It was a sunny spring afternoon when the Vatican’s vintage, dove-white Alitalia plane landed smoothly on the island of Lesvos. Marching down the steps to the tune of a Greek military band, Pope Francis was received by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens—and also by Greece’s devoutly atheist Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. The charismatic premier was not (just) seeking to increase his stature among the humanitarian jet set. His government had arranged this April 16 visit to the refugee-packed island at a time when Brussels was pushing Greece to improve its migrant-handling capacities, after the European Union and Turkey had reached a migrant-resettlement deal. Some had whispered that Greece’s membership in the visa-free Schengen Zone was in question.
Europe’s migrant crisis is characterized by hard realities. However, Tsipras’s left-wing Syriza Party has inhabited an otherworldly realm populated by abstractions like “solidarity,” “shared European values,” and “global solutions.” This, for two reasons: because Syriza includes many true believers in such platitudes; and because mouthing designer globaloney represents the path of least resistance. Greece has allowed roughly one million mostly unchecked migrants in through its maritime border with Turkey, sending them north through Macedonia into Europe (the closed-for-now “Balkan Route”). Investigations have shown that ISIS fighters planning to attack Paris and Brussels exploited this corridor.
Greece had hoped that expanding the refugee crisis northward would force the desired “European solution,” while preventing Greece itself from becoming a “warehouse of souls,” as Tsipras later put it, in terms unbefitting his atheism. However (as I reported for TAI this past March), Greece underestimated Macedonia, which convinced the Visegrad countries, Austria, and its Balkan neighbors that it could enforce Europe’s borders. This has resulted in a migrant bubble forming in Greece. This spring, mysterious activists and angry, increasingly militaristic young migrants kept trying to breach the Macedonian border, but today over 57,000 are still bivouacked in Greece.
On Lesvos, too, “No Borders” activists (many of them sanctimonious, unemployed anarchists from Western Europe) and irate, caged-up migrants have attacked police. The situation has become more volatile with the controversy over the EU-Turkey deal, even though few deportations to Turkey have yet occurred. Lesvos and other migrant hotspots have also endured the usual celebrity visits (essentially photo-op fundraisers for UN agencies).
The April 16 Lesvos event, however, was different. Francis’s visit was planned in February, an informed Greek source told me, because “the government feared being isolated as European policies and attitudes were hardening…. [T]hey wanted something to show.” Show is the right word. In the absence of a realistic migration policy, Tsipras had dreamt up another large public gathering heavy on rhetoric designed to echo the Pontiff’s.
Pope Francis has been outspoken on migration, and indeed espouses many of Tsipras’s views. (His first official visit, in 2013, was to see migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa). Many holiday-makers leave the Mediterranean islands with more than a suntan, but Francis returned home with three whole Syrian families from Lesvos (one of Europe’s hottest morality tourism getaways), while chiding Europe for its failure to follow suit. The newspapers went wild at this holier-than-thou display. Tsipras knew they would. Game, set, and match?
Not really. Getting Francis on camera cuddling migrant babies and railing against a dour and xenophobic European Union might seem just a cunning Greek plot to win sympathy, which is this Greek government’s favored export commodity and its most reliable defense against criticism. But it won’t solve the problem—Greece’s or anyone else’s.
Less obvious is why two less charismatic, black-clad Orthodox leaders, about whom most outsiders knew nothing, accompanied Francis in his latest global humanitarian effort. Yet that is precisely where things gets interesting, and where one finds signs of the deeper geopolitical rumblings that prompted Europe’s sudden proliferation of symbolic religion in 2016.
It was the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and not the Great Schism of 1054, that marked the final division between the Eastern and Western churches. In that military misadventure, the Vatican and the Venetians sacked Constantinople; a 57-year Latin occupation followed. After the Byzantine restoration, Turkish incursions increased until the Ottomans owned much of Anatolia and the Balkans. Church reconciliation thus became a geopolitical exigency, and it was almost achieved. At the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39), Emperor John VIII Palaiologos sought Western military assistance from Pope Eugenius IV. Though a reunion deal was obtained in principle, opposition from conservative monks doomed it in practice. The Pope’s claim to primacy was one sticking point (to the Orthodox, he is merely the “Bishop of Rome,” whereas the Patriarch of Constantinople is considered “first among equals”).
