Russia & Global South
Russia’s Spiritual Expansion in the Global South
May 31, 2024
  • Ivan U. Kłyszcz

    The International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), in Tallinn, Estonia
The Moscow Patriarchate has recently established special missions in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. Ivan U. Kłyszcz asserts that the role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the so-called ‘Global South’ is particularly significant as Moscow seeks to expand its international partnerships.
While deeply chauvinistic and xenophobic in its rhetoric, the Moscow Patriarchate has an expansive role internationally, as the ROC is a global religion. The Moscow Patriarchate has an external relations department, in the past led by Patriarch Kirill himself, and since 2022 by Metropolitan Anthony (Anton Sevryuk). In 2019, Moscow Patriarchate also established special missions abroad, covering Africa, South-East Asia, and Western Europe.

In the context of Moscow’s search for partners internationally, the ROC’s role in the so-called ‘Global South’ deserves scrutiny. Leading with its exarchates, the Moscow Patriarchate has been expanding its influence in Africa and Asia. This expansion is a response to the 2019 decision to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Conventional religious diplomacy and inter-faith dialogue are also recurrent instruments used by the Moscow Patriarch to articulate his foreign policy. In the context of Russia’s militarised foreign policy, the Patriarch Kirill has embraced some of Moscow’s campaigns abroad, framing them as a way to “protect Christians abroad.”

Aware of this sparse presence in Africa and Asia, the ROC is generally not establishing new communities but seeking the allegiance of already established local communities. The churches that switch allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate are still run by local priests but become incorporated into the structures and hierarchy of the ROC and no longer those of Alexandria and Constantinople. Reportedly, salaries and some expenses are then covered by the ROC, and scholarships for training in Russia are also available through the church.

These ties are valuable for Russia’s foreign policy, especially in the context of growing Russo-Ethiopian ties in all directions and the BRICS expansion to Ethiopia, one of the oldest Christian communities worldwide with 35 million members. Not considering the Ethiopia and Eritrean Oriental Orthodox Churches, there are approximately one million Eastern Orthodox believers in sub-Saharan Africa, with Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda among the largest communities.

Similar coordination between Russian diplomacy and the Moscow Patriarchate can be seen in the Central African Republic and the Philippines, among other countries. The religious diplomacy with Ethiopia and the EOTC can be seen as part of a broader diplomatic offensive Moscow is pursuing to gain further strategic depth in the Horn of Africa.
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