Long interview: Chief church diplomat surveys current church affairs


RIA Novosti, 19 May 2016


The Department of External Church Relations [Otdel Vneshnikh Tserkovnykh Sviazei—OVTsS] of the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates its 70th anniversary on 19 May. The chairman of OVTsS, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Ilarion, in an exclusive interview with RIA Novosti described the main results of the activity of this most important church structure, plans for the future, relations of the RPTs with other churches and confessions, whether one can compare church diplomacy with secular, and about key questions of the critical agenda for the church. This includes persecution of Christians in the world and protection of the rights of believers in Ukraine, the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Russian presence on Mount Athos, and the Pan-Orthodox Council on Crete. Olga Lipich conducted the conversation.


--Vladyka, if one takes the entire spectrum of OVTsS activity in 70 years, then is it possible to call it unique in the church history of Russia?


--Although the external activity of the Russian church has its roots in deep antiquity—it is sufficient to recall that back in the second half of the 13th century a diocese was created in the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai, which fulfilled the function of a permanent representation of Rus on the territory of the Golden Horde—it was only with the creation of our department in 1946 that it acquired the necessary consistency and organization.


The uniqueness of the OVTsS in the soviet period was tied first of all to the unique position in which the Russian Orthodox Church found itself, since the USSR authorities considered the church harmful for the construction of socialism, as a vestige of the past. While the communist leadership of the country, for various reasons, reconciled itself to the existence of the church, it tried to exploit it for its own goals, primarily foreign policy and propaganda ones.


But it turned out that it was in the foreign policy field that the church outplayed its persecutors, thanks to the selfless labors of the leaders and personnel of the Department for External Church Relations. Here the outstanding role was played by the dearly remembered Metropolitan Nikodim, who managed in the difficult years of the Khrushchev persecutions to defend the church from the domestic enemy, the atheist government of the time, with the help of a whole system of relations external to the church that were built under his personal leadership.


The international activity of the Russian church, conducted by the OVTsS, was one of the most substantive factors preventing its complete destruction that was intended but not carried out by the leadership of the USSR.


Created in the postwar years for contacts with foreign parishes and dioceses, the department in time was transformed into the most important structure of the Moscow patriarchate, which had no peers in the breadth and importance of the tasks it performed. And when the opportunity for the revival of church life appeared, it was the potential of the personnel of the department that permitted the complete use of these possibilities.


Here one should not forget about the 20-year "golden age" of the department, when it was headed by the current His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. It is sufficient to say that it was in this period, upon his initiative, that the OVTsS began the work that subsequently became the sphere of responsibility of independent synodal institutions: the Department for Religious Education and Catechesis, the Department on Cooperation with the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies, the Department for Relations of the Church with Society and News Media, the Department for Youth Affairs, the Department for Church Charity and Social Service, and the Administration of Foreign Institutions.


I think that the Department for External Church Relations has its own uniqueness. But I would like to emphasize: the department does not have any kind of agenda of its own that would be distinct from the agenda of the whole church. The department is not some kind of wing within the church or a club of interests: it does not have any other interests except the interests of the whole church. The department works in accordance with a very simple plan: the hierarchy of the church in the person of His Holiness the patriarch and the Holy Synod is the boss and we are gofers. It cannot be otherwise, since the OVTsS is a service agency, completely under the control of the hierarchy.


--Is it possible to compare church diplomacy and secular diplomacy? What qualities should a staff member of the OVTsS possess; for example, how many languages must he know?


--An OVTsS staff member should first of all have a sincere faith and be absolutely a church person, that is, always placing the interests of the church above his own personal interests.


A church diplomat is a witness to the surrounding world of the truth of God. A church diplomat, representing the Russian church in dialogues with other churches and confessions, is a witness to the truth of Orthodoxy, the purity of tradition, and the sanctity and immutability of the moral law given by God. He must know Orthodox theology and the doctrinal position of those traditions with whose representatives he has to communicate in the course of inter-church and inter-religious meetings and conversations.


Communication presupposes understanding, which is impossible without a good command of the language of an interlocutor. Today the most widespread language in the world is English, and therefore command of the English language, at least conversational, is an absolute requirement of a church diplomat. Although for certain specialized areas other languages are necessary: for inter-Orthodox contacts, Greek, and for contacts with Catholics, Italian. Discussion of complex theological issues requires knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, and sometimes also more rare languages. Incidentally, command of ancient and modern languages among graduates of prerevolutionary seminaries was more often the rule than the exception. I would like for this rule to be reinstated.


--How would you characterize relations of the Russian Orthodox Church with other confessions in Russia and other countries of the canonical presence of the RPTs?


