Chairman of external relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion, attends a news conference in Minsk

Russian Orthodox Church sends its second most powerful figure on lower-ranking overseas posting

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Russia’s Orthodox Church has ousted its second most powerful bishop from his role in charge of foreign relations and sent him to Budapest, an abrupt decision indicating discord at the top of the Moscow Patriarchate over the war in Ukraine.

The Holy Synod, which met at the white-walled 13th century Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow on Tuesday, decreed to remove Metropolitan Hilarion as the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relations.

The Synod had discussed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is being challenged as the leader of Slav Orthodoxy by the rival autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Metropolitan of Kyiv.

More than 700-words into the minutes of the meeting, the Synod decreed Hilarion be relieved of his roles as head of foreign relations, permanent member of the Synod and rector of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Institute of Post-Graduate Studies.

“It is decreed that Bishop Hilarion, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, will be the administrator of the Budapest-Hungarian Diocese, Metropolitan of Budapest and Hungary,” the minutes said.

The Church did not respond to a Reuters request for an explanation of the abrupt departure of Hilarion, who holds a doctorate from Oxford University and was seen as a potential successor to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia.

At the Synod meeting, Hilarion, 55, had given a presentation about a visit he and Patriarch Kirill had made to Hungary, including about discussions with the Roman Catholic Church, according to the minutes.

Hilarion, who is 55 and has served as head of foreign relations for 13 years, will be replaced by Metropolitan Anthony, 37.

“The Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations and a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, with the title of Volokolamsk, be Bishop Anthony,” the minutes said.

WAR WIDENS SPLIT

The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest of the churches in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which split with Western Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054. Today it has about 100 million followers within Russia and more outside.

But the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has divided the two biggest Slav congregations, and added to a growing dispute within Slav Orthodox Christianity that goes back more than a thousand years to the very roots of Russia and Ukraine.

The Kremlin says it is fighting a “special military operation” to defend Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and casts it as a conflict with an “absolutist” West led by the United States which wants to destroy Russia and its culture.

Kyiv and its Western backers note that many Russian speakers have fled the Russian invasion, which they say is an imperial-style land grab that has given the biggest boost to Ukrainian nationalism in a century.

Kirill, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, sees the war as a bulwark against a West he describes as decadent though he has spoken of the pain of the conflict as his flock is on both sides.

As many Ukrainians sought to shed Russian dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kyivan Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted autocephaly by Constantinople, which oversees most modern Orthodox churches, causing discord with Moscow which considers it a usurper.

After Christianity came to Slav lands in the 9th and 10th Century, Kyiv had its own Metropolitanate but it was subordinated to Russia’s Church in 1685 under Tsar Peter the Great.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Philippa Fletcher)