Letter #19, 2017: After Fatima…

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May 15, 2017, Monday

“I saw that American leaders wanted to cooperate with Russia.”—The influential Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Oxford-educated “Foreign Minister” of the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church, in an interview published today on the website of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. The interview follows Hilarion’s four-day trip to Washington D.C. to participate in a “World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians” (link), a Christian religious conference sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, an organization founded by the famous American evangelist and preacher Billy Graham and now led by his son, Franklin Graham. On the margins of the conference, on May 11, Hilarion had a private meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence (link)

(Below, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev meets with American Vice President Mike Pence in Washington D.C. on the margins of the “World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians.” The two also had a brief private meeting in a separate place. Hilarion, in an interview published below, says he will refer the contents of his meeting with Pence to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and that Kirill, if Kirill deems the contents important enough, will refer them directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin)

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“We need one consolidated coalition.” —Hilarion’s summary of the goal of a proposed “alliance” between Russia and the United States, and other powers, specifically against the horrors of terrorism, in which violence is used to sow fear among civilian populations (see the interview below)

(Below, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and, like his father, a leading American Protestant Evangelical, was chief organizer of the conference just held in Washington attended by Metropolitan Hilarion. In this photo, Franklin is shown meeting in 2015 in Russia with Russian President Vladimir Putin)

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Dangerous Infatuation or Useful Strategic Alliance?

A number of American Christian evangelicals seem to have been persuaded to embark on a surprising new “romance” with the post-Soviet religious and political leadership of Vladimir Putin‘s Russia.

And this has occurred precisely at the moment when Russia is being ferociously attacked daily, even hourly, in much of the mainstream American media.

jpeg-2This media, and its supporters in politics, business and academia, argue that Putin’s Russia is a powerful, technologically ingenious, and geopolitically dangerous threat to the US, and so needs to be confronted, countered and contained. But some very influential Protestant evangelicals see things differently.

(Above, Metropolitan Hilarion meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence this past week, with Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, between them. In his private life, Pence is an evangelical, but he was born and raised Catholic, and still refers to himself as an “evangelical Catholic.” One article puts it this way: “One of the more publicly shared accounts of Pence’s transition from a Catholic youth minister who wanted to be a priest to an evangelical megachurch member came in 1994. That’s when he told the Indianapolis Business Journal about an intense period of religious searching that he underwent in college. “I made a commitment to Christ,” Pence said, speaking of the late 1970s. “I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” link)

This opens up a series of possibilities, of questions, which have been little-asked in recent months…

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What could be the consequences of this “American Evangelical-Russian Orthodox” rapprochement for the political balance-of-power inside the United States, even inside the evidently unstable coalition which elected Donald Trump president in November?

What influence could it have on the balance of political power inside Russia?

What mighty be Rome’s view, Pope Francis‘ view, of this rapprochement?

What might the Europeans think of it? And the Chinese? And the Islamic world?

To what extent is this a serious “romance,” and to what extant is it merely a brief “infatuation” which will soon grow cold?

To what extent are any of the partners to this relationship themselves being manipulated by hidden forces which have their own agenda?

And what could that agenda be?

Impossible questions to fully answer right now. Only time will enable us to give fuller answers than we presently have.

But, at the very least, this “romance” adds an interesting element into the mix of factors which must be analyzed when looking at the choices facing Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, precisely at the moment when the Church — in light of the Fatima prophecy, re-echoed worldwide in recent days because of the Pope’s trip to Fatima on Friday and Saturday — seeks to understand what it might mean that (as the “woman clothed in light” told the three shepherd children) “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph” and “Russia will be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”

My own conviction is that the faith which unites Catholic and Orthodox Christians — a faith which constituted them as a single, undivided Christian Church for more than 1,000 years, from the foundation of the Church in the first century up until the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D. — still could, and should, reunite them today, after the passage of almost another 1,000 years.

It is time.

And this long hoped-for reunion — as difficult and complicated as it may be given many cultural, political and theological obstacles — will, I believe, soon come to pass.

And when it does, it is my hope that it will bring with it the fruits of a just peace for all mankind — a “period of peace,” as the Fatima message defines it.

