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The ROCOR Kremlin Hoax
A Timeline of Events Accusing The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia of Serving as a Network of Russian Spies
Recently, a number of news articles have made their way across social media. One in particular (from Newsweek) drew the ire of many Orthodox Christians on Twitter as it claimed, among other things, that the Orthodox Church in the United States has the potential to serve as a network of spies for Russian Intelligence. This claim is, of course, absurd, and is indicative of the common anti-Russian hysteria in the media surrounding the current war in Ukraine. The Newsweek article, however, is fairly mild compared to the article released in Foreign Affairs, written by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, upon which the Newsweek article draws its inspiration. That article, as well as a clip of one of its authors on CNN, have created a breeding ground of fear and anxiety targeted at Orthodox Christians in America.
Below I have compiled notes from these articles, as well as some responses and fact-checking that show these arguments to be entirely vacuous. My intention of this article is not to comment on the war in Ukraine except as necessary. One could be on either side of this debate and still see how the treatment that the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia (ROCOR) is receiving here is not merited by the facts. Further, as we will see, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) inside of Russia is often conflated with all of the churches under the patriarchate that are outside of the borders of Russia. This is an extremely important nuance that those outside of the Church may not realize, yet it is something completely glossed over by these articles and all subsequent coverage based on them.
Foreign Affairs vs The Orthodox Church
The first article to appear in English is the article entitled "Putin's Useful Priests", published on September 14th in Foreign Affairs. To be fair, their editor probably crafted the headline for clicks. It worked. It opens with the following:
On July 23, one of Ukraine’s largest churches, the Orthodox cathedral in Odessa, was seriously damaged by a Russian missile strike. The strike highlighted one of the lingering enigmas of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine: Moscow has been waging war not only on a neighboring population but also on one that, like its own, is overwhelmingly made up of Orthodox Christians. In effect, the Russian government has been forced to target its own religion in its campaign to subdue Ukraine. Yet despite this, members of Russia’s Orthodox clergy have been among the most vocal supporters of the war, and criticism from Orthodox leaders in other countries has been comparatively muted.
In some ways, this should not come as a surprise, owing to the well-known ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime.
The stage has been set with this opening. We are given an act of war perpetrated by Russia: a missile strike that hit Odessa. This is indeed a tragedy, and one committed largely by Orthodox Christians against Orthodox Christians. That then leads us into two claims made back to back: first, that the clergy of the Orthodox Church are largely in support of the war, and second, that this shouldn't surprise us because this is par-for-the-course behavior for the Church in Russia, and it’s “well-known” (by whom?) that they're part of Putin's regime.
Neither of these claims cite any sources as evidence. Neither are true on their face, yet this is how the article opens. With a strong condemnation of Russia, and the claim that the Church is complicit with Putin's injustices.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, an Orthodox leader in North America called on believers around the world to support it; in Europe, one of the West’s most prominent Orthodox bishops condemned the Ukrainian authorities, not the Russian army, for the atrocities that have been committed against Christians during the war. Even more striking has been an ambitious campaign to win Russian Orthodox hearts and minds—including in the United States and other Western countries—that has been led by an arm of the church with links to Russian intelligence and the Russian government.
Here we have our three central arguments, so let's track them accordingly:
A) "An Orthodox leader" in North America called on Christians to support Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
B) A European Bishop condemns atrocities committed by Ukrainian authorities rather than Russia.
C) Elements in the Russian Church with ties to Russian Intelligence have been running PR campaigns in the West.
Arguments (A) and (B) are addressed later in the article, so we will review these when we get back to them, though remember the following because it will be important later on. One of the key problems with the authors' message here is that they apparently have no knowledge of anything happening in Ukraine outside the war, and the Church-related issues around the canonical disputes between the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) setting up a parallel jurisdiction (Orthodox Church in Ukraine, OCU) within Ukraine alongside the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).
The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin
Regarding (C), one piece of evidence in favor of this argument is found in the US Government's response:
Members of the [Orthodox] community gave us copies of FBI documents that had been shared among Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox parishes. The documents identify and highlight the activities of a senior member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations department whom the FBI suspects of having ties to Russian intelligence.
Much is made of this FBI warning. In fact, it's essentially the backbone of this entire article. Foreign Affairs has received a copy of this warning, yet did not provide a copy anywhere in the article. The document doesn't appear to be classified, as it was sent to civilians and journalists, yet there's no copy of it linked to in the article. Thus so far, every claim made in this article is entirely unsubstantiated.
Regarding the FBI Warning that we can't see:
The FBI’s warning suggests that the church may be even more closely linked to the Putin regime than many observers assume, with potentially significant implications for the Kremlin’s overseas influence.
