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    LA CROIX: Putin’s Orthodox crusade in Africa

    In the France-based Roman Catholic magazine, LA CROIX, an important article was published about the incursion of the Moscow Patriarchate into the African continent in recent years.

    The observer believes that the Moscow Patriarchate, due to the decline of its influence in the post-Soviet space and against the background of the war in Ukraine, is focusing its efforts on all of Africa. This ambitious strategy is part of a wider geopolitical offensive by the Kremlin, fosfanariou reports.

    The text also contains the statements from The Metropolitan Grigoriy of Cameroon, hierarch of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all of Africa, who knows well both Christianity in Africa and the methods of influence applied by the Moscow Patriarchate.

    Putin’s Orthodox crusade in Africa

    On July 27, 2023, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, spoke. Dressed in a cap embroidered with golden wings of seraphim, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow entered the stage of the St. Petersburg Conference Center temple. In front of him were heads of state, government officials and ministers from all over Africa to participate in the Russian-African economic summit.

    “Russia has never considered the African continent as a space for exploitation or colonization,” the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said. “It never spoke condescendingly to African peoples, never used the language of superiority or force,” he continued, emphasizing the “old and friendly relations” between his country and those in the audience.

    His speech outlined a cultural and spiritual cooperation based on a shared commitment to “immutable moral values”: patriotism, tradition, the family of man and woman, and rejection of homosexuality. This contrasted with the “decadent” West, steeped in moral relativism and consumerism. When he discussed the deployment of the Russian Church in Africa, his proposals became more and more frank. “The Moscow Patriarchate is open to any initiative that serves the good of people and establishment of peace,” he concluded, thanking the authorities for facilitating the inrocporation of new Russian parishes in their countries. Among the leaders hearing the speech were President of Cameroon Paul Biya and President of the Central African Republic Faustin-Archang Touadera.

    The infiltration of Russian advisers into political areas, propaganda networks riding the wave of anti-French sentiment, and extraction of minerals are part of the Kremlin’s broader geopolitical offensive. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has also expanded its presence in Africa for several years, often following the routes of Wagner Group mercenaries, many of whom are integrated into the Russian military. On its website, the ROC claimed 200 parishes in 25 African countries, including the Central African Republic and Chad.

    This expansion, accelerated by the war in Ukraine, aimed to develop a religious “soft power” that supports Putin’s broader civilizational project. “The church project here supports the political one. This is a double operation and a hidden part of Moscow’s offensive aimed at controlling world Orthodoxy,” confirmed theologian and expert Jean-Francois Colosimo.

    “There is no canonical justification”

    This expansion is still looking for institutionalization. In December 2021, the creation of a patriarchal exarchate for Africa was a major strategic shift. At the time, the decision resonated as a new explosion in the fractured landscape of world Orthodoxy: it officially cemented Moscow’s refusal to recognize Africa as the canonical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which had not been contested until then.

    Why this reversal? “This decision was intended to impose sanctions on Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, (who remains) close to Constantinople, for recognizing the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2019, which Moscow considers schismatic. For Cyril, anyone who communicates with a schismatic becomes a schismatic himself,” explained Konstantinos Vetochnikov, Doctor of Theology and History of the Byzantine Library of the Collège de France. According to him, Cyril used this “pretext” to legitimize his crusade to Africa, although the Russian justifications are not based “on a canonical basis.” The Russian Orthodox Church, for its part, talks about “returning” to its lands, referring to its long-standing presence in Abyssinia (since the 19th century) and Egypt (since 1914).

    For three years there was a fierce battle on the ground between Alexandria and Moscow. In March 2023, Theodore II denounced in a Greek newspaper: “Inextricably linked to the political claims of the Russian state, the Moscow Patriarchate, driven by extremely authoritarian tendencies to dominate Orthodoxy, appeared in Africa, penetrating and challenging centuries-old institutions.” In his Telegram channel, the Russian Metropolitan of Klinsky Leonid (Gorbachev), the Exarch of Africa from 2021 to 2023, replied that he had “stepped into a canonical desert” where “prospects are excellent.”

    Leonid, a close associate of Wagner

    Metropolitan Leonid Klinsky of the Russian Orthodox Church: the choice of this ambiguous figure to represent Russian Orthodoxy in Africa revealed the interweaving of spiritual and geopolitical stakes in these territories. With military training and service in the Red Army in the 1980s, he served in various hot spots – in the Caucasus, in Serbia during the Balkan Wars and in Egypt during the Arab Spring. “This field worker, who was supported by ultra-conservative elements of the patriarchy, was close to Yevhen Prigozhin (1961-2023), the founder of Wagner, whose atrocities in Africa are well documented,” noted Antoine Nivier, a professor of Russian civilization at the University of Lorraine.

