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The Russian Orthodox Crusade in Africa



The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been making significant strides in expanding its influence in Africa, utilizing its soft power to strengthen ties with African nations. This strategic move aligns with Russia's broader geopolitical interests and its quest for global influence. While the ROC's engagement in Africa is rooted in religious and spiritual motives, it is also closely intertwined with Russia's political agenda. This article delves into the ROC's soft power initiatives in Africa, exploring the historical context, the motivations behind its expansion, and the impact on both religious and political spheres.


The Moscow Patriarchate's decision in December 2021 to establish a Russian exarchate for the entire African continent raised concerns about potential violations of the ancient rights of the Alexandrian Patriarchate. The Council of Nicaea in 325 confirmed the territorial sovereignty of the Alexandrian Church, granting authority to the bishop of Alexandria over Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis. This territorial sovereignty was akin to the authority of the bishop of Rome. The Russian synodal decision effectively challenged these ancient norms, risking a rift within the Orthodox world.


Following China's successful engagement in Africa, Russia saw an opportunity to secure its own share in what it perceives as a "second Scramble for Africa." As Western democracies' influence wanes, Eastern authoritarian regimes, including Russia, aim to fill the void left on the continent.

To establish a foothold in Africa, Russia must offer more than mere investments and infrastructure projects, which China excels at. Therefore, Russia leverages its soft power, capitalizing on the close relationship between the ROC and the state. President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated a unique skill in protecting authoritarian regimes, showcasing his ability to shield dictators from internal dissent and Western pressure. Many African leaders, sharing similar governance styles, have shown interest in Putin's expertise, leading to closer ties with Russia.


The ROC's Soft Power Strategy in Africa

The Russian Orthodox Church's soft power strategy in Africa seeks to cement its presence and expand its influence on the continent. Initially, the ROC had a limited presence in Africa, primarily offering pastoral care to Russian expatriates. However, the recent developments indicate a desire to replace the Alexandrian Patriarchate in caring for native African Orthodox communities. The ROC justifies its expansion based on ancient canonical norms, but the violations of these norms suggest a higher political agenda.


The ROC's soft power in Africa extends beyond religious activities. It aligns with Russia's broader geopolitical objectives and leverages its historical and cultural ties. By positioning itself as a guardian of traditional Christian values, the ROC aims to counter what it perceives as a moral crisis in the West. The Russian Orthodox Church presents itself as a defender of Christian moral principles, both domestically and abroad, emphasizing the importance of spirituality, cultural identity, and national self-definition.


Legislation and Restrictions: The Yarovaya Law and Its Impact

To consolidate its power and influence, the Russian government has enacted legislation that favors the Russian Orthodox Church. The Yarovaya Law, passed in 2016, significantly restricts religious activities, particularly targeting non-traditional religious groups. The law limits proselytizing and restricts religious assembly to officially recognized religious buildings, effectively prohibiting gatherings in private residences or other non-sanctioned locations.


While some argue that self-regulation plays a role in the decline of religious activity, the Yarovaya Law has undoubtedly had tangible consequences. Hundreds of cases have been reported, showcasing the broad interpretation of the law and the arbitrary nature of its enforcement. Non-traditional religious groups, such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced significant challenges and restrictions, with some even being banned in Russia. These actions reflect the state's efforts to suppress religious practices that deviate from traditional norms.


The Impact on African Orthodox Communities

The ROC's expansion in Africa directly affects native African Orthodox communities. The establishment of a Russian exarchate for the entire continent raises questions about the autonomy and authority of the Alexandria Patriarchate. The ROC's claim to care for African Orthodox communities undermines the historical role of the Alexandrian Church, potentially leading to divisions within the Orthodox world.


Furthermore, the ROC's growing influence may reshape the religious landscape in Africa. While the ROC's soft power initiatives may initially benefit African Orthodox communities by providing resources and support, there is a risk of diminishing the autonomy and diversity of these communities. The ROC's alignment with authoritarian regimes and its political agenda could overshadow the spiritual and religious needs of local Orthodox believers.