Without church reunification, Western military assistance never materialized, and the Turks conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453. From the church council period comes one remarkable dictum: “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s tiara.”Although it is commonly attributed to a pro-union Byzantine noble, Loukas Notaras, historians associate the phrase instead with general Orthodox recalcitrance. The Turks gave the people what they wanted: George Scholarios (a pupil of the most prominent anti-union monk, Mark Evgenikos). Renamed Gennadios, he became “occupied” Constantinople’s first patriarch, and continuity of a sort was preserved.
Russia’s Orthodox prelates also benefited. Muscovite Prince Vasily II likewise refused compromises, expelling pro-union bishops and priests (they established the “Byzantine Catholic” or “Greek Catholic” churches still around today, mainly in the Levant—churches that respect the Pope but basically follow Orthodox practices). Byzantium had converted the Kievan Rus’ in the 10th century. In 1448, the increasingly confident Russians elected a bishop without asking the Patriarch of Constantinople for permission to do so—effectively, a declaration of independence. The dramatic political and religious shifts across 15th-century Europe left Russia the strongest remaining Orthodox power.
In 1472, Russia’s Grand Prince, Ivan III, married Sophia Palaiologina. She was a niece of Byzantium’s last emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos; her family had fled to Italy, where the Pope took them in. The Pope thought a marriage alliance between Ivan and Sophia might increase Vatican influence in Russia and even lead to church reunion (neither materialized).In a later panegyric for Sophia and Ivan’s son Vasilii III, a Russian monk iterated that the passing of Rome, and then Constantinople, had brought the weighty honor of empire to Muscovy. He concluded memorably: “A fourth Rome there shall not be.”
While Sophia Palaiologina is remembered mostly as the grandmother of Czar Ivan the Terrible, her own grandfather, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, is remembered today mostly for his cameo appearance in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg Lecture. Reaffirming that the church does indeed think in centuries, the erudite German Pope delved deep into the Byzantine back catalog to find Manuel’s 1391 dialogue with a Persian scholar. “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new,” Manuel had attested, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The citation led to street riots in Muslim states, while their leaders angrily demanded an apology. Britain’s Telegraph reported in March 2013 that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a certain Bergoglio chap, was almost demoted for complaining about Benedict’s choice of sources; invoking Manuel II, he said, could “destroy in twenty seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years.”
Managing his tricky relationship has induced much soul-searching among Catholic and Orthodox leaders alike. Both churches face the challenge of transcending mere dialogue to engage and create support mechanisms for Christians in countries where they are unwelcome. ISIS atrocities have only made existing initiatives for helping persecuted Middle East Christians more urgent.
Christians in the Middle East had suffered before ISIS, even in relatively tolerant Muslim countries like Turkey. Since 2003, Turkey has drifted from its traditional political secularism by dint of a new hybrid Islamist-nationalist worldview. Some impressionable youth see Turkey’s tiny Catholic population as threatening. An Italian priest was murdered in his Trabzon church in 2006 by a teenager shouting “Allahu Akbar!” Priests in Samsun and Izmir were also attacked. In 2007 another Izmir priest was stabbed. That same year, young Islamists tortured and killed three Bible society members in Malatya. Finally, in June 2010 Apostolic Vicar Luigi Padovese’s Turkish driver killed him for no apparent reason, shocking the Vatican. It happened in Padovese’s home in Iskenderun just as the Vicar was preparing to travel to Cyprus for Pope Benedict’s speech on violence against Christians.
Since Syria’s civil war began, the persecution of Middle East Christians has worsened greatly.. Five years of fighting and migration have caused what many deem Christian genocide in its ancient heartland.
For Orthodoxy, the precarious existence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in business since the 4th century, is a significant worry. Turkey’s indigenous Greek Orthodox population has mostly disappeared following population exchanges with Greece in 1923, a 1955 pogrom, and later problems. Further, the vital Halki Seminary (occupying an island in the Sea of Marmara) closed in 1971, following a law against private higher educational institutions. Ironically, that law was primarily passed to prevent Islamist institutions from threatening Turkish secularism.
However, despite the seminary’s closure and the waning congregation, the Patriarchate itself will likely endure. Only Turkish citizens can become patriarchs, and so “bishops from Crete and from other international locales have acquired Turkish citizenship, so there will be plenty of replacements,” Greek security and political analyst Ioannis Michaletos told me. “Halki is more of a symbolic issue.” Even so, it is a high-profile issue, with senior UN, U.S. and other officials long seeking Turkish cooperation to reopen it.
