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Conference on Religious Diplomacy: How the Moscow Patriarchate penetrated Africa

By Efi Efthimiou

Religion will be the political language of the future. It will influence political and geopolitical developments in various ways, although this is not part of its mission. These statements were made by His Beatitude Pope and Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria in his message to the 4th Conference on Religious Diplomacy.

As he pointed out, religion influences the respective governments of countries because it is an institution that is closer to the people than the government elected by the electorate.

In Africa, religion has greatly influenced life. The Patriarchate of Alexandria today embraces the African continent and contributes to and helps African governments to develop on the global stage.

“The Patriarchate must help governments, including the Greek government, to understand the importance of Africa on the world stage, which, as I often say, is the continent of the future. The Patriarchate of Alexandria influences governments through philanthropic work and other actions that support and combat racial discrimination and human rights abuses. Of course, the Patriarchate cannot become an instrument of the political scene,” concluded Patriarch Theodore.

Metropolitan of Guinea: Our main problem is the non-canonical presence of the Russian Church

His Eminence Metropolitan George of Guinea, emphasised that for peace to reign in the world, it must first reign in our hearts. “The contribution of our Patriarchate, its history, is well known. Although Hellenism may have diminished in Egypt, the Orthodox presence remains in 48 African countries. The Patriarchate, through its mission of teaching the Gospel of Christ, is in constant dialogue with local governments, other Christian groups, and other religions in Africa, to help our fellow human beings, alongside those who wish to be baptized Orthodox.”

As he revealed, “Our programs provide health and education services even in Muslim countries; children of all religions are welcome in our schools. There is a great demand, especially from Muslims who want to attend our schools. This work is done under difficult conditions; we have to work with many countries with different laws and cultures, many languages, and many tribes. We have good relations with all the Christian denominations and we participate in all the dialogues that exist. In 2024, you cannot live together without knowing each other; these efforts make it possible. This year, for the first time, we will have a dialogue with Lutherans in Cairo,” he said.

He also noted that “in Egypt, we have good relations with Muslims and with the state. Churches do not pay for electricity in Egypt; it is provided by the state. President Sisi, who loves Greece and Christians, offered a large area in New Cairo for the construction of a Greek Orthodox cultural centre and church. For the first time in many years, a church will be built. The biggest problem we face today is not economic, although we have so many programs to run. Greece supports all missionary work in the world.

Metropolitan George emphasises that the main problem is “the illegal presence of the Russian Church, which is trying to sabotage our work. But we are here and we continue our struggle and our work. The Russian Church is an instrument of its country’s policy. It is a pillar of Russian soft power. We see that since Russia can no longer export culture or sports, it is trying to export religion. And it has found the weak link, us, who are in a foreign country, to wage war. We hope to overcome this and see the serious problems that our society needs to solve,” he concluded.

Vasiliki Stathokostas (Professor at the University of Athens): We are on the verge of unpleasant developments

Vasiliki Stathokostas, Professor of Theology at the University of Athens, said that united Christian churches could be stronger against persecution and their claims against Muslim regimes in the region. The dialogue between the Orthodox and the ancient Eastern Churches, as well as the Catholic participation in the committees and programs of the World Council of Churches, has developed and yielded rich fruits until today.

“In this fragile landscape of the Middle East and beyond, where the three Patriarchates reside, and under the prism of the Islamic movement, dialogue for unity is a necessary condition for peace. The unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is a sacred duty for the Orthodox Church. The same concern is expressed by other churches and confessions in the context of the activities of the WCC. Fragmentation is seen as the main characteristic of Protestantism. In contrast, the unity of the Orthodox is the hallmark of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, our own Orthodox Church. Is there still unity in faith, life, and society within the Orthodox Church? We are faced with unpleasant developments. In recent years, the Russian Church, together with the Russian state, has made numerous open interventions that affect the historical position of the ancient Patriarchate of Alexandria. Above all, it is undermining peace and ecclesiastical order in Africa. The Patriarchate has served for centuries, building bridges of communication with African cultures and traditions, with respect. This work is disrupted by Russian expansionism, which cultivates fanaticism and hostility among the Orthodox faithful.

Ioannis Kotoulas, Professor of History and Geopolitics at the University of Athens, spoke on the role of the Russian Church. As he pointed out, Russia is a state committed to a peak of traditional imperialism. It is worth remembering that Russia is the only country that holds the territory of three states: Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Russia’s approach to Africa is a war waged on a global scale, with a rhetorical framework reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The Russian Church had already been used by the Soviet Union, but after 1991 it became a key supporter of Russia’s nationalist policies and expansionism, as we saw in Ukraine, where it blessed the attack and imposition.

“In Africa, the propagandistic image is that Russia is promoting traditional values and targeting more traditional African countries. According to the data of the Patriarchate of Russia’s African Exarchate, which we are not sure is reliable, they have 200 parishes in 29 countries and 218 priests. I don’t know how accurate this data is. And they say it was a request from the African clergy, not from the Kremlin,” says the university professor.

As he explains, the Russians’ strategic goals are to weaken the power of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, to gain access to natural resources, and to improve Russia’s image. These are clever propaganda tricks by Russia. They have the same rhetoric as the former Soviet system.

He also highlights the mistakes of the West that allowed Russia to rise. “The West has adopted an anti-religious, anti-Christian attitude that we see in all Western societies. For example, when Christians are persecuted in Nigeria, it is never reported that they are Islamists; there is a biased portrayal. Russia is taking advantage of this anti-Christian agenda.