The Implications for Russia's Geopolitical Objectives

The Russian Orthodox Church's soft power initiatives in Africa align with Russia's broader geopolitical objectives. By expanding its influence on the continent, Russia aims to secure strategic partnerships, access valuable resources, and counter the waning influence of Western democracies. The ROC's close relationship with the state provides Russia with a moral framework and a sense of cultural identity, reinforcing its position as an Orthodox power.


Russia's engagement in Africa through the ROC also serves as a counter to China's growing influence. As China's recolonization efforts gain momentum, Russia seeks to establish its presence and assert its own interests on the continent. The ROC's soft power initiatives offer a complementary approach to Russia's economic and political engagement, contributing to the broader narrative of Russia's global resurgence.


The ROC's Soft Power Expansion in Africa

The Russian Orthodox Church's soft power expansion in Africa reflects Russia's geopolitical interests and its quest for global influence. While the ROC's engagement is rooted in religious and spiritual motives, it is closely intertwined with Russia's political agenda. The establishment of a Russian exarchate in Africa challenges the ancient rights of the Alexandrian Patriarchate and potentially divides the Orthodox world.


The ROC's soft power strategy leverages its historical and cultural ties, presenting itself as a defender of traditional Christian values. However, the growing influence of the ROC in Africa raises concerns about the autonomy and diversity of local Orthodox communities. The restrictions imposed by the Yarovaya Law further limit religious freedom and impact non-traditional religious groups.

Russia's engagement in Africa through the ROC aligns with its broader geopolitical objectives, aiming to counter Western influence and secure strategic partnerships. By expanding its soft power, Russia seeks to establish a foothold on the continent and assert its position as a global player. The implications of the ROC's soft power expansion in Africa will undoubtedly shape the religious and political landscape in the years to come.


Successor to the Traditions of the European Extreme Right

The Russian Orthodox Church's soft power expansion in Africa is a complex phenomenon, driven by both religious and political motives. While the ROC presents itself as a defender of traditional Christian values, its actions also align with Russia's broader geopolitical objectives. The establishment of a Russian exarchate in Africa raises questions about the authority and autonomy of local Orthodox communities and challenges the historical role of the Alexandrian Patriarchate. The restrictions imposed by the Yarovaya Law further limit religious freedom and impact non-traditional religious groups. As Russia expands its soft power in Africa, the implications for the religious and political landscape on the continent remain significant.


The Influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on European Far-Right Ideology


To understand the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the European far-right and the parallels with neo-colonialism, it is essential to examine its role in Russian politics. The church, under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has become an influential force in shaping Russian identity and promoting a vision of Russia as a unique and superior civilization. This ideology, known as Russian civilizational exceptionalism, forms the basis for the church's support of the Kremlin's policies and its close alignment with President Vladimir Putin.


Weaponizing Traditional Values


One of the key ways in which the Russian Orthodox Church has exerted its influence is through the promotion of "traditional values." The church has positioned itself as a defender of these values, which it claims are under threat from the liberal and decadent West. This rhetoric resonates with the far-right in Europe, which also seeks to preserve traditional cultural and religious norms. The church's emphasis on traditional values has provided a common ground for collaboration and ideological exchange between the Russian Orthodox Church and European far-right movements.

The Role of Religion in European Far-Right Movements

Religion plays a significant role in the ideology of many European far-right movements. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of nationalism and identity politics, with far-right parties and groups capitalizing on fears of immigration, globalization, and cultural change. The Russian Orthodox Church's emphasis on traditional values and its opposition to liberal secularism aligns with the ideologies of these far-right movements, making it a natural ally for those seeking to protect what they perceive as European cultural and religious heritage.

The Russian Orthodox Church and European Far-Right Connections

Evidence of connections between the Russian Orthodox Church and European far-right movements is well-documented. The church has been involved in organizing meetings and conferences with far-right leaders, sharing ideological resources, and providing financial and strategic support. These connections have allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to export its ideology and influence far beyond Russia's borders, shaping the discourse and actions of the European far-right.

The Role of Traditionalism and Conservatism

Central to the ideology of both the Russian Orthodox Church and the European far-right is the concept of traditionalism and conservatism. Both movements argue for a return to traditional values, a rejection of liberal secularism, and the preservation of national and cultural identity. This shared emphasis on traditionalism provides a fertile ground for collaboration and ideological exchange between the Russian Orthodox Church and European far-right movements.

