Although religious concerns are the raison d’être for calling the council, Orthodox Christianity has an opportunity to resurrect its cultural and civilizational influence it has lost in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Indeed, over the last 50 years in particular and the past few centuries in general, Orthodox Christianity was suppressed in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era and almost entirely eradicated in some hardline Islamic governments in the Middle East. Although Orthodox Christians live in relative peace with their non-Orthodox neighbors in Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and others, the fractured nature of Orthodox Christianity into cultural and national Orthodox churches makes it difficult for Orthodox leaders to coordinate amongst each other and engage in the public square.
Two of the most influential leaders in Orthodox Christianity, the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and the patriarch of Constantinople, historically have argued and—as it were—undermined each other on religious and political matters in order to project their respective supremacy over the Orthodox Church. Most of the negotiations in Geneva at the end of January for that matter pertained to sanitizing the council agenda of issues and procedures which might give too much influence to any one patriarch over the others. Instead, the pan-Orthodox council will take on a more modest agenda vis-a-vis theology, but given the unstable nature of the geo-political neighborhood, the social and political implications of a unified Orthodox voice in the region could prove decisive.
For comparison, Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, as well as his predecessors, have been influential in global affairs. Just last year the pope mediated between the United States and Cuba, resulting in the reestablishment of diplomatic ties after 50 years. Similarly, when Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he was credited with inspiring the creation of the Solidarity movement which eventually helped end communism in Eastern Europe. Culturally speaking, Western art, literature, music, and even the modern understanding of human rights finds its roots in some form in Roman Catholicism in particular and Judeo-Christianity in general.
The Russian Orthodox Church for example, despite some concerns about its close relationship with the Russian government, sought to fill the cultural and religious vacuum left after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The number of churches in the country ballooned from roughly 7,000 in 1987 to over 15,000 today. Just a few decades ago, Russian Orthodox priests and religious were kidnapped, tortured, or killed by government forces. Now, for better or worse, church officials flex their cultural, religious, and historic strength in the region by arguing that neighboring Orthodox churches in Ukraine, Estonia, Armenia, and others fall under Russian protection and guidance. Politically, this has caused tensions to rise because of nationalist sentiments in surrounding countries especially when the Russian government uses religious pretexts for greater control.
However, one ought not assume Orthodox leaders will have the same influence as the leader of 1.2 billion people if they resolve their inter-religious disputes at the council in June. Indeed, it would be unreasonable to expect a ten-day council produce the necessary resolution to settle a millennia-long dispute over patriarchal primary. However, the council will debate the issue of interactions amongst Orthodox churches. If they can come to an agreeable conclusion, it could invigorate Orthodox faithful to reassert themselves into local political life just as Pope John Paul II did in Poland. The Solidarity movement started off small and took years to achieve its goals; thus, one should not dismiss the role that faith can play in shaping the political arena. Just ask the Soviet Union.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.