This sentence is a lesson in how journalists tell lies. First of all, we are primed to think that there's already an assumption among "observers" that the Orthodox Church is linked to the Putin regime. While this may be true for the church within Russia, this warning is targeted at American clergy, so one would have to assume - if this argument were true - that it is already a fairly common belief regarding the Church in America that there are links to the Putin regime. This is not the case, as we'll see later. Another issue is that we don't actually know who the "observers" are in this case, so once more we have a claim that on it's face appears quite damning, but in the end is just rhetoric.
That's the beauty of this kind of journalistic dishonesty: the claim itself is unfalsifiable, because the actual accusation is clouded behind anonymity (no specific person that can be verified), vaguely worded details which have an air of importance ("Look! Many observers already thought this was a problem! It may actually be worse than they initially thought!"), and dire implications ("The Kremlin's influence in the US is growing!").
In itself, it is unsurprising that the church could play an important part in furthering Russia’s strategic interests. For centuries, the church has been closely connected with the Russian state, a relationship that has spanned the eras of the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia.
Any student of history can attest to the fact that basically any organized religion that has ever existed and possessed any measure of power, wealth, or cultural influence have all had "connections" to their respective states. The irony of bringing up the Soviet Union as an example where the Russian Church was "connected" to the Russian State in the same way as it was to the Russian Empire or the post-Cold War era cannot be understated here. The word choice is another journalist trick. “Connected with the Russian state” is clever wording that’s not technically false, but the idea that the “connection” Tsarist Russia had with the Church was similar in form or fashion to the “connection” the Soviet Union had with the Church is absurd. If you’ve ever heard the expression “a distinction without a difference”, you can now say you’ve seen the opposite: “a difference without a distinction”. That’s what that statement is.
Why these authors believe Church and State cooperating is bad is explained plainly:
From the eighteenth century until the Russian Revolution, the Russian tsar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in turn gave legitimacy to Russia’s imperial rule
Stated plainly, this is false. The Tsar was never the "head" of the Church. For centuries, the Moscow Patriarchate (1589-1721, 1917-Present) has served as head the of the Church in Russia. Between 1721 and 1917, the Patriarchate was suspended and the "Most Holy Synod" acted as a public administrative body for the Russian Orthodox Church. The head of state in Russia was never the "head" of the Church.
If the Tsar was not the head of the Church, as stated, we shouldn't give much heed to the idea that the Church "in turn gave legitimacy to Russia's imperial rule". This is again a claim that is not supported by evidence. I see a pattern. Thus far we have claims merely stated as a means of creating a cumulative case where an unsuspecting reader is given a barrage of problems with Russia, Imperialism, and the Church all wrapped up together and told how bad all of this looks. It would be comical if it wasn't so affective.
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The Ted Talk of Russian History continues:
During World War II, when the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asked the church to help rally the population to the defense of the Soviet Union, church leaders responded to his call—not out of opportunism but because they recognized that the country’s ideology was rapidly moving from a vision of proletarian rule and universal communism to a renewed nationalist ideology that drew on the Russian Empire’s glorious past.
During the communist era, the Soviets created more Russian martyrs than did the Roman Empire in nearly triple the time. The idea that the Church at large was jumping at the opportunity to "rally the population" behind the communists because of the shifts in culture are entirely unfounded.
Thus the authors conclude their case that the Orthodox Church has been lock-step with the Russian State all along, just waiting for the opportunity to support some good 'ol Russian Imperialism! That brings us to today, where we are told the following:
Putin’s patronage came with a price: he expected the church to contribute to the stability of his regime through activities in Russia and abroad. From the very beginning, he wanted to bring the Russian diaspora in the West under his control. To achieve this, he made it his personal project to subjugate the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
This is where the pivot comes. The typical reader at this point has been shown that Russia, Imperialism, and the Orthodox Church are all one big happy family. Now, the ROC is going to help with all that Imperialism by bringing the entire Russian Church abroad (read: outside Russia, ROCOR) into the imperialist fold. This, we are told to believe, is the mission of Putin and the ROC. Once again, there's no stated evidence of this. There's no public statement by either Putin or MP Kirill. We are simply to assume that this analysis is correct, and in so assuming, we are to believe that the grand mission of Putin's Russian Imperialism is supported both by the Orthodox Church in Russia, and all Russian Orthodox Churches around the world.
Once more, we are being led step-by-step through this argument without one shred of actual evidence being presented.
After Putin came to power, he resolved to bring the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under the Moscow patriarchate.
This statement is true, but requires some context for those who may not be familiar with how the Orthodox Church is governed. Contrary to the image being presented here, ROCOR is not, and never has been a mere extension of ROC. The only reason that Putin would need to "bring the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under the Moscow patriarchate" is if ROCOR was not actually under the authority of the MP. This is exactly what was the case when Putin came to power in 2000.
On November 20, 1920, Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, issued decree no. 362. In this decree he stated that those churches which are cut off from the MP (a common occurrence under the Bolsheviks) should govern themselves locally until such a time comes for them to reunite with the MP. In 1924, the Russian-American Archdiocese was established as a self-governing body until such a time as they could reunify with the MP. For more history regarding Russian Orthodoxy in America, see here.