This is one of the reasons behind writing and sending out these letters: the hope that these letters may play some positive role in assisting the effort to bring Christian unity worldwide, and, at the same time, and in part as a result of this reunion, to help bring peace where there is the threat — and even the reality — of conflict and war.

So that is one central goal behind these letters: to help in some modest but real way the cause of peace, even, and perhaps most of all, when the threat of war looms large.

A peace which is not in any way a surrender of any freedom or of any justice, but a peace in which freedom is protected and secured, through discussion, negotiation and with reason, a peace in which justice shines forth all the more brightly for having been trampled under by every form of injustice.

The news of Hilarion’s May 11 meeting with Pence was broken by Time magazine reporter Elizabeth Dias. She wrote:

Vice President Mike Pence Met Privately With Top Russian Cleric

By Elizabeth Dias

Updated: May 12, 2017 8:55 AM ET | Originally published: May 11, 2017

A top cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin met privately with Vice President Mike Pence Thursday morning and urged the U.S. to cooperate with Russia to combat terrorism in the Middle East.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Moscow, who chairs the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department, spoke with Pence backstage at evangelist Franklin Graham’s Washington summit on religious violence against Christians.

“It is only one united, international anti-terrorist coalition which can combat terrorism and win,” Hilarion told TIME during an interview in a suite at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. “The two countries should put these political differences aside.”

A White House spokesman confirmed Pence’s meeting with Hilarion and said the cleric’s comments also reflected President Trump’s views. Additional religious leaders were also present backstage. Hilarion says that after talking with Pence, he feels “very positive” about the future of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia…

[For the complete Time article, go here.]

Kirill “Will Convey This Information To Russian Leaders”

Two new postings on the official website of the Moscow Patriarchate give us Moscow’s view of the latest developments in the warming relationship between the Russian Orthodox and America’s Protestant Evangelical communities.

The first is a summary of an interview given to Interfax (the Russian Orthodox website) by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion, the “Foreign Minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, summing up the events of these recent days.

15 May 2017, 12:08

Moscow Patriarchate is optimistic about the prospects of Russian-American dialogue

Moscow, May 15, Interfax – The Russian Orthodox Church is optimistic about the progress of the dialogue between Russia and the United States on key international issues.

“I saw that American leaders wanted to cooperate with Russia, to settle accumulated problems,” head of the Synodal Department for External Church Relations Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk said in his interview with Interfax-Religion on his return from Washington.

During the visit the metropolitan participated in the World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians, met with US Vice President Michael Pence and the country’s influential religious figures.

Metropolitan Hilarion is going to report the details to Patriarch Kirill and “if he considers it necessary he will convey this information to Russian leaders.”

According to the hierarch, aggravated confrontation between our countries did not influence the atmosphere of his Washington talks.

“Today Christians of Russia and America can play an important role in political settlement. Communicating to American Christians I saw that many of them ardently sympathizes with Russia, its president, I saw their desire to pray for the success of the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the USA,” the metropolitan said.

Noting that many Russian Christians sympathizes with the acting American president, the head of the Synodal Department said that Donald Trump “is in a very difficult situation: significant part of the country’s political establishment is in deaf or open opposition to his course,” while basic mass media including CNN “carry out targeted propagandistic campaign against him, which plays the Russian card as well.”

“We hope that he will stick to his electoral promises and will spare no effort to establish a dialogue with Russia. Such a dialogue will bring nothing, but good,” the metropolitan believes.

According to him, a common denominator that could help Russia and the USA to agree on the most acute issues of the international agenda is the struggle against international terrorism.

Metropolitan Hilarion reminded Patriarch Kirill’s words that there was the only way to eliminate terrorism: it was the way of coordinated efforts of all states ready to oppose terrorism not in words, but in practice.

“We need one consolidated coalition instead of several anti-terror coalitions involved in mutual confrontations,” the metropolitan stressed and expressed hope that “the USA and Russia will find the way to set aside political confrontations and unite in order to win a victory over international terrorism as they once united to win over the German fascism.”

“We Need One Consolidated Coalition”

The second is the actual text of the interview Metropolitan Hilarion gave to Interfax, which was the basis for the summary article above.

