The Eastern Orthodox Schism Deepens

Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I
Burak Kara/Getty Images

The Eastern Orthodox Schism Deepens

Is the split between Constantinople and Moscow permanent?

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew i traveled to Vilnius last week to meet with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. This visit may seem innocuous, but Bartholomew’s actions have profound effects in the Orthodox world.

On March 21, Bartholomew and Šimonytė signed a cooperation agreement encouraging deeper relations. Most significantly, Bartholomew announced the possibility of establishing a patriarchal exarchate in Lithuania. An exarchate is an autonomous diocese governing itself under the patriarch’s authority.

Why does this matter? Lithuania was formerly part of the Russian empire with a sizable Russian minority. Most of its roughly 100,000 Orthodox Christians are in the Russian Orthodox Church. The church is an ardent supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Many members are uneasy belonging to a faith backing Europe’s biggest war since 1945. Bartholomew’s planned exarchate is meant to address this, allowing the faithful to shift their allegiance from Moscow to Constantinople.

Orthodox states like Russia, Greece and Serbia have autonomous churches with different traditions. The patriarch of Constantinople is accepted as their figurehead “first among equals.” Despite not having much real authority, he holds some important reserve powers. This includes the right to give Orthodox churches autonomy. In 2019, Bartholomew recognized the Orthodox Church in Ukraine as a separate jurisdiction from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian church responded by severing ties with the patriarchate. The schism has only deepened since the Ukraine War started last year.

Bartholomew’s latest actions suggest the schism is permanent. In 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church took issue with him giving a territory independence without consulting Moscow. In 2023, the Patriarchate is taking over territory from Moscow for itself.

Taking on Moscow: Bartholomew has never been a supporter of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill’s role in the Ukraine war. But on March 22, Bartholomew ramped up his rhetoric against Moscow in a conference at the Lithuanian parliament (emphasis added):

With the end of the Soviet Union and the bankruptcy of the Communist ideology, pseudo-religion emerged. The old imperial strategies were then combined with the cynical techniques and mechanisms developed and inherited from the Soviet Union. The church and the state leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression, and share the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of Ukrainian children. They have provoked enormous suffering not only to the Ukrainian people, but also to the Russians, who count more than 100,000 casualties and the responsibility for terrible atrocities. [O]ur interreligious dialogue has to focus not only on ways to resist and neutralize the capacity of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate to undermine unity and to theologically legitimize criminal behavior. It is our common Christian duty to use our forces of dialogue to bring back our Russian brothers and sisters to our community of shared values.

Calling the Russian Orthodox Church a “pseudo-religion legitimizing criminal behavior” is an insult Moscow won’t soon forget. Wanting to “neutralize the capacity of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate” is a threat to Kirill personally. This would be the akin to the pope declaring war against the Catholic Church in Italy.

The future: For centuries, Russia has been the heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodox faithfuls all over considered the Russian czar the religion’s unofficial leader. Bartholomew’s response to the war has sabotaged Russia’s unofficial spiritual status. But this leaves the Orthodox Church headless. There are very few Orthodox Christians in Bartholomew’s home jurisdiction of Turkey, and his influence over the rest of Orthodoxy is limited.

The Trumpet has for decades watched for the Vatican to take control of the Orthodox world. Prophecies in passages like Isaiah 47 and Revelation 17 depict a powerful woman, a biblical symbol for a church, who rules nations and absorbs wayward “daughter churches” back into her fold. We expect, therefore, a reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople. How that will happen remains to be seen. But the Russia-Ukraine War has pushed the rest of Orthodoxy from Moscow and closer to the West. Bartholomew, meanwhile, is on very good terms with Pope Francis. The Ukraine crisis presents an unparalleled opportunity for the Vatican.

Learn more: Read “Returning to the Fold” in our free booklet He Was Right.