So ROCOR was always meant to come back into communion with ROC. The fact that this began in the early years for the 21st century had less to do with Putin being in power and wanting to subjugate the entirety of Russian Orthodox believers worldwide than it did with the fact that the Soviet Union fell and all of the temporary local governance of ROCOR wasn't needed in the way it was 80 years prior.
In the interest of Church unity, talks took place in the early 2000s and a number of documents were published by the Joint Sessions of the Commission of the Moscow Patriarchate on Discussions with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on Discussions with the Moscow Patriarchate.
One such document, "On the Joint Work of the Commissions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia", states the following (emphasis added):
The drafted "Act on Canonical Communion" determines the canonical status of the historically-formed assemblage of the dioceses, parishes, monasteries, brotherhoods and institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as an inalienable, self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church, based on grounds similar to those foreseen by the Statutes ["Ustav"] of the Russian Orthodox Church as they apply to Self-Governing Churches on the territory of the Moscow Patriarchate. Upon the enactment of this proposed Act, the fullness of canonical communion within a single Pomestny [Local] Russian Orthodox Church, headed by His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, shall be restored.
According to the draft, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is independent in pastoral, educational, administrative, management, property and civil matters. The supreme authority within the Russian Church Abroad is manifested in her Sobor [Council] of Bishops, convened by her President (the First Hierarch) on the basis of the "Regulations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia."
If Putin's ultimate goal was to regain complete control over ROCOR in order to spread Russian Imperialism around the world, he failed.
In fact, another document published by the Joint Sessions, "On the Relationship Between the Church and State", the following is proclaimed:
Taking into account the bitter experience of the Church in the 20th century [Under Bolshevism], and based on the witness of the New Martyrs, it is necessary to define what is permissible and what is impermissible in the relationship between the Church and state, especially a state which pursues the goal of the utter destruction of the Church and the faith of Christ. Orthodox Christians came to a clear understanding of the inadmissibility of the absolutization of government authority. It is unacceptable, in particular, to use the texts of Holy Scripture (for example, Romans 13:1-5) in a way which does not correspond with the interpretation and spirit of the Holy Fathers. Earthly and temporal powers of the state are recognized as imperative to the degree that they are used to support good and limit evil.
The Church is called upon to exert spiritual influence on the state and its citizens, to confess Christ, to defend the moral foundations of society. By interacting with the state for the good of the people, the Church, however, cannot assume civil functions for itself. The state must not interfere in the inner structure, administration or life of the Church. The Church must support all good initiatives of the state, but must resist evil, immorality and harmful social phenomena and always firmly confess the Truth, and when persecutions commence, to continue to openly witness the faith and be prepared to follow the path of confessors and martyrs for Christ.
These were the resulting documents put forth during the reunification of ROC and ROCOR. This unification was primarily a Church matter, and not recognizing that this was primarily a Church matter, but rather presenting it as a State matter for Putin to exert control over Western governments, is unconscionable.
In short, when the Bolsheviks rose to power and persecuted the Church, the hierarchs of the Church told those scattered abroad to self-govern until such a time when the Church was not being persecuted. When the Soviet Union fell, those churches abroad came back under the umbrella of the MP with authority to self-govern and with joint declarations regarding the Church's relationship to the State agreed upon by both those inside and outside of Moscow.
Nevertheless, we return to the article at hand with evidence of Putin's master plan:
Putin personally supervised a years-long courtship of White Church priests, at one point sending a gift to the head of the White Church—an enormous icon of the last Russian empress, Alexandra, who was executed together with Tsar Nicholas II and the rest of the imperial family in 1918 by Bolshevik revolutionaries. In sending the icon, Putin appeared to be signaling that it was time to rehabilitate the memory of the imperial order.
I attempted to find a news article about this gift, specifically for the timing of it, but as of this writing, I cannot. Regardless, the most telling portion here is the mind-reading that takes place in the last sentence. You see, for these respected journalists, Putin donating an icon of the Empress could only mean something political. To this point in the article, we have seen that the Church, according to their analysis, is an extension of the arm of government. In giving an icon of the Empress to a church in the US, Putin must be signaling that he is ready to "rehabilitate the memory of the imperial order"!
Here's an alternate explanation, if we're all okay with spit-balling our way through political discourse:
In 2000, the Royal Martyrs (including Empress Alexandra) were officially recognized as Saints by the Moscow Patriarchate. Many Russian Orthodox believers outside of Russia long believed them to be, and venerated them as Saints. In visiting the United States to bolster the reunification effort, likely only a few years after their canonization, Putin gifted an icon of the Empress, now a Saint recognized both by those inside and outside of Russia, to the church there.