Turkish officials know that Halki is an excellent bargaining chip against both the Orthodox Church and Greek state. In 2015, President Erdoğan said the seminary would reopen only when Greece opens a mosque in Thessaloniki (irrespective of its trivial Muslim population). Another Turkish official specified that Athens “needs” a mosque. Surprisingly, Mehmet Görmez (head of Turkey’s Directorate General of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet), sort-of supported reopening Halki when he said in February: “In principal, no religious minority group living on this land should need other countries to educate its own clerics.”
While President Erdoğan is still capable of conciliatory gestures, another factor could explain this softening stance. Considering Turkey’s fluid geopolitics, Erdoğan may feel that placating the Patriarchate is wise. To understand why, we must travel to Switzerland.
It was in the serene quarter of Chambésy, on Lake Geneva’s southwestern edge, that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened representatives of 14 Orthodox churches in January 2016. The extraordinary assembly (Synaxis) was held in the Patriarchate’s Orthodox Center, working since 1966 to facilitate Orthodox cooperation with the wider world.
The Synaxis finalized plans for the first Pan-Orthodox Council since 1351: the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church. Crete’s theological seminary will host the Council over two weeks this month. When finally approved in 2014, the idea had been floating around for 53 years (a mere nanosecond in Church time). While the Istanbul Patriarchate was the intended host, Russia’s Syrian intervention last fall, and ensuing tensions with Turkey, meant that a safe Synod could not be guaranteed there. Absent other suitably neutral ground, the patriarchs agreed on Crete—a Greek island far from the troubled areas and under Patriarch Bartholomew’s spiritual jurisdiction. (The Patriarchate and Greek Church share spiritual and administrative power over Greek territory, a division partially based on Greece’s borders before the 1912–13 Balkan Wars; such jurisdictional complexities have fueled rivalries between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archbishop of Athens.)
The Ecumenical Patriarchate also vies with the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the largest of the Orthodox congregations, with 150 million followers worldwide. Despite ranking fifth in precedence (after the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), the Moscow Patriarchate regards this vast numerical superiority as an obvious reason for leadership. Since the post-Soviet restoration, critics have compared (often critically) the Church’s more assertive role with that of the Russian state itself, particularly under President Putin. Such critiques began appearing during the reign of Aleksey II (1990-2008). The current patriarch, Kirill I, rejects talk of a Russian church-state synergy, claiming the Russian Orthodox Church acts independently.
The Synod is sure to feature the traditional complexities, disagreements, and arcane rituals, but it may also achieve results. Topics include the sacrament of marriage; the West’s leftward drift on social issues has pressured the Catholic Church to accommodate “new lifestyles”—even though today’s liberal social innovators are rarely themselves parishioners. This pressure is acute because the Vatican—and by extension Pope Francis—is the most prominent representative still standing of the post-Christian West’s moral authority.
The Orthodox Church does not need to conform to modern trends. And since many Catholics (and other Christians) disagree with Pope Francis’s liberalizing tendencies, Orthodox leaders may seek to showcase their “untainted” values to dissidents. This too has political ramifications, for the Russian clergy is targeting a divided Europe. “It is surprising that today Russian and European civilizations have exchanged their roles in a certain sense. The Soviet Union was the country of the official state atheism, while all of us perceived the West as the Christian region,” says a senior Russian bishop, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. According to TASS, the bishop added that, “secularism and atheism have in fact become a new ideology of Western Europe,” but concluded that eventually Europeans will “start coming back to their Christian roots.”
Do such comments indicate a policy, either of church or possibly state or—denials notwithstanding—both? Orthodox countries today generally face a decline in population (and thus of parishioners). They once excelled at evangelization; the Byzantine missions of Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Balkans and Moravia (in the late 9th century) and the conversion of the Kievan Rus’ (in the late 10th century) helped shape Europe’s political and religious development. But since then, Orthodoxy has become more of a “call us if you really want, we won’t call you” faith. And the “franchise system” of organizing Orthodox churches by nationhood has also caused chronic infighting that still afflicts the geopolitics of Orthodox countries.
In fairness, five centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Middle East, plus the Communist degradations in 20th-century Eastern Europe, severely restricted Orthodox evangelization. By contrast, Protestants and Catholics have mastered global conversions and pastoral outreach. Orthodox observers will thus follow carefully the Synod’s conclusions regarding “the mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world.”
