Moscow

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their report included this passage about Byzantium: "We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism."

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, the labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word "Kiev" in that spiritual and national narrative.

"Just as the original Church in Jerusalem is the mother of all Orthodox Churches around the world, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople some 300 years later, so the venerable see of Kiev in Kievan Rus in the tenth century is the mother of the Churches in all the East Slavic Orthodox lands -- including the current nation-states of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Byelorussia," explained the Very Rev. Alexander Webster, dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in upstate New York. This seminary is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

"Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church," he said, "and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev."

Nevertheless, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taken the first step to establish an independent, or "autocephalous," Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church responded by breaking "Eucharistic communion" with Istanbul.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it's important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

* The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Pope and patriarch point to the unity found among the modern martyrs

Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.

"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."

But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.

Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."

It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.