Of course, such an explanation doesn't paint Putin as an Imperialist, so it's not considered. It does make sense of the history, though. Putin may be an imperialist, but that doesn't mean everything he does is an imperialistic dog whistle.
But the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad also began to serve Russian intelligence in other ways, creating a network of pro-Kremlin support across the West.
The authors here mention "other ways" that ROCOR serves as a pro-Kremlin network of support in the West. The word "other" implies that at least one such way has been mentioned. The only mention immediately prior to this is a memorial ceremony - the Immortal Regiment - which was held in New York in 2014. This shouldn't come as a surprise. By 2016, over 40 countries outside of Russia also held similar celebrations. This is an international holiday of sorts for Russians to remember their ancestors. According to Foreign Affairs, this is a "way" that ROCOR serves as a part of the Russian Intelligence network in the West.
But let us not waste any time. Tell us, good journalists, in what "other ways" the Orthodox Church serves the Kremlin!
In the spring of 2023, the FBI distributed a six-page notification within the Orthodox community in the United States titled “Russian Intelligence Services Victimize Russian Orthodox Church and other Eastern Orthodox Churches.” The warning, which bears the seal of the FBI, names and shows a photograph of a senior official in Russia’s Department for External Church Relations—the foreign service of the Russian Orthodox Church—and states that there are reasons to suspect that the man is a “Russian Intelligence Officer operating under non-official cover.” His objective in the United States, according to the warning, was to recruit the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches. The FBI’s national press office declined to comment on the notification and the information it contains
To recap, the "other ways" in which ROCOR act as Kremlin spies is by being targeted by a single confirmed Russian Intelligence operative attempting to "recruit" the clergy of Orthodox Churches:
According to publicly available information, the Russian national in question was trained in Moscow and worked for the Department for External Church Relations for more than two decades. This work frequently took him abroad, including to the United States. According to the FBI notification, in May 2021, when he arrived on a visit to the United States, the church official was briefly stopped and searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Although the official does not appear to have been detained or formally charged, a subsequent FBI review of materials found during the search revealed that he had been carrying what the FBI notification describes as “intelligence documents,” including documents concerning both Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and its military intelligence agency, the GRU.
It would be very nice if this "publicly available information" was linked to or attached in any way to this article. It is not. Trust the Experts.
The key to note here is that this Russian Intelligence official was a known entity. When they arrived in the US, their documents were reviewed by US authorities.
Among the documents was a memorandum marked “confidential” that outlined the establishment of a “system of cooperation” between the church and several Russian spy agencies, including the SVR, the GRU, and the FSB. In a list of “areas of interaction” between the church and the spy agencies, the memorandum calls for the “preparation of the staff” of both the church and the SVR and suggests that church staff be brought into the “operational activities” of the SVR, stipulating that this would happen “exclusively at the direct approval from the Patriarch.” It also states that the GRU is “ready to expand the cooperation” with the church, which could “very gradually” come to include “real field activity.” For the FSB, the church is deemed of interest on such counterintelligence matters as “opposition to sects, and development of parity actions toward foreign organizations.” (A full copy of the memorandum was appended to the FBI warning.)
The memorandum was attached to the FBI warning. We conveniently cannot examine either. Regardless, if we take this all as Gospel truth, then we are left with the stunning realization that one Russian intelligence officer was on a mission in the US to create connections between the Orthodox Church and Russian Intelligence. That's a far cry from ROCOR contributing to "a network of pro-Kremlin support across the West."
According to the FBI notification, the Russian national was also carrying “files regarding the source/agent recruitment process” as well as dossiers on church employees, including detailed biographical information about them and members of their families—information that the warning suggests could be used to blackmail employees of the church into participating in spy operations. These files were not included in the warning, and the claims could not be independently verified.
This seems to weaken the case, not strengthen it. It appears that the entire plan of this Russian Intelligence official, including their targets, was known as they entered the country.
Attempts to reach the Russian national were unsuccessful. The Russian embassy in Washington and the Department for External Church Relations in Moscow did not reply to requests for comment about the FBI’s findings and the activities of the official in the United States. But in an email, a spokesman for the department wrote that the person was “no longer an employee of the Department for External Church Relations” and that he had been “fired” in June 2023.
The FBI warning is not available for review. The Russian Intelligence agent was not available for comment. The Russian Embassy did not provide a comment. The Department for External Church Relations did not comment except to say the agent was fired.
There remains a glaring lack of credibility throughout this entire piece. When you cite not one single source, admit no one returned your calls, and can only provide a quote regarding the main topic of your examination from an anonymous source, it looks sketchy.
Of special significance may be the date of the memorandum outlining the new relationship between the church and Russian intelligence. Russian sources who are close to the patriarchate in Moscow and who have seen the document date it to the spring or summer of 2009, shortly after Patriarch Kirill took office in February. This would match the FBI’s metadata analysis, which dates its creation to late March 2009. The Russian sources also suggest that the document was likely drafted by the church administration at the direct request of Patriarch Kirill.