The Use of Soft Power

In addition to ideological influence, the Russian Orthodox Church has also exerted its influence through the use of soft power. The church has positioned itself as a counterbalance to what it perceives as the moral decay of the West, presenting Russia as a defender of traditional values and cultural heritage. This narrative has resonated with the European far-right, which sees in Russia an ally against the perceived threats of globalization and multiculturalism.

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The Future of the Russian Orthodox Church and the European Far-Right


The Russian Orthodox Church's influence on the European far-right cannot be underestimated. Through the promotion of traditional values and the shaping of identity narratives, the church has provided a framework for collaboration and ideological exchange between the Russian Orthodox Church and European far-right movements. As the influence of the far-right continues to grow, it is essential to critically examine the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church and the implications of this alliance for European politics and society.


The Russian Orthodox Church's influence on the European far-right extends beyond ideology. It also includes financial and strategic support, as well as the organization of meetings and conferences. This collaboration has allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to export its ideology and shape the discourse of the European far-right. However, criticisms and controversies surrounding the church's influence, particularly in relation to human rights, highlight the need for a nuanced understanding of this complex relationship.


The Establishment of the African Orthodox Exarchate


In a bold and controversial move, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has established its presence in Africa, challenging the traditional authority of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria. This decision has raised concerns among other Orthodox leaders and sparked debates within the Orthodox world. While the Moscow Patriarchate justifies its actions as a response to the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's independence, there are indications that this move aligns with Russia's broader geopolitical ambitions in Africa.


Late in 2021, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to create an exarchate for Africa, comprising two dioceses: one in North Africa, centered in Cairo, and the other in the south of the continent, with its see in Johannesburg. This decision, in violation of the canonical principles of territorial jurisdiction, marked a significant departure from the traditional order in Orthodoxy. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, which has historically overseen the entire continent, strongly denounced the Moscow Patriarchate's actions, accusing it of sowing discord and disregarding established territorial divisions.


Motives and Controversies

While the Moscow Patriarchate claims that its move is a response to the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's autocephaly by Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, there are indications that this justification may be a pretext for larger geopolitical ambitions in Africa[^4^]. The Russian Orthodox Church's expansion in Africa coincides with Russia's growing engagement on the continent, including the signing of cooperation agreements and the presence of state-backed corporations and private military companies[^4^]. The church's presence in Africa serves as a soft power tool for Russia, promoting its positive image, denigrating the West, and potentially providing spiritual support to Russian mercenaries[^4^].

Response and Concerns

The establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate's exarchate in Africa has sparked concerns and objections from other Orthodox patriarchates. Orthodox leaders in Greece, Albania, and elsewhere have accused the Moscow Patriarchate of using the Ukrainian church dispute as a pretext for expansion into Africa[^6^]. The violation of territorial divisions within Orthodoxy threatens the unity and harmony of the Orthodox world. The Patriarchate of Alexandria has called for a special council of the ancient Eastern Patriarchates to condemn the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate[^6^]. While the consequences and potential sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Church remain unclear, the Orthodox world faces a severe crisis that could lead to a new schism.

The Moscow Patriarchate's Activities in Africa

The Moscow Patriarchate's presence in Africa is not entirely new. It has had parishes in the continent for several decades, primarily serving Russian expatriates[^6^]. However, the recent expansion of its activities and the establishment of the exarchate represent a significant shift in its approach. The Russian Orthodox Church has reportedly attracted communities from various Protestant denominations, offering material aid and the protection of Russian military forces[^6^]. It claims that its presence brings stability and security to African Christians who can now practice their faith without fear[^6^].

The Financial and Humanitarian Aspect

The Moscow Patriarchate's efforts in Africa extend beyond religious activities. It has pledged to support the construction of schools, alms houses, kindergartens, and medical posts in the regions where it is present[^6^]. Financially, the Russian Orthodox Church has increased the salaries of Orthodox priests in Africa, attracting many to join the Moscow Patriarchate[^6^]. The church's financial support and humanitarian projects aim to improve the lives of local communities and strengthen ties between Russia and Africa.