--With the fall of the Soviet Union, Christian confessions existing in the countries that were formed on its territory were faced with identical and very powerful challenges: from the West, nontraditional religious groups of a destructive character came rushing to our land. With particular force the ideology of moral permissiveness began to spread. The institution of the family was subjected to crisis. A clear trend appeared aiming for the undermining of the moral foundations of the life of our peoples and the squeezing of religious consciousness to the periphery of public life.


For coordination of joint activity aimed at counteracting these challenges and establishment of the ideals of peace, social harmony, and Christian morality, in the middle 1990s the Christian Inter-confessional Consultative Committee was created, which included Christian confessions in the expanse of the former USSR.


Since that time, many plenums, conferences, and seminars of this committee have been held, which were extremely constructive. The last plenum of the Christian Inter-confessional Consultative Committee was held in February 2014 in St. Petersburg and it discussed the topic "The Crisis of the Family and the Problem of Abandonment." At this forum a document was also adopted that was devoted to the conflict in Ukraine that was just beginning at that time. It expressed our joint call for the restoration of peace in that country. The document was signed by all participants, including representatives of Christian confessions of Ukraine.


Today the most active inter-confessional cooperation is developing in the sphere of social service and aid for AIDS patients, drug addicts, and hospice patients. Christian confessions in Russia and countries of the near abroad participate in many joint programs along this line, including implementation with government help.


--It has now been several months since the first meeting in history of the primate of the Russian church and the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Has the resonance from this event in society and the information space been what you had expected? What results came from this meeting and what consequences may still be expected in the future?


--The meeting of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill with Pope Francis was a truly historic event whose significance it is difficult to overestimate. On 12 February in the Havana airport for the first time in history a personal conversation was held between the heads of the two largest Christian communities of the world. In a short time they managed not only to discuss a broad spectrum of issues but also to adopt a jointly composed statement devoted to critical issues of the moment. These included persecution of Christians in the Near East, infringement of freedom of conscience in a number of western countries, and the civil conflict in Ukraine. I am sure that the meeting was an important factor in the work of including these topics in the global agenda and the consolidation of efforts for resolving existing conflicts.


In development of the Havana agreement, the first joint project of the Moscow patriarchate and the Holy See in Syria and Lebanon was carried out. Local Christians of various confessions, including representatives of churches of the Non-Chalcedonian tradition, noted that they perceive the meeting in Havana as a sign of hope, giving impetus to their cooperation on the local and regional level.


Of course, the meeting was not spontaneous. It had been preceded by careful preparation. However the very fact that it was held speaks of the very substantive, positive achievement in the history of our relations and of their achieving a qualitatively new level.


I would like to stress again that questions of the unification of churches or even a convergence of their theological positions were not discussed at the meeting. All of the existing theological and doctrinal differences existing between Orthodox and Catholics remain as before. Of course, they are subject to discussion, but within the framework of the existing official Joint Theological Commission, whose membership includes, besides the Moscow patriarchate, all generally recognized autocephalous Orthodox churches. For us, any kind of compromises in matters of doctrine are unacceptable.


In addition, I would like to call attention to the fact that the text of the joint declaration expresses condemnation of the Unia as a means for reunification of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. The joint declaration of the patriarch and pope clearly says that the "method of 'Uniatism' of previous centuries that presupposes the entrance of one congregation into unity with another by means of separation from its own church is not a path to the restoration of unity."


This was said even earlier, including in a document of the Joint Commission of Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue, signed in Balamand in 1993. However the Balamand document was not confirmed in its time by Pope John Paul II. Now the head of the Roman Catholic Church has directly confirmed what has become obvious for the Orthodox and also for the Catholic participants in the dialogue. I consider this an important achievement.


--And how are joint actions for defense of Christian values developing with Christians of other confessions—with Anglicans, Old Catholics, and other denominations? With whom has the best cooperation developed and with whom, on the contrary, is there a lack of mutual understanding?


--The most important goal of the meeting of His Holiness the patriarch and the pope was to encourage all people of good will to consolidation on this issue. This same task was accomplished in the course of other meetings of the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church with religious and political leaders.


Over the course of a long time, during which crises in Syria and Iraq unfolded, the truth about the persecution of Christians was hushed up or distorted. Today the situation has changed somewhat. The troubles of Near Eastern Christians are more and more often being mentioned by their brothers in the West. The Russian Orthodox Church cooperates in this matter with representatives of the Anglican Communion, the World Council of Churches, and several Lutheran societies. An important partner is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, with whom we are planning to develop specific projects aimed at support of suffering Christians.


--How do you assess the current situation in Ukraine? Can one say that the church's call for achieving peace was heard by authorities and politicians?