Patriarch Kirill has ties to the Russian government; this is not new. The ROC and the MP are much closer political actors to the Kremlin than ROCOR. Watch for the conflation of the two (which is completely unwarranted, given the citations above from the Joint Sessions).
If that is correct, it would provide further evidence that Kirill almost immediately set out to establish a new level of cooperation between the church and Russia’s security services, a relationship that appears to have grown in the decade leading up to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The Moscow Patriarchate wants more influence over ROCOR, which two years prior restored Canonical communion with the ROC. This was apparently 4D Chess to ensure that Orthodox Christians outside of Russia would support Putin's invasion of Ukraine 13 years later. I find this unconvincing. Your mileage may vary.
[Patriarch Kirill] also attacked the West, claiming that unidentified forces were trying to turn the Ukrainians from being “part of the holy united Rus into a state hostile to this Rus, hostile to Russia.”
I've attempted to find this quote in full context, but a search on the web has essentially left me with this same small bit quoted on numerous sources. I'm not sure if the context is political with regards to the war, or if it's ecclesiological, regarding the canonical crisis in Ukraine. Either way, I'm not sure how Patriarch Kirill's words about Ukrainians is a "attack" on the West.
Meanwhile, Russia’s most professional military units, including the special forces, have embraced religious symbols in an appeal for divine protection. And Russian battalions are being named after Russian saints such as Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century Russian prince who was canonized for his military victories over Swedish and German crusaders.
After all of this build up, the conclusion to the story is four pieces of evidence that somehow suggest ROCOR is being used by the Kremlin as an intelligence gathering apparatus are as follows:
Russians in America, along with dozens of other countries, celebrated the Immortal Regiment.
One former Russian Intelligence officer, who upon entry into the United States, had all of their documents (including plans, personal information, and targets) reviewed by US authorities, was victimizing or intended to victimize Orthodox Christians in America.
Patriarch Kirill, a Russian who resides in Russia, is pro-Russia.
Russian soldiers wear crosses.
Church Hierarchs (Purportedly) Puppet Putin
Even more striking, however, may be the church’s effort to stir support for the war outside Russia, including in the West. Despite the reality that Russia is at war with another Orthodox country, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has largely remained loyal to Moscow.
Here the two major conflations of this article come together. The first assumes that the ROC and ROCOR are essentially the same in their motivations, political and religious, thus making them lock-step in their goals. The second assumes that ROCOR's support of the MP and the ROC is de facto political support rather than canonical support.
Since even before the war in Ukraine started, Russian Orthodox Christians the world over have been decrying the situation with the Church in Ukraine. Recall our three arguments from above. To this point, we've largely only seen the case made for (C), and have found it wanting. The authors now weave (A) and (B) back into the picture as a way to bolster the overall case. As a reminder, here are those arguments:
A) "An Orthodox leader" in North America called on Christians to support Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
B) A European Bishop condemns atrocities committed by Ukrainian authorities rather than Russia.
Recall above I highlighted the author's apparent lack of knowledge of anything happening in Ukraine outside the war or at least outside the political realm. In reality, the conflict between the EP and MP over their parallel jurisdictions in Ukraine (OCU and UOC, respectively) has been drawing criticism from Orthodox Christians on either side of the dispute for years, much longer than Russia has been in Donbas.
We now discover the identities of the North American Orthodox Leader and the European Bishop. The article continues:
In an interview in August 2022 with a website close to the Moscow patriarchate, for example, Archbishop Gabriel of Montreal and Canada justified the invasion in language that closely follows official Russian propaganda. “Russia was forced to take steps to protect itself from the neo-Nazis who were shelling civilians in Donbas for eight years, and continue to this day,” he said.
Saying this phrase “closely follows official Russian propoganda” is a great use of guilt by association. Nearly every statement by an Orthodox Christian quoted in this article is couched in language meant to instill in the reader the sense that the opinion is coming down from Putin on high to all of his good little Orthodox minions around the world. This quote, like others, was taken out of context. The answer comes from an interview Archbishop Gabriel was questioned about his country (Canada) placing sanctions on the MP. The Archbishop mentions a number of difficulties being Russian Orthodox in the West, but states that there was been relatively little inner turmoil over the war in Ukraine. There was some dispute over whether or not ROCOR parishes should stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill during the divine liturgy. Regarding this, Archbishop Gabriel said:
Such requests came up in several dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, but I have to say they can be counted on one hand. Our Synod responded that no, we must continue to commemorate, and we shouldn’t politicize the issue of our church unity and subordination. The most important thing for us is to pray, strive to keep the peace in a parish, and instruct those who probably expressed their concerns as to why we have to mention the name of the head of the Church during the services of which we are part.