The Orthodox World's Reactions

The establishment of the exarchate in Africa has sparked divisions within the Orthodox world. Orthodox leaders in Greece, Albania, and other countries have voiced their concerns and objections to the Moscow Patriarchate's actions[^4^]. They argue that the move violates the principles of canonical territory and threatens the unity of Orthodoxy. The responses from other Orthodox patriarchates vary, with some expressing neutrality on the Ukrainian church issue but potentially taking a different stance on the Moscow Patriarchate's activities in Africa[^4^]. The situation has led to calls for special councils and discussions on how to address the challenges posed by the Moscow Patriarchate's expansion.

Possible Sanctions and Consequences

The Patriarchate of Alexandria has called for the convocation of the Synaxis of Pentarchy, a council of the ancient Eastern Patriarchates, to condemn the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate[^6^]. There are different scenarios for potential sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Church, ranging from personal sanctions on clergy members to institutional sanctions, such as the annulment of the Moscow Patriarchate's autocephaly[^6^]. The severity of the consequences will depend on the decisions and actions taken by the Orthodox world in response to the Moscow Patriarchate's expansion in Africa.

The Geopolitical Context

The Moscow Patriarchate's expansion in Africa cannot be divorced from Russia's broader geopolitical ambitions on the continent. Russia's engagement in Africa includes economic interests, security cooperation, and the pursuit of political influence[^4^]. The Russian Orthodox Church's presence in Africa serves as a tool of soft power, aligning with Russia's political objectives. It presents an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its influence and positive image in African countries, while potentially undermining Western influence and narratives.

Conclusion

The Moscow Patriarchate's establishment of an exarchate in Africa has stirred controversy within the Orthodox world. While the Russian Orthodox Church justifies its actions as a response to the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's autocephaly, there are indications that this move aligns with Russia's broader geopolitical ambitions on the continent. The violation of territorial divisions within Orthodoxy and the potential schism it may cause pose significant challenges to the unity and harmony of the Orthodox world. The consequences and potential sanctions against the Moscow Patriarchate remain uncertain, but the ramifications of its actions will continue to reverberate in the Orthodox community.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, Africa is now part of the Russian World


The Russian Orthodox Church has expanded its presence in Africa, with Metropolitan Leonid Gorbechev appointed as the Patriarchal Exarch. The synod approved the formation of two dioceses, the South African Diocese and the North African Diocese, with 24 countries under its jurisdiction. The Russian Federation is strengthening its positions in the region through military-technical, cultural, educational, and religious spheres, particularly in the Central African Republic where Russians are popular with the residents. The Russian Church will support the population of Africa with humanitarian aid, vaccines, and spiritual patronage.


The Russian Church will provide basic amenities to the African Orthodox clergy, overseeing the spiritual nourishment of believers and providing humanitarian support in the form of basic living conditions, infrastructure, and medical assistance. The Church will also ensure that Christian rights are granted to its faithful in the continent. The clergy will be provided with everything necessary to perform worship services, formations, clouds, vessels, and literature in the native language for the believers.


Africans have welcomed the Russian mission, with even priests in Zimbabwe and many African catechists and laity joining the Russian Patriarchate. The Greek Orthodox leadership and tribalism in Uganda and Africa have been criticized for their lack of support. The decision to create an African Exarchate of the Russian church will leave the Alexandria Patriarchate without a pasture, with several African priests moving to the Moscow Patriarchate. The Greek Patriarchate threatens all priests in Africa who want to join the Russian Church.


A total of 102 clerics from the Alexandria Patriarchate were received under the care of the Russian Patriarchate on 29/12/2021. The Greek hierarchy urges them to sign a declaration of refusal against their desire to join the ROC, and an appeal was made to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia. The Alexandrian Patriarchate attempted to resolve the issue, but the Greek Patriarchate accuses the Russian church of ingratitude. The Alexandrian Patriarchate convened a synod from 10-12/Jan/2022, expressing its protest against the irregular establishment of an Exarchate within the boundaries of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. The synod ended with the creation of a new Diocese in Uganda, with Nectarios Kibuye elected as the Bishop of the Gulu diocese.





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