Pope Francis (R) met Patriarch Kirill (R) at Havana airport in Havana in February 2016 in the first meeting of a Catholic pope and head of Russian Orthodox Church, on a mission to try to overcome the rift in Christianity dating back to Great Schism of 1054.
The Ukraine conflict has dimensions ranging from geopolitics to geoeconomics. But the subterranean eddy of animate religious passions eludes the casual non-Christian observer. A remark recently by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic that 85% of his country’s residents will always support Russia, come what may, called attention to the paradigm. But religious cleavages in Christianity, when it overlaps with racial divides particularly, are a highly sensitive matter that is never allowed to climb up from the attic to the living room.
The innuendos in Vucic’s remark are striking: “Serbia has embarked on the European path, Serbia has always supported Ukraine’s integrity, but on the other hand, some eighty-five percent of people will always side with Russia whatever may happen. These are the facts I am faced with as the country’s president.” What he did say explicitly is that most of the people of Serbia are adherents of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity predominates throughout most of Serbia. But what has it got to do with the conflict in Ukraine? This needs explaining.
Religious bigotry in the Christian world has caused more bloodshed than any other issue in history. The Euro-Atlantic Christian countries have a gory past. They fought wars for the spread of their religion in faraway lands and also tore each other apart over their sectarian passions — or even for pursuit of carnal pleasures, as in the case of the Anglican Church.
Christianity has turned out to be the most violent religion out of the three Abrahamic religions. The reluctance of Muslim countries and Israel to take sides in the Ukraine conflict is very striking and it is understandable, as Islam and Judaism have immensely suffered from Christian bigotry historically. The ensuing unspeakable sufferings through vast corridors of time up to the modern times are embedded deep in the Muslim and Jewish psyche.
Indeed, the humiliation meted out in Australia to the iconic tennis star Novak Djokovic, a Slav Orthodox Christian from Serbia was far too contrived. His real “crime” is that he was ranked world No. 1 as of 27 February 2022. He has been ranked world No. 1 by the Association of Tennis Professionals for a record total 361 weeks, and has finished as the year-end No. 1 a record seven times. Australia literally ensured that Djokovic’s glorious run was punctuated and instead a fading star from Spain, a devout Catholic country, won the Australian Open.
Such racial prejudices come easily to Christian countries, beneath their veneer of modernity. America’s bars are pouring bottles of Russian-made vodka into street drains; Governors are calling for Russian liquors to be pulled from store shelves. True, symbolism, particularly when it comes to food and drink, can be powerful among Americans traditionally to express their cultural identity.
But nadir was reached last week in Italy, where a university decided to postpone a course about the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky “to avoid any controversy, especially internally, during a time of strong tensions.”
Why Dostoevsky? The non-Christian world adores that great literary figure for his vast exploration of the ultimate recompense for the suffering of mankind. Dostoevsky had philosophical influences such as Kant, Hegel, and Solovyov amongst others.
But in Italy, Dostoevsky carries the stigma that he was raised within the womb of the Russian Orthodox Church who in his novels used Russian God to refer to unique aspects of Russian Orthodoxy. In Dostoevsky’s concept, Russian God is a uniquely Russian entity that diverges from biblically orthodox conceptions of God and faith, which is underpinned by Russian nationalism and anti-Westernism. It challenges Christian theological orthodoxy. Unsurprisngly, Italians dislike him!
Again, last week, BBC reported the Russian billionaire banker Mikhail Fridman telling a press conference in London why Ukraine war has become a tragedy:
“My parents always told me: you know, because you are a Jew, you could not be in this position or that position, in this university or this job. Now, I’m facing the same situation here in the West, because you are Russian.” Such instances are multiplying lately as the war rages in Ukraine. Indeed, when the US President Joe Biden, a conservative Irish Catholic, incessantly demonises Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, is it accidental?
At the core is the feud among Christians that began with the Great Schism of 1054 when the main church at that time, based in Rome, split into two divisions, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. They’ve since come to be the two largest denominations of Christianity.
The Euro-Atlantic leaders will shy away from admitting that this ancient feud all along complicated Russia’s inclusion in any common European home — just as the European Union, a Christian club, will never admit Turkey as a member.
The feud within Christianity began intensifying in the recent decade or two with Russia’s resurgence under Putin’s leadership, when Russian Orthodox Church entered a golden era of state patronage. There was even talk of building an “Orthodox Vatican” at the Lavra of the Holy Trinity of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad, a 13the century UNESCO heritage site outside Moscow.
The Trinity of Lavra of St. Sergius, built as a monastery in 1337, is the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church.
All this was of course too much for the Euro-Atlantic Christian countries to stomach, who, thereupon, quietly instigated their proxy in Kiev, then president Petro Poroshenko to manipulate the Ukrainian arm of the family of Orthodox churches to declare its independence from Russian Orthodox Church in 2018!
This was, without doubt, an unwarranted Western intrusion into the affairs of the Eastern Church but it was intended as a calculated insult to Russia, since Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins back to Kiev!
What infuriates the Euro-Atlantic Christian countries intrinsically when they demonise Putin is that Putin himself is an intensely religious Orthodox Christian, only son of a devout Christian mother who baptised him in secret (in the atheistic Soviet era), and who still wears his baptismal cross. Putin has cast himself as the true defender of Christian virtues, the leader of the “Third Rome”.
The Euro-Atlantic countries are in a quandary. They are already in panic as the locus of world power shifts inexorably towards the East. They fear that as the Eastern Church and “Holy Russia” surge, they would also become the backwaters of Christianity.
And this is at a time when Christianity as such is also in retreat in the West. People don’t go to church, are rejecting Christian values that constituted the basis of Western civilisation, and even abandon their traditional identity — including sexual, by entering into same-sex partnerships. Putin poignantly said recently that it is increasingly difficult for a Christian in the West to distinguish between “the belief in God and the belief in Satan.”
The Ukraine crisis cannot be understood unless we factor in the swirling primeval passions behind the desperate attempt by Euro-Atlantic countries to attack Putin and weaken Russia and, if possible dismember it, like they did to former Yugoslavia, another Slavic country of Eastern Orthodoxy.
It is no accident that two sentinels of Roman Catholicism, France and Poland, and that gladiator of Protestantism, Germany, are at the barricades of the contestation over Ukraine. This is reminiscent of the Crusade to conquer pagan areas in the Middle East and recapture formerly Christian territories.
The Western rhetoric against Putin is the language of Inquisition, infamous for the severity of its tortures. The West’s sanctions against Russia are on the one hand borne out of racial prejudices and on the other hand due to the Manichean fears that the five centuries of their world domination are coming to an end. The Ukraine conflict tolls the death knell for western hegemony, where the sword and the Bible became interchangeable. These are momentous times in the chronicles of Christianity.
Pope Francis’ anguish is self-evident, as he broke protocol to visit the Russian embassy in Rome last week to meet the ambassador and hold discussions with him lasting for an hour and a half. His mission to heal the nearly 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity dating back to the Great Schism of 1054 is in shambles.