When asked how the Ukrainians in his parishes feel about this decision, Archbishop Gabriel said the following, from where the quote is taken (emphasis added):
Despite the fact that we do have many natives of Ukraine, not a single one of our thirty or so parishes had issued such a request. Unfortunately, there were situations where people left our parishes and went to the Ukrainian church. But in most cases the priests, thank God, were able to reassure the flock and explain that we must maintain prayer and church unity, that the Patriarch did not say anything terrible, as some might think. He defends the interests of both Russia and the Church.
It must be emphasized that at every service we pray for the cessation of the hostilities, so that peace between the brotherly peoples is restored. The Church should concentrate on the fulfillment of the Gospel commandments. But there were times—and so many times throughout the history of Russia—when the Church supported military action anytime the issue was defending the Motherland. Russia was forced to take steps to protect itself from the neo-Nazis who were shelling civilians in Donbass for eight years, and continue to this day.
Is the Archbishop repeating "Russian disinformation" here, as others have stated? I don't think so. I think he is highlighting a crisis that's been happening in Ukraine for over a decade now. One that started primarily around jurisdictional fighting between Patriarchs, and has escalated into, yes, literal neo-Nazis burning down churches and shelling civilians. The issue with the canonical crisis in Ukraine is that it takes place alongside, and often dovetails with violence that has plagued the area for a decade. The emphasis the Archbishop has here is that our ultimate goal should be the cessation of violence, but that unfortunately isn't always possible. Prior to Putin sending troops across the border, Ukraine was no stranger to violence, and given that Ukraine's Church has been in communion with the MP, it shouldn't surprise us that Russian Orthodox hierarchs are condemning violence being perpetrated on their people.
Now that we know who the North American Orthodox Leader is, we are introduced to the European Bishop who has a case of wrongthink:
In London in March 2023, Bishop Irenei, the head of the Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe and the most influential bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, went further, issuing an “Open Letter on the Persecution of Christians in Ukraine” in which he cited “the tragedy of the most extraordinary and heartless persecution of Christians taking place in many parts of the country.” The letter puts the blame for this persecution on Ukrainian authorities, not the Russian army
Bishop Irenei did in fact publish a letter (not cited by Foreign Affairs) in which says this (emphasis added):
Conscience does not permit me to remain silent over the grave and new injustices being wrought in the sacred land of Ukraine, adding sorrow upon sorrows as the grief of war is now conjoined with the tragedy of the most extraordinary and heartless persecution of Christians taking place in many parts of the country. While such persecution has been a reality already for many years, it has reached a pitch in recent days with new injustices being enacted in flagrant violation of Ukrainian law and international conventions on human rights.
The quote for the article is cut off precisely where all of the context is provided. Instead, we are given it chopped up, with a different context the authors feed us. In reality, Bishop Irenei is lamenting the violence in Ukraine, both from the war, and from pre-existing sources that have "been a reality already for many years". This is the same frame and state of mind that Archbishop Gabriel has in his letter above. Both hierarchs similarly have their statements twisted by this piece.
The letter puts the blame for this persecution on Ukrainian authorities, not the Russian army
This is because the persecution mentioned is explicitly the result of the Ukrainian government, who have sided with neo-Nazis for years and have been attacking the canonical Orthodox Church both before and after Russia’s 2022 invasion (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). That's not disinformation. That's not Russian propaganda. That is what was happening in Ukraine prior to the war breaking out, and what continues to happen during it. This is not to excuse Russia, who have done their fair share of abusing the Church during the international conflicts of the past decade or so; both the Russian and Ukrainian government have targeted the Orthodox Church. The point, though, that these hierarchs have made is that the Ukrainian people can both be persecuted by their own government (by confiscating church property from the UOC and giving it to the OCU, in arresting priests and monks for serving under their existing hierarchs, for closing monasteries down to the public, etc.) as well as the Russian government (through acts of war, bombing, church occupation, etc.).
Like Archbishop Gabriel, Bishop Irenei is compelled to speak regarding the violence that the Ukrainian people have suffered long before any missile from Russia crossed into Donbas. Forgetting this context prevents one from being able to understand the true historical importance of what's happening in Ukraine. In a direct response to this article, Bishop Irenei states:
Since we note with sorrow that some in the media persist in misrepresenting our views, with no attempt to speak directly with us at any stage, we restate here what we have openly said since the war in Ukraine began: We stand wholly against the war and we call for it to end. I do not know how one can be clearer than this. The war is an evil. It cannot be justified. God will bless the peacemakers, as the Lord Himself says.
In the Church we are not politicians. We in the Church Abroad are not linked with any state or government, nor any political ideology, as some in the media are nevertheless swift to assume. Indeed, there is something of a ‘witch hunt’ on in certain circles at this moment, in which anyone may be claimed to be politically aligned this way or that, assigned as such simply by accusation — generally in a manner that serves the political interests of the one doing the ‘reporting’ rather than having any bearing on reality. But this leads to falsehoods, and too often these bring real harm to those striving to live peacefully and to do their part to bring peace to terrible situations, who are wrongly accused of supporting wars they do not support, or encouraging regimes with which they in fact have no connection.
