the church that actually stands to benefit most from a split between Bartholemew’s Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow is the Roman Catholic Church.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century. The Roman Catholic Church has been trying to bring the Eastern Orthodox back under its dominion since the 1970s. But negotiations have stalled over an Eastern Orthodox refusal to accept the authority of the pope. In 2007, Patriarch Bartholomew approved the Ravenna Document, which asserts that the pope has primacy of honor among Christian bishops. Yet the Russian Orthodox delegation refused to approve the Ravenna Document.

If the Eastern Orthodox Church breaks up over Ukraine, the pro-Russia faction will likely draw closer to Moscow, while the pro-Constantinople faction draws closer to Rome.

For over 40 years, until his death in 1986, Plain Truth editor in chief Herbert W. Armstrong foretold that the Roman Catholic Church would pull its Protestant and Eastern Orthodox daughters back under its dominion as it rose up to rule over a united Europe. The November 1963 issue of the Plain Truth stated:

The mighty problem of achieving [Catholic] unity is twofold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox Schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East—Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Near East—from Rome. Second, it involves the restoration to the Roman Communion all Protestantism which developed from 1517 onward.

This prediction was based on a prophecy in Isaiah 47, which describes a church called “the lady of kingdoms” that has power over many nations. Yet this church has protesting daughter churches that have split away. The Prophet Isaiah states that these protesting daughters will be brought back under their mother’s control. This mother will rise to prominence in the end time, exerting great influence over a European superpower.

The Roman Catholic Church has signed agreements with Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and many other religious groups in its push to unify the world—and especially Europe—under its control. Political tensions over Ukraine may present a stumbling block to the Vatican’s efforts to reabsorb the Russian Orthodox Church, but they will not stop Rome from reabsorbing other Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates. Just as Eastern Europe is being divided between a German-led European Union and a Russian-led eurasian union, it is also being divided between the Catholic Church, led by Rome, and the Orthodox Church, increasingly led by Moscow.

For more information on how the Roman Catholic Church is working to unite all Christians under the pope, read “Returning to the Fold” by Stephen Flurry.