Needless to say, the important and portentous story of the attempted subversion of the Orthodox Church using the intelligence and political instruments still at the disposal of the moribund post-Christian West has gone virtually unreported, uncommented, and uncondemned. It concerns the multi-front offensive currently being unleashed against the most ancient and authentic Christian communion, the Orthodox Church.
The epicenter of this externally induced commotion is at this moment in Montenegro, NATO’s latest “catch” in its persistent effort to secure or at least neutralize the Balkan rear, with a view to the projected conflict with Russia. One of the major remaining targets in Montenegro is the country’s Metropolitanate of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the institution which according to the latest survey is the most trusted by the country’s population. The Orthodox Church, which saw Montenegro through its centuries of confrontation with the Ottoman Empire, is literally the repository of Montenegro’s identity and culture. Russia’s traditional ally Montenegro — just like the Ukraine, which finds itself similarly targeted — cannot be reconfigured and turned into a compliant instrument of the impending Western crusade unless its identity shaped by the Church is first suitably redesigned.
The issue which brought the crisis into the open and moved it to the verge of physical confrontation was the unprecedented law, allegedly to secure “freedom for religious confessions,” which the regime rammed through the rubber-stamp parliament on December 27, 2019, complete with the almost routine arrest of about twenty opposition parliamentarians who objected vociferously to its Orwellian provisions. The core of this legislation is the requirement that all religious property dating back to before 1918 (when Montenegro joined what later became Yugoslavia) would be taken over by the state, which then, from the goodness of its heart, might allow the dispossessed religious community to use it for the performance of its rites. Given Montenegro’s ethnic, historical, and religious landscape, although not explicitly so stated, the new law’s brunt will be borne exclusively by the local Metropolitanate of the Serbian Orthodox Church in that country. The Serbian Church is the only significant religious community with a broad following and any property to be seized, the other faiths’ presence being relatively minor and symbolic.
Unexpectedly for all concerned, once reality sank in that with the passage of the new law the dispossession of the Church, with an intensified assault on the identity of the majority of the population, was becoming imminent, a massive expression of popular outrage erupted and continues on a daily basis. It is possible that the regime simply miscalculated the potential of such a seemingly arcane issue to quickly mobilize vast numbers of the citizenry. Their NATO sponsors surely did, and obviously failed to duly caution their stooges, which is perfectly understandable because religious concerns ceased long ago to play a significant social role in the West. (Both regime stalwarts and their jaded Western mentors must have found this Montenegrin procession, outlining a human “cross” made up of lighted torches, extremely annoying and awkward.) In the event, in all parts of Montenegro tens of thousands of Orthodox believers took to the streets during the holiday season to manifest their disapproval. In a very small country, with an official population of about 600,000, at least a quarter of the citizens defied bitter winter cold and snow to vote with their feet and send the pro-NATO clique the clear message that they are not on board.
Curiously, or perhaps not, the regime’s appalling religious intimidation campaign found resonance only in the confused silence of usually quick-on-the-draw Western embassies and human rights defenders.
But as accurately explained by Alexander Mercouris, the pressure that has been brought on the Church in Montenegro is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a “broader pattern.” That includes unbridled meddling by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul throughout the Orthodox world, and not just in the recent high profile example of the Ukraine. It also includes high-pressure State Department “religious diplomacy” aiming to align major centres of Orthodox religious authority in the Balkans and the Middle East with Western strategic goals. That can ultimately be reduced to but a single element: politically isolating and blocking Russia by rupturing its ties to the rest of the Orthodox communion because, in the perception of Western strategists, the Russian Orthodox Church is a key lever of Russia’s “soft power” influence.
For a glimpse of the thinking of the “powers that be” about the status of the Orthodox Church, not just in Montenegro but more generally, it is useful to consult a recent document of the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations which concedes that while “the majority of Montenegro’s Orthodox believers attend the SOC, which has a big influence on public opinion… [m]any priests belonging to the SOC, among them the metropolitan of Montenegro, hold strongly nationalistic and socially conservative views, including denying Serbian war crimes in the Yugoslav conflicts. They are vocally against LGBT rights and gender equality; deny the existence of Montenegrin national identity; call NATO the Fourth Reich; and spread hate speech against Muslims, who form a sizeable minority group in Montenegro. The SOC is also closely affiliated with Russia, and so it is often viewed as a Russian proxy. According to the court verdict on those behind the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, a Serbian Orthodox monastery was among the sites where the plot had been prepared.”
Hence the sympathetic conclusion of the European think-tank that: “[a]ltogether, the SOC is politically hostile to the Montenegrin state and its Western orientation, which is why the Montenegrin government sees it as a security threat”. Considering that the Council counts among its members such influential figures as Carl Bildt (“Orthodoxy is the enemy”) and Javier Solana (NATO Gen-sec in 1999 during the bombing of Yugoslavia) this convenient vindication of the Montenegrin regime carries more than just casual weight.
The pretentious Ecumenical Patriarchate, confined to a few buildings in the Fanar neighborhood of Istanbul, without laity of any consequence to give it weight, chronically strapped financially, with decrees of “canonical recognition” for schismatic sects designated by NATO as future components of its “nation building” operations as its only salable commodity, and dependent entirely upon the toleration of the Turkish government hosting it, is an ideal tool for such geopolitical manipulation and blackmail.
Ukraine, and the infamous “Tomos,” or letter of recognition, granted by the Patriarchate to certain break-away Orthodox factions on its territory, is of course a vivid case in point. But it does not exhaust the subject.
Just recently, in Macedonia the Patriarch in Istanbul became involved in an analogous situation when he officially received a delegation from Skopje and agreed to “consider” granting autocephaly (independence) to the dioceses there that decades ago, as part of a “nation building” scheme promoted by the former Communist regime, had broken away from the Serbian Orthodox Church. The mere fact that Patriarch Bartholomew would have taken such a step (unfortunately no longer unprecedented after the Ukrainian episode) and would have gone over the heads of Serbian church authorities in Belgrade to publicly contemplate such a disruptive step, is highly indicative. With all due respect for Orthodox believers in Macedonia, the advancement of this agenda, in the context of the installation of a slavishly pro-Western government and impending incorporation into NATO structures, is simply too much to be regarded as a mere coincidence. It more likely is part of another political project, only now under different auspices.
Furthermore, a recent scholarly conference held in Salonica, Greece, in October of last year, also demonstrates just how unsubtly the Ecumenical Patriarch is prepared to render valuable political services, again to the Western power block, in disregard of church canons or even the sentiments of his Orthodox coreligionists. Organized by Greek NGO “Byzantine Salonica,” which is close to the Patriarchy and officially is tasked with promoting the Byzantine civilization, the gathering asserted as its official view that Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo historically was one of the focal points of the Orthodox faith, but represented as an independent country, separate from Serbia. To drive the point home, the conference began with a liturgy which included the commemoration, and thus official recognition, of the schismatic Ukrainian “metropolitan” Epiphaniy Dumenko, who recently was recognized by the Patriarch in Istanbul as a separate entity in disregard of the views and arguments of the Russian Church.
The slaps in the face of the Serbian Orthodox Church are perhaps best understood in the context of intensifying pressure on Serbia, which is now the only remaining non-NATO country in the Balkans and also Russia’s traditional ally.
The analogies in the high-handed treatment of the Russian and Serbian churches are striking, even to the politically untrained eye. That, among other things, is what makes this situation particularly tragic because a trained political perspective should never be a prerequisite for accurately assessing the conduct and motives of religious institutions and dignitaries.