--With all the complexity of the social and political situation in Ukraine, not to hear the voice of the largest confession in the country, numbering more than 12,000 parishes and millions of believers, would be difficult even for the most radical politician. From the very beginning of the civil conflict in this country, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—alone among all the large religious organizations of Ukraine—refused to support any of the sides of the conflict. To this day it consistently calls the warring sides to peace, even if because of this it is necessary to suffer discrimination and to hear unjust accusations.


Refusal to participate in political confrontation is essentially important for the preservation of the unity of the church, and this means for preserving its peacemaking potential on the whole territory of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church unites believers regardless of their political preferences and it calls everyone to peace and brotherly love in Christ and to the construction of Christian and human values.


In the long run, hostility and hatred always lose and the voice of the church is heard ever more loudly testifying to society concerning the necessity of reconciliation. When peace finally returns to the Donbass, I am sure this will be the service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.


--Quite soon, the Pan-Orthodox Council will be held on the island of Crete. Can one say that its planning is already at the culminating stage? What kinds of difficulties have been overcome and what still remain? Can one expect from the upcoming council, which has been in preparation more than fifty years, any kind of sensations?


--In the meeting of primates of the Orthodox churches that was held in January of this year in Chambesy, for the first time in more than 50 years of preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council, a date for its meeting was determined (18-27 June 2016) and the agenda was also confirmed, drafts of a majority of documents of the council were agreed upon, and the rules for the conduct of its work were worked out. At the present time, a variety of organizational and procedural questions are being resolved. All of this speaks of how the preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council is in its final stage.


However, some questions, upon which the successful conduct of the council directly depends, remain unresolved. Thus, two local churches—the Antioch and Georgian—have not signed the draft of the document on the topic of marriage. Approval has still not been received from the Antioch patriarchate for one of the foundational documents of the council, its rules. This signifies that on two documents there is formally a lack of consensus of the local Orthodox churches upon which all decisions regarding the preparation and conduct of the Pan-Orthodox Council must be made.


No sensations are expected at the council. According to a decision that was adopted at the meeting of primates held in January, at the council there will be no consideration of any other topics and questions besides those that have already been included in the agenda. In addition, the Russian church from the very beginning has insisted that all decisions should be adopted by consensus, that no decision—even an insignificant amendment—can be adopted against the wishes of any local church. And we worked for the inclusions of this point in the rules.


--The synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia issued a statement that pointed out what it considered serious flaws in some documents of the Pan-Orthodox Council. In particular, in the opinion of the ROCOR hierarchs, one of the drafts speaks incorrectly about the unity of the church as something that has been "lost," while nowhere in the text has the division among Christians been defined as the consequence of schisms and heresies, following the rules of the Holy Fathers and canons of councils. How would you answer such critical statements?


--The meeting of primates of Orthodox churches that I have already mentioned made the decision to publish drafts of the council's documents with one main goal: to give the opportunity for bishops, clergy, laity, and all interested members of the church to express their opinion regarding them. The appearance of constructive criticism of the council's documents is a natural process. Moreover, without taking that into account one can hardly expect that the documents approved by the council will be accepted by church people.


Consequently, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, late in April at the St. Tikhon's University a conference was held devoted to the Pan-Orthodox Council, in which, specifically, Archbishop of Berlin, Germany, and Great Britain Mark presented the substantive and comprehensive commentary on the appeal of the ROCOR synod. The critical comments of the ROCOR in their main features were reflected in the suggestions of amendments to several council documents based on the results of the conference, primarily to the document on issues of inter-Christian relations.


It should be said that critical comments about the documents have not come only from the Russian Church Outside Russia. They also have come from some Russian clerics and laity, and in some cases from several other local churches. It is obvious that the discussion of this document at the council will be complicated.


--This year the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian presence on Mount Athos is being widely celebrated. What does Mount Athos mean for you personally? What do you see as the value of the holy mountain's monasticism as a heritage for modern Christianity and the modern world as a whole?


--The Holy Mount Athos, as the closest and most authoritative monastic center of world Orthodox significance, entered organically into the life of Sacred Rus from its spiritual birth in the baptismal font of the Dnepr. It is impossible to imagine the spiritual aspect of Russian Orthodoxy without the Holy Mount just as it is impossible to imagine the aspect of the Holy Mount without the Russian presence.


It is important that today the unique multinational monastic republic continue to exist and to conduct its ministry in new historical circumstances. The rebirth of the tradition of uninterrupted prayer, monastic hospitality, and the return to the strict ideals of cenobitic monasticism in monasteries while preserving the possibility of a more solitary existence in sketes and cells—all of this serves as the spiritual medicine for a multitude of human souls.


