Putin Awarded Icon for Russian Orthodox Union

Time calls new united Orthodox church Putin’s “main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”

Eyes on ROCOR property in Palestinian territory

Interfax reports the latest from the Putin-Alexy double-act:

Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church [ROC], gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a present on Thursday, crediting him with serious contribution to the unification of the Moscow-based Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)… Alexy and Laurus signed the agreement at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

The present was an icon of the “Life-giving Trinity”.

The ROC (also known as the “Moscow Patriarchate”) and the ROCOR had been in schism since the Russian Revolution. Time has more about the reunification:

Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime’s major ideological resource. Thursday’s rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state’s main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument…The Church’s assertiveness and presence is growing — with little separation from the State.

Last November, as unification talks were underway in San Francisco, a British ROCOR priest named Andrew Phillips claimed that the CIA had bugged the discussions – although his only evidence was a “mysterious black SUV” parked nearby.

The unification deal will have repercussions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank:

One of the first tests of the new union will be in the Holy Land, where the ROCOR maintains religious properties — and has had run-ins with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate in the past. In 1997, for example, Yasser Arafat forcibly turned over the only Christian church in Hebron, run by the ROCOR, to the ROC.

The New York Times reported on this at the time:

According to witnesses, officers of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service arrived at the church on Saturday morning and ordered the monks and nuns to leave. When they refused, they were evicted by force.

What apparently persuaded Arafat to accede to the request of the Moscow patriarch was an incident during Alexy’s visit last month, when he and a large group of Palestinian, Russian and Greek Orthodox dignitaries were barred by emigre nuns from visiting the Hebron church.

The emigres had earlier refused to receive the patriarch at a Russian Orthodox convent on the Mount of Olives. Then, evidently expecting that the Moscow delegation would try to visit Hebron, they hid the key to the church there.

(The convent is the Church of St Mary Magdalene, a distinctive structure. Prince Philip’s mother is buried there.)

The Patriarch arrived in Hebron from a formal lunch with Arafat, and his Palestinian hosts, chagrined to find the door locked, pried it open. According to Palestinian officials, Arafat was furious.

Evidently adding to Palestinian pique was the fact that the emigre church had refused a request by Mayor Mustafa Natshe of Hebron to lease some church-owned lands.

Arafat’s autocratic and forceful intervention in an internal church dispute was bound to raise objections and apprehensions. But in his decision to recognize Moscow’s claim, he was following a precedent set by Israel.

However, the Times account was challenged in a letter from Sister Anastasia Stephanopoulos (brother of George, and a Jerusalem-based nun). This was followed by the seizure of a ROCOR mission building in Jericho in 2000.

According to a report on Asia News, the unification of ROC and ROCOR does not mean the end of ROCOR:

…the Church in exile [ROCOR] however will maintain a certain autonomy: it will continue to appoint its own priests, it will maintain control of its properties and daily affairs and it will have the right to send representatives to the annual bishops conference in Moscow.

Time tells us that this should mean that other ROCOR properties in the Holy Land should not change administration. However, it also adds that “some observers remain sceptical” – and with Hamas enjoying close links with Moscow, we can guess which way any dispute is likely to go.

Of course, the Palestinian Authority is not the only body known to have interfered with Orthodox Christian affairs in the Holy Land – I’ve blogged several times on a murky land deal by which Israeli settlers gained a lease to Greek Orthodox property in East Jerusalem, leading to a major scandal and the deposition of the Greek patriarch Irenios. Irenios blamed his treasurer, Nicholas Papadimas, who – so far as I am aware – remains missing after two years…