Orthodox power has always required political support. No one expect miracles from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, operating under President Erdoğan’s whims, or from a Greek Church hampered by a national economic depression, the migrant crisis, and an anti-church socialist leader. Russia, however, has political and numerical significance; its church could gain more influence abroad if it overcomes its traditional insularity. Patriarch Kirill’s historic Cuba meeting with Pope Francis (and ensuing Antarctica expedition, to bless the continent’s first Orthodox chapel…and, apparently, discuss theology with a penguin delegation) indicates such ambitions.
“The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong national agenda, but is far from unique in that way among many Christian churches in many countries,” James Pettifer, an Oxford professor specializing in Greece and the Balkans told me. “The UK and other governments see its activity vis-à-vis the coming Orthodox Synod as a sign of increasing Russian ‘soft power’ generally.”
How is the West reacting to Russia’s religious “soft power”? The Catholic Church, for its part, wants to increase its political capital: By meeting Kirill, Pope Francis elevated his own status as an intermediary between faiths. Britain, surprisingly, plays a prominent role, too; a singularity that owes much to the interest of Prince Charles, a descendent of both the Romanovs and (more distantly) the Byzantine dynasties. Like Byzantine Princess Sophia Palaiologina, Charles’s own father (Philip, Prince of Greece) was rescued from the Ionian Islands at a young age following another Turkish war.
Philip converted from Orthodoxy to Anglicanism to marry Queen Elizabeth. But Charles knows his roots, and his well-publicized fascination with world religions and advocacy for inter-religious harmony have advanced British interests. Particularly close to Greek Orthodoxy, often visiting the secluded Mount Athos monasteries (which Vladimir Putin also visited recently), Charles is among today’s major Christian influencers. “Charles is a deeply religious man,” reported the Catholic Herald this past March. “When he ascends to the throne he will be arguably England’s most theologically literate monarch since the union.” Noting his advocacy work for the Syriac and Coptic Churches, the magazine concluded that, “if any single figure can help to save Middle Eastern Christianity, it is surely the Prince.”
Being long aware of Prince Charles’s interests, I was unsurprised to hear of his impending Balkan visit this spring. I was at an Aspen Institute event in Kosovo in February, and the British were clearly flustered. “Six weeks, mate!” said one embassy handler. “Prince Charles only gave us six weeks’ notice!” Apparently this was inconsistent with royal protocol, but then Charles has always been a maverick. At that moment, when the British were quietly arranging the royals’ Balkan tour, the Orthodox Patriarchate had just announced its June Synod. And Greece was secretly negotiating the Catholic-Orthodox celebrity excursion to migrant-encumbered Lesvos for April. Finally, the Vatican was preparing for Mother Teresa’s September canonization. It was a busy winter indeed for European religious intrigue.
The royals’ March tour exemplified Britain’s soft-power approach. Charles and Camilla visited Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, stressing post-conflict reconciliation while visiting horse farms, World War I cemeteries, the Novak Djokovic Foundation for Children, and sundry religious leaders. While the British have adjusted to their post-imperial status, they have retained intercultural knowledge and connections acquired over time, today personified by Prince Charles and his religious interests. Practically too, the U.S. government has instrumentalized British foreign policy in such a way as to facilitate U.S. interests in ways that Americans alone cannot execute. It’s not the same as America riding the coattails of the Royal Navy before World War II, but it’s not nothing either.
For example, both powers preach Balkan peace and stability, but the State Department’s zeal to “get stuff done” inevitably means dictating to governments. This tactic somewhat limits U.S. capacity for positive interaction. Britain’s background role helps out more than is commonly understood. For example, Britain has led interfaith dialogue initiatives following Kosovo’s 2008 independence. Although the Foreign Office leads logistics, one organizer told me that “globally, the UK government does not support interfaith dialogue with finance—it is rather individual charitable organizations and Prince Charles that provide support.” Money is secondary, however, to access. Prince Charles has the cachet and active interest to engage religious communities, and thus influence religious trends and decisions.
Aside from Russian influence, Western governments are also concerned about jihadists returning from the Middle East/North Africa region via the Balkans. Several hundred Albanians and Bosnians have fought for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra; British intelligence officials anticipated this threat back in 2011, when Syria exploded. Prince Charles’s Kosovo visit included another interfaith conference, again consonant with British policy: The organizer cited above admits that “generally, the [government] would see it as one way of many ways to counter violent extremism.”