I had occasion to be on Athos for the first time when I was still a young monastic priest. At the time I visited all of the Athos cloisters, visiting them on foot over the course of a month. Since then I have tried to go to the Holy Mount every year, if possible. I always rejoice at the possibility of breathing the air of Athos, praying in the Russian and other cloisters, and going on foot along the dusty Athos roads.


It is necessary to thank God that the whole Orthodox world has the possibility of sending to the Holy Mount its own residents and pilgrims to access the inexhaustible spring of living water and to participate in the preservation and transmission to subsequent generations of the heritage of the Holy Mount.


--What is the church prepared to undertake for resolving the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh?


--From the very beginning of the Karabakh conflict the peacemaking potential of the Russian Orthodox Church was involved. Primates of our church often initiated meetings among religious leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan who enjoyed great authority in their countries. During such meetings it was always emphasized that the conflict is not a religious conflict. Inter-religious peacemaking forums were conducted with the participation of political and religious leaders of Russia and the Transcaucasus. The dialog produced practical results: it facilitated a ceasefire, exchange of prisoners, and return of the bodies of the fallen.


Recently, when the situation in this region has again accelerated, the Moscow patriarchate again declared its readiness to facilitate the resolution of the conflict by all means the church has. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, just as soon as military actions began, sent to the heads of the religious parishes of Azerbaijan and Armenia letters urging peacemaking efforts. However the question of the resolution of the conflict requires in the first place the existence of good will on all sides of the conflict.


--What other questions and projects have priority status for the external church activity today?


--Traditionally our department devotes substantial attention to the development of dialogue with international organizations, agencies of governmental authority in countries of the far abroad, and the diplomatic corps accredited to Moscow. The contents of such a dialogue is our testimony to the spiritual and moral foundations of human life and society. Today in many countries of Europe and America, there is blurred understanding of the institution of marriage and the family and euthanasia is being legislatively strengthened. In communicating with persons on whom the adoption of political decisions and the formation of public opinion depend, we consider it our duty to recall the importance of preserving traditional morality in personal life and the public space.


An important element of the work of OVTsS is the coordination of the state-church relations in the area of support of compatriots abroad. We have many years of experience of cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, including conducting annual round tables devoted to cooperation of the church and compatriots who live in diverse regions of the world.


The Department of External Church Relations is involved in dialogue along the line of civil society of Russia and foreign countries. The most noteworthy is the Russia-German forum "Petersburg Dialog." For almost ten years now it has included the working group "The Church in Europe," that unites representatives of the Moscow patriarchate and the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Churches of Germany. We have a large agenda of work.


Along with ministries of culture and foreign affairs, we are implementing the project of Days of Russian Spiritual Culture in Foreign Countries. This project is supported by the president of the Russian federation. Every year in several countries there are events intended to acquaint local residents with the rich spiritual traditions and heritage of our people.


--And what is in the plans of the OVTsS in the next year or two? What major events and church celebrations are we expecting?


--The chief major event of this year is the 70th birthday of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. In preparation for the celebration of this date, our department will participate along with other synodal departments and church subdivisions.


Several foreign visits by His Holiness are planned which our department will organize. The earliest of these is to the Holy Mount Athos. Then to the Pan-Orthodox Council on Crete.


The significant memorial event in the next year will be the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. We will recall the tragedy of our people over long centuries and refer to the causes of the social upheavals that have divided our people into two hostile camps.


At first glance on this topic it may seem that the Department of External Church Relations does not have anything directly to do with this and that it is a domestic matter. However that is not so. The fratricidal civil war that was the consequence of the 1917 October revolution engendered an emigration unheard of in our national history. Never before had Russian people so massively left the borders of their native land.


The departure of the civilian population was a bitter loss for our country, but at the same time it was a benefit for many foreign countries. Foreigners learned about Russian spirituality, theological thought, culture, creativity, engineering art, and skills thanks to the fact that Russian refugees settled within their borders. Centers of national emigration gradually formed: Belgrade, Sophia, Paris, Berlin, Harbin, San Francisco. And to this day heirs of the emigrants have dwelt in foreign countries, constituting the flock of our parishes and an inseparable part of the national diaspora.


During the 25th International Christmas Educational Readings, which will be held in Moscow on 25-27 January of next year and will be devoted to the topic "1917-2017: Lessons of a Century," we plan to conduct events intended to be an understanding of the phenomenon of the Russian diaspora. In particular, we are talking about a section of the Christmas Parliamentary Meetings in the Russian State Duma and about a round table in the church graduate and doctoral studies in memory of the Holy Equal to the Apostles Cyril and Methodius. (tr. by PDS, posted 22 May 2016)

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