Title:

Many Americans sympathize with Russia and its president (link)

Last week head of the Synodal Department for External Church Relations Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk visited Washington where he participated in the World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians. He also met with US Vice President Michael Pence and the country’s influential religious figures. Head of the Synodal Department shared his impressions with Interfax-Religion in his interview.

– Your Eminence, your visit to the USA coincided with the period when contradictions between our countries aggravated. Did it somehow influence the themes and atmosphere of your conversations with American leaders?

Metropolitan Hilarion: It didn’t. On the contrary, I saw that American leaders wanted to cooperate with Russia, to settle accumulated problems. Certainly my post as the DECR chairman does not suggest conducting any negotiations on behalf of the Russian state. I spoke about the things that worry the Church, first of all, about persecutions against Christians and the threat of international terrorism.

As His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia always says there is the only way to eliminate terrorism: it is the way of coordinated efforts of all states ready to oppose terrorism not in words, but in practice. We need one consolidated coalition instead of several anti-terror coalitions involved in mutual confrontations. I hope that the USA and Russia will find the way to set aside political confrontations and unite in order to win a victory over international terrorism as they once united to win over the German fascism.

– On your pastoral view, do you see any common denominator that will help our countries arrive to an agreement on most acute issues of the international agenda?

– Metropolitan Hilarion: Today all countries of the world face the same challenge – international terrorism. There is no country which is protected from this plague of the 21st century. Terrorists who disguise their criminal actions in Islamic slogans and cry out ‘Allah Akbar’ when they kill people, act meanly and cynically. They target at defenseless people who don’t have any other guilt except not sharing their Satanic ideology.

Terrorists carry out genocide of Christians in the Middle East and several countries of Africa and other regions of the planet. Until recently there was ‘a conspiracy of silence’ around this phenomenon, neither politicians, nor mass media mentioned it. Today this informational blockade has been broken through, and one of the reasons is that terrorists themselves post videos with violent executions of Christians with their heads cut in the Internet, terrorists shoot them, crucify, kill entire families and villages.

Today politicians and journalists started speaking about the persecutions. Vice president Pence’s speech and speeches of other congressmen at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians witness to it.

Nevertheless, attention paid to persecutions against Christians is not proportional to the scale of these persecutions. Humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented scale takes place in front of the civilized world, planned and consequent genocide of Christians is carried out. First of all, it refers to the cradle of Christianity, the Middle East, but it also involved many other countries. Christians are the most numerous, but at the same time the most persecuted religious community on planet.

– Are you going to discuss your meeting with Michael Pence with Russian leaders?

– Metropolitan Hilarion: I will report to His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia the results of the conversation and if he considers it necessary he will convey this information to Russian leaders. I suppose that today Christians of Russia and America can play an important role in political settlement. Communicating to American Christians I saw that many of them ardently sympathizes with Russia, its president, I saw their desire to pray for the success of the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the USA.

I know that many Russian Christians sympathizes with the acting American president. He is in a very difficult situation: significant part of the country’s political establishment is in deaf or open opposition to his course. Basic mass media including CNN carry out targeted propagandistic campaign against him, which plays the Russian card as well.

We hope that he will stick to his electoral promises and will spare no effort to establish a dialogue with Russia. Such a dialogue will bring nothing, but good.

“Strange Bedfellows”

A third article is an analysis from a critical perspective of this new “rapprochement” between the American Evangelical community and the Orthodox in general, and the Russian Orthodox in particular (link).

It is by a American scholar and writer named Christopher Stroop, who evidently was a member of the Evangelical community but has now left that community.

The article contains a sharp criticism of the closer relations between American Evangelicals, represented by Billy Graham‘s son, Franklin Graham, and the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russia’s political leadership in general.

Stroop has co-authored a book “on leaving conservative Christianity” which is “provisionally titled By the Rivers of Babylon: Apostates Remember Believing,” which suggests that he was a member of the conservative Christian community and has since left that community. (link)

Here is the text of this article by Stroop, posted on May 12 on the University of Southern California website under the rubric “Religion Dispatches.”