    After the fall of Prigozhin in 2023, Leonid was eliminated. “He quarreled with Putin’s clan and was removed from the post of exarch of Africa due to alleged financial abuses in his Moscow parish,” the specialist clarified. His successor was the young bishop Konstantin Zaraiskyi. “He does not have such a status, but Kirill elevated him to the honorary rank of metropolitan,” noted Antoine Nivier, identifying another sign of Moscow’s desire to “strengthen the policy of penetration” into Africa.

    Changing realities

    How significant is Russian Orthodoxy in Africa? This is difficult to assess in a continent with an extremely diverse and changing ecclesiastical reality. While it is far from the mass growth of evangelicals, it benefits from “a favorable environment, with the advantage of not being a colonial church, having married clergy and being less suspicious of local practices such as ancestor worship,” noted theologian and expert Jean-Francois Let’s harvest.

    How much can you trust Moscow’s statement about 200 parishes? To prove this, photos of newly opened churches and acquired lands – in Malawi, Kenya, Cameroon, Niger and Tanzania – flood the website of the new Russian Exarchate for Africa. “In fact, some projects will probably never be completed,” he argued.

    Archbishop Gregory, Exarch of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Central Africa, from his place in Yaounde, he observed the established modus operandi: “Under the guise of helping the African population through the development of humanitarian infrastructure (orphanages, wells, clinics), Russian missionaries regularly come to identify our weak points and exploit our gaps.”

    Despite several follow-up measures, the Russian Orthodox authorities refused to comment. Publicly, they have always denied that they offered unofficial funds to recruit their clergy. However, four local observers interviewed by La Croix confirmed Archbishop Grigory’s claims – and indicated, without providing evidence, that the finances of some Orthodox parishes had “significantly improved” after their allegiance to Moscow.

    Recruitment criteria?

    According to Archbishop Gregory, “the Russians are specifically targeting the leaders of free, itinerant and opportunistic Christian churches, of which there are thousands in Africa.” But not only them, since from 2022 to 2023, 6 out of 38 priests and deacons of his diocese switched to the Russian side. “Besides the temptation of money, some knew I was going to fire them for various reasons: behavior, insubordination,” he explained. To formalize their attachment to Moscow, they had to swear in writing that they were not subjected to “any external pressure”, did not seek “personal gain” and did it “solely to save their souls from the spiritual danger of being associated with split in Ukraine”.

    Among these defectors is Father Jean Bessala in Yaounde. He claimed that his gateway to Russian Orthodoxy was through social networks. “On our phones, we see how Moscow celebrates its teachings. For me, this is the only church that respects the rite and remains attached to the apostolic tradition,” he declared, not wanting to delve into theological disagreements.

    Denying that he had been offered money, he insisted that he “voluntarily” left Alexandria solely “on the basis of his faith.” According to our information, at that time he was suspected of illegal exorcism and misappropriation of donations in the orphanage controlled by him. Today, he denied the allegations, admitting only that he had experienced “petty human quarrels” in the past.

    In a photo taken in February 2023, Jean Bessala posed with a Russian missionary, Georgy Maximov, who was tasked with evaluating candidates for the priesthood, and another recently ordained Cameroonian priest, Benoit Owona. According to an official document seen by La Croix, the latter was dismissed from the Alexandria clergy in 2009 for “non-canonical actions and behavior”. Finally, pointing to the obscurity surrounding the Russian church network in Africa, Father Jean repeatedly refuses to name the church he currently serves: “We have nothing to hide, but I can’t.”

    The future of these parishes is a broader question: will they survive the post-Putin-Kyril era in Russia? Moscow is expected to take further steps in the coming months. At the Expoforum in St Petersburg, Patriarch Kirill concluded his speech by praying for “divine blessings” on all African leaders before leaving to thunderous applause.

    Orthodox nebula on the African continent

    According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, African Orthodox Christians make up 15% of the world’s Orthodox population. They are mainly found in Ethiopia, where they make up 43.5% of the population, and Eritrea, where they make up 30%.

    Africa is recognized as the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which is the successor of the early Christian churches of the Pentarchy. Since the second half of the 20th century, this Greek Orthodox Church has experienced significant growth in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly through the establishment of parishes and missions supported by the Greek state. Since 2004, its patriarch is Theodore II.

    In 2021, the Russian Orthodox Church announced the creation of a rival patriarchal exarchate for Africa, which it says has 200 parishes in 25 countries. This intra-Orthodox tension is causing concern among other Christian denominations, especially in the Vatican, where the issue is closely watched.

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