A tree should be judged by its fruits. Since the war began, I and my brother bishops in Europe have stood against it whole-heartedly and vocally.
Let me repeat once more, for the sake of clarity: our Church Abroad is not united to any State, is not aligned with any government, and does not bow to or toe the line of any political agenda. Claims otherwise may arise out of ignorance or wilful misrepresentation, but in any case they are false.
This should, and does, mean that we are free to bear the responsibility that we have without constraint: to speak out against evil whenever it rears its head, and by whomever’s hands, and to care for those who are suffering, by whomever’s hands.
The entire statement is truly worth a read. If read without the lens that the Bishop is a Russian stooge, it's exactly what I would expect from a Bishop in service of the Church in a difficult time.
Significantly, these two prominent Orthodox officials were born and raised in the West. They are not commissars sent from Moscow, and their adoption of the Kremlin’s framing of the war does not appear to be enforced by the Russian government. Rather, it largely reflects the orientation of Russian Orthodox communities overseas: although many Ukrainians have defected from the Moscow patriarchate since the invasion, many churches and parishioners in other countries have chosen to stay within the Russian Orthodox Church.
After reading their own words in context, this paragraph actually appears unhinged. "Look! These men aren't even Russian! They're good Westerners, like us! And even they can be deceived into adopting the Kremlin's framing of the war!" This is nonsense, and it could only possibly make sense if these hierarchs, and others like them, are speaking only of the suffering of the Ukrainian people with regards to Russia's invasion in 2022 rather than an ongoing struggle for Orthodox Christians in Ukraine that have existed prior to the current conflict. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this conflation is apparent: support for the MP in the canonical crisis is the same to these journalists as supporting Putin's invasion of Ukraine. These are two completely different issues that have similar overlapping international players, which allows for the muddying of waters. Rather than seeking to clarify these statements, our friends at Foreign Affairs have sought to exploit these muddy waters to push a narrative of Russian Orthodox clergymen around the world cahooting with Russian Intelligence.
Soldatov Goes On CNN
If all of this wasn't bad enough. CNN, America's bulwark of truth and sensibility, invited Andrei Soldatov on to talk about this dreaded Kremlin spy network. When setting up the context, Erin Burnett of Outfront states the following regarding Soldatov's article:
the reporting is that the Kremlin is trying to use churches here in the United States to recruit spies intelligence sources. Look at this FBI document warning Russian Orthodox churches that they could be targets for recruitment by Russian intelligence services and "coerced to participate in intelligence operations via blackmail".
The blackmail mentioned in the FBI warning (according to the journalist) is that some people may have been targeted by the Intelligence officer. However, Customs searched the agent and found all of his information as well as targets. This fact was included in the previous article, presumably from the FBI warning (again, I don't have a copy, one wasn't provided, so I can't validate it).
When Soldatov speaks on the contents of his report, he says the following:
I think the most important part of his story is not only that the Russian security and intelligence agencies found a way how to use a church, but that the church is apparently quite happy to be used and not only by providing say ideological ammunition for the war and for the Russian spies.
The CNN effect is in full swing here, though. The warning from the FBI stated that ROCOR was likely the target of a Russian Intelligence operative. This was used as a springboard for the Foreign Affairs article which then implied that there wouldn't be a lot of resistance to Russian Espionage from ROCOR because their hierarchs are all in favor of Russia's invasion. When presented on cable news, though, this has transformed into the Kremlin using the Orthodox Church in America to recruit literal spies.
Now having (apparently) established that there exists a wide recruiting network of spies from which Russia can take their pick, Burnett asks just how vast this network is. Soldatov's response:
it is a big Network because the Russian Orthodox Church is very well present here in the United States and actually it's getting bigger. More and more people think that the appeal of the Russian Orthodox Church they always talk about family values and Traditional Values is is a way for Native Americans, for American Protestants, to convert and to start coming to the Church
Let me repeat that. Slowly.
The network of available recruits for Russian Intelligence in America is big because of the size of the Orthodox Church in America. Being a part of the Orthodox Church means you are contributing to the availability of Russian spies internationally. That’s a far cry from what the FBI warning apparently implied initially, namely that Orthodox Christians were potential targets for Russian espionage. This is what we are to believe coming from the journalist who could not even get basic facts about the Orthdoox Church in the US right. As pointed out by OrthoChristian.com:
The authors are seriously mistaken about the size of the Russian Orthodox Church in America. The authors claim that “in the United States, the Russian Orthodox Church has 2,380 parishes, along with 41 male and 38 female monasteries.”
In fact, the number is far less. The Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR have a combined 333 parishes, missions, and monasteries—more than seven times less than is claimed by Soldatov and Borogan.