Prince Charles is the best-known figure in a global network of aristocrats, oligarchs, NGOs and leaders comprising a shadow network of influencers with access to senior religious and political leaders. This network function is becoming increasingly significant now that symbolic religious events are unfolding against the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions, European political division over migration and Islam, and seemingly never-ending spasms of murderous terrorism.
While the Synod will be Orthodoxy’s main event, the Vatican’s planned September 4 canonization of Mother Teresa will also have geopolitical ramifications. Born in Skopje, Macedonia in 1910, this ethnic Albanian nun became famous for tending to the sick and establishing nunneries in India. She is commemorated in Balkan airports, monuments, museums, and churches. Cumulatively, the Vatican and Britain have enhanced her Albanian brand.
Since August 2014, Pope Francis has visited Albania, Turkey, and Bosnia, reaffirming the Church’s regional interests. (I have analyzed this Catholic engagement in an e-book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans.) Albania’s transition to independence in the early 20th century was guided by Jesuit-educated Albanian intellectuals, and John Paul II supported the secession of Croatia and Slovenia from Yugoslavia.
Francis, meanwhile, has been on a saint-making tear, canonizing 839 people since 2013 (813 of them being 15th-century Italians who refused to convert to Islam after Ottoman raids), including Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Mother Teresa’s canonization coincides with the Vatican’s special Jubilee Year of Mercy, which itself seems a papal plea against increasing European secularism, alienation, and opposition to Francis’s pro-refugee policy.
Balkan celebrations will follow the Vatican canonization. As the canonization shows, the Catholic Church is using today’s accidents of history advantageously. Francis is also the first Jesuit pope: An official with the Church-supported Jesuit Refugee Services in Brussels told me his elevation had “definitely been a big boost” for the organization’s funding and general activities during the migrant crisis and other global calamities it addresses.
Will the elusive church reunion dream of 1439 ever be realized? It is unlikely, given the numerous internal disputes confronting both. Here, the Orthodox Synod’s planned discussion of autocephaly is important, as not all churches are equally recognized (Macedonia, Moldova, and Montenegro have all experienced this); this weakness often affects both church and state operations, as well as foreign diplomacy. Most recently, the drama increased when the Bulgarian Church threatened to boycott the Synod, “because they’re upset over some of the documents up for discussion and also the seating arrangements,” as John L. Allen Jr. of Catholic media outlet Crux put it. The Patriarchate of Antioch also threatened to boycott over, among all things, “a jurisdictional dispute involving Qatar.”
Catholic-Orthodox initiatives do exist, however, especially concerning the persecution of Christians. Beyond Syria and Iraq, both churches are increasingly threatened in Africa and Asia. Even former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu demanded the “liberation of Muslim lands” from Palestine to Armenia (the world’s first Christian state) to Crimea, while some Turks support adopting an “Islamic constitution.” This is a threat that both churches, Western and Eastern, perceive sharply.
Like its increasing Islamic insularity, Turkey’s current migration chokehold on the European Union is a geopolitical reality. These developments will have far-reaching consequences for European engagement with religion, and religion will influence them in return. In the European Union, Islamist political movements supported by Muslim migrants (who for now, enjoy the far Left’s protection) will fuel the backlash against Merkel’s failed open-borders policy. For the Right, leftist “rejection” of traditional communal values inevitably opens religious questions.
The Catholic and Orthodox faiths offer different answers to those and other challenges. Pope Francis has supported “anti-racism” and “common values”; for a migration-challenged leader like Greece’s Tsipras, this is manna from heaven. Yet many Europeans detest liberal social engineering; even though not Orthodox, they may well agree with Orthodox leaders’ critiques of Europe today. Such Europeans may thus even look favorably toward states, like Russia, that compete with the United States, and keenly observe Europe’s proliferating urban protests.
For its part, the United States today lacks any world-renowned clerical figureheads. No one ever replaced Billy Graham. U.S. policy thus cannot project serious religious soft power, despite its society being more religious than that of any country in Western Europe. Washington will have to rely on established partners and proxies to engage the emerging religio-political agendas of Europe—as if the ones native to the Muslim world are not already challenge enough.