PENCE MEETS WITH ONE OF PUTIN’S TOP CLERICS: STRANGE BEDFELLOWS AT BGEA’S WORLD SUMMIT IN DEFENSE OF PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS (Note: BGEA means “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association”)

BY CHRISTOPHER STROOP MAY 12, 2017

Yesterday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made headlines for his appearance at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, where he proclaimed Christians to be among the most persecuted people in the world.

While there are parts of the world where the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, is a real problem, the United States is not one of them. Russia, on the other hand, has enacted laws that bar Protestant groups from proselytizing on penalty of fines, and has even gone so far as to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses entirely.

At first blush, then, it might seem odd that one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s leading hierarchs, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk—who was staying at the Trump International Hotel—not only participated in BGEA’s summit yesterday, but also, as first reported by Time, met privately with the vice president.

Curiously enough, a key talking point from their meeting was that America and Russia should work together to fight international terrorism, a hallmark of the Trump campaign’s election season foreign policy rhetoric.

Metropolitan Hilarion heads the ROC’s Department of External Relations (Note: ROC means “Russian Orthodox Church”), and in this capacity he has worked tirelessly in recent years to cultivate relationships with Catholic and Protestant supporters of “traditional values” abroad, in order to work with them to promote Christian supremacy at the expense of women’s and LGBTQ rights—an example of what I call “bad ecumenism.”

Such efforts are coordinated with the Kremlin’s foreign policy, which seeks to foster relationships with anti-democratic forces outside Russia.

While Moscow made similar efforts during Soviet times, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rebranded post-Soviet Russia into the global standard bearer for “traditional values conservatism,” and in this capacity attracts primarily right-wing fellow travelers.

On the one hand, this policy would seem to make President and CEO of BGEA Franklin Graham a natural partner for Putin and the ROC, and, indeed, Graham has warmed considerably to both in recent years.

In October 2015, Graham met with both Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, after which Patriarch Kirill declared Christians of all confessions who oppose marriage equality to be “confessors of the faith.”

Graham reminded his followers on social media of his connections to Russia last month:

Franklin Graham ✔@Franklin_Graham
I was in Russia in 2015 and met with President Vladimir @PutinRF_Eng.

On the other hand, Russia’s legal restrictions on Protestants should be a sticking point for American Christians. There is more than a little hypocrisy in Graham’s allowing a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to play an important role in his World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians—particularly considering that conservative Christians in America cry “persecution!” over far less than Protestants in the Russian Federation face.

Indeed, Graham did initially balk. BGEA’s summit was initially slated to take place in Moscow last fall, with the ROC as a cosponsor.

However, last spring, the ROC quietly tabled the plan at least for the time being, and in summer Graham spun this series of events as if he had made the decision to move the event to Washington, D.C., in part in response to Russia’s anti-Protestant actions.

The Yarovaya Laws—the so-called anti-terrorism measures that contain the relevant provisions on religious activities—went into effect that July, and immediately began to be enforced. Despite coverage in Christianity Today, however, there seems to be relatively little outcry among American Evangelicals (Russell Moore and Michele Bachmann are exceptions).
What, then, are we to make of Graham’s sudden rapprochement with his erstwhile Russian partners in the global culture wars?

Graham has been an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, who welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (and a Russian state photographer) to the White House on May 10, a day before the start of BGEA’s summit. This oddly timed photo-op, paired with Pence’s meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, would seem to herald a turn toward normalization of relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, for his part, seems happy to play his role in order to advance his agenda of Christian supremacism in the United States and worldwide—even if it comes at the expense of certain rights of Russian Protestants and other religious minorities.

Christopher Stroop—
Christopher Stroop is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the History Department at the University of South Florida. Holding a Ph.D. in history and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities from Stanford University, Stroop taught at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow from 2012-2015 and also edited its academic journal State, Religion and Church for three years. In addition, Stroop, who blogs at ChrisStroop.com, is a freelance writer and commentator on religion and politics and co-editor with Lauren O’Neal of a forthcoming anthology of essays on leaving conservative Christianity, provisionally titled By the Rivers of Babylon: Apostates Remember Believing.

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