TL;DR: There's a document released by the FBI that no one has shared publicly that states a single former Russian Intelligence officer, whose plans we had, whose documents we reviewed, whose targets we knew about, was operating to potentially influence people within the Orthodox Church in America. This, combined with the fact that Russian Orthodox hierarchs don't like violence being perpetrated on the Ukrainian people, and want the war to end, is supposed to lead us to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church is a breeding ground for potential Russian spies.
This may seem like a stretch, but understand how this look to an individual who doesn't have any knowledge of what has happened in Ukraine other than what CNN has portrayed. It becomes very easy to think that Russia's influence spreads that far and that Orthodox Christians are potentially suspect.
On September 21st, one week after the Foreign Affairs article and five days after the CNN interview, Jon Jackson published "Russia's Trying to Recruit Spies From U.S. Churches: Report" in Newsweek.
The title alone should show the media progression: one article asserts a thing (Foreign Affairs), then that story gets blasted on cable news (CNN interview), and then additional articles pop up making more outlandish claims (Newsweek). The average media consumer can be confident that there's really something alarming happening with Russian Intelligence in the Church because there wouldn't be this much being said about something that's based completely on half-truth and conflated stories, right?
This article starts off repeating the major claim from the Foreign Affairs piece:
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote that they reviewed FBI documents that "identify and highlight the activities of a senior member of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department whom the FBI suspects of having ties to Russian intelligence.
"The FBI's warning suggests that the church may be even more closely linked to the Putin regime than many observers assume, with potentially significant implications for the Kremlin's overseas influence," they wrote.
It’s quite telling that the primary statement from the Foreign Affairs piece quoted here is the one statement that’s completely unfalsifiable, contains no direct details of the subjects which it references, and assumes it’s own conclusion. It'd be very interesting if we could discover who these vaguely-defined "many observers" are, or how they're "more closely linked to the Putin regime" as opposed to their currently assumed closeness to the Putin regime, etc.
Newsweek could not verify the contents of the FBI documents, and the agency did not directly address the warning when contacted for comment.
Well, neither can I. And that's sad, given that these are unclassified documents supposedly distributed to civilians and journalists, which serve as the entire basis for the wild accusations of these articles, yet not one media organization can actually track them down and publish them.
Here is more media progression. When the reports are put on social media, the wildest claims can be put forth to frame them.
Mostly Peaceful Aftermath
Normally, this series of events is something we can simply ignore as propaganda or fearmongering. However, around certain issues the media deems the most important, Americans have a unique ability to get completely caught up in rhetorical battles and social-media fueled flame wars. This was true of just about anything to do with COVID from 2020 to present, and has certainly also been the case with Russia since early 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine.
The biggest problem with these articles, though, is that they paint Orthodox Christians in America as potential Kremlin spies rather than the only thing this FBI warning actually calls us: potential victims of Russian Intelligence. By conflating hierarchs words in support of the MP in the canonical crisis in Ukraine with their supposed support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Orthodox Church is painted as complicit in the fallout from the war rather than the only thing our officials have stated since the beginning: the war is to be condemned totally.
The vast majority of America couldn't point to Ukraine on a map in January 2022, and many still couldn't point you to Donbas over Crimea on that same map. The only conflict in Ukraine for the average American is one wherein Putin invaded and started an "unprovoked war". As such, when in the span of a week a news consumer sees multiple articles, an interview with the author on CNN, and tweets parroting all of the above, it can lead many to a negative opinion of Russian Orthodox Christians in America. For those consumer who may also be emotionally or mentally unstable, it creates a justification for violence, as was the case with the news at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary last week:
Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, New York, the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, had to be evacuated on Thursday afternoon, September 28 due to a bomb threat.
The threat was called in due to the perpetrators’ belief that Jordanville supports the war in Ukraine. This was reported to OrthoChristian by multiple sources.
While OrthoChristian is unaware of any statements about the war coming from Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in particular, the monastery site does have a page entitled, “Concerning the War in Ukraine,” which hosts links to the Archpastoral Epistle of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, the recently deceased First Hierarch of ROCOR, from February 24, 2022, the day the war started, in which he called all to fervently pray for peace, and the address of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine also from the first day of the war, in which he condemned and called for an end to what he called the “fratricidal war.”
The threat comes two weeks after the publication of the article, “Putin’s Useful Priests: The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin’s Hidden Influence Campaign in the West,” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, in Foreign Affairs, the official magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While I must admit there's no way, as of yet, to confirm that the recent hit pieces against ROCOR are directly responsible for inspiring this threat, the timing is hard to ignore. Until an investigation occurs we can only speculate, as it's always best to make sure you're not creating entirely false narratives about a particular topic based on your own assumptions and information.
All of this being said, we as Orthodox Christians must remain vigilant and remember the words of Jesus who says "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).
Jesus also tells us "love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45).
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