M o s c o w — It was unofficially announced in Moscow on 19 May that the “World Summit in Defence of Persecuted Christians”, planned by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in conjunction with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, has been cancelled or at least postponed. The summit intended to gather 1.000 Christian leaders from as many as 150 countries in Moscow from 28 to 30 October 2016.
Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Relations for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, attributes the decision to the preponderance of other issues burdening the ROA. According to him, Patriarch Kirill’s decision to meet with Pope Francis in Havana on 12 Feb. has caused major discord within the ROC. Consequently, Russian Orthodoxy needs all the resources it can muster to prepare for the global “Holy and Great Synod” scheduled for the Greek-held portion of Crete from 16 to 27 June. This gathering of the heads of all autocephalous (independent) Orthodox churches has been in preparation since 1961 and is touted to be the most significant gathering of Byzantine churches since the Second Council of Nicaea in 787!
Despite all present controversy, Kirill’s decision to meet with the Pope has left him far from isolated. Bartholomew I., the “Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople” and figurative head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox believers, attended the inauguration of the present Pope in March 2013. The two met again on the Greek island of Lesbos on 16 April 2016. Bartholomew was the first Ecumenical Patriarch present at a papal inauguration since the split of the two churches in 1054.
According to Vlasenko, both Orthodoxy and the Russian state had taken the Moscow congress seriously, and the decision to cancel or delay it was not taken lightly. The BGEA has spent millions to succour the favour of Russian Orthodoxy – in particular if one includes the several million dollars the “Samaritan’s Purse” organisation spent for relief work among Ukrainian refugees in western Russia over the past 12 months. The BGEA’s “Russian-American Forum of Christian Leaders” held in Charlotte/North Carolina in November 2014 is regarded today as a singular effort to curry Orthodox favour. Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the ROC’s Department for External Affairs, was the featured guest at that event.
Since the Geneva-based ecumenical movement is largely history in Eastern Europe, the ROC’s alternative ecumenical movement has viewed the Franklin-Graham-led BGEA as a possible and necessary bridge to Western audiences. The Russian church and its state regard themselves as an alternative to the unduly tolerant and shapeless mainline Christendom of Western Europe and North America. On 21 May, the Vienna-based foundation “Pro Oriente” quoted Hilarion from an event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Moscow Patriarchy’s external relations office: “The differences with Reformation-based fellowships, ‘who have contorted the teaching of the church in order to make it fit secular standards’, have increased. Yet the Moscow Patriarchy is always willing to cooperate with representatives of the Protestant world ‘remaining loyal to the morality of the Gospel and the traditions of dialogue’. The head of the church’s external relations office pointed to the ‚Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’ as one example.”
Nevertheless, Russian Protestant grief regarding the cancellation of the Graham event is apparent only in modest amounts. They agree with Graham’s conservative, traditional-values-centred agenda, but feel the event has been created without them. As was already evident in North Carolina, Russian Protestants are welcome as members of the choir, but its conductors are North American Protestants and Russian Orthodox.
Roman Lunkin, a leading Russian specialist on religion connected to England’s Keston College, stressed that the planned event was a profoundly political one – the Moscow city government was one of its official hosts. Moscow’s Sergey Vdovin, General-Secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, alluded to the asymmetry in size in a letter on 8 April: “In view of its heritage, an organisation such as the BGEA has no other alternative than to act as it does if it intends to survive and make progress. They search for more-or-less equal partners when striving to achieve their goals. If I’m asked whether I would like to support the efforts of the BGEA, my response at the present time would be: ‘No thanks, at least not for now.’ Unfortunately, the BGEA is of a different world than our Evangelical Alliance.” The BEGA probably has a bigger budget than all the Protestant denominations of Russia combined.
Perhaps more positively, the cancellation of the planned event will help calm the tempest which its preparation has already incited. Roman Lunkin doubts whether the November event would permit public discussion on issues of religious freedom apparent within the Russian sphere of influence. This includes for ex. the Muslim-ruled republics of Central Asia. At least a few Western organisations have made their participation in November contingent on the freedom to discuss precisely these issues. But for now, matters regarding the congress are suddenly no longer on the table.
Ukraine’s Protestant bloggers have been abuzz regarding the November event. One contribution compared the planned conference to a meeting on the rights of Christians held at the Emperor Nero’s office. The writer labelled the congress an expression of “the highest possible degree of bestiality”. On his Facebook page on 5 April, Mariupol’s well-known Pentecostal pastor and military chaplain Gennady Mokhnenko – a frequent visitor to the USA – resorted to a profanity to describe Franklin Graham. Regarding Vladimir Putin he added: “Hitler was also considered to be a defender of Christian values.”
On a more hopeful note, the Ukrainian Iraliya Moiseenko remarked on Facebook that the limbless Australian-American Nick Vujicic has been speaking to large crowds in both Ukraine and Russia without incident. “He of course has a different task: He’s not travelling to meet politicians; he is coming to meet the people.”
I have qualms regarding the attempt of Russian society to present itself as a healthy moral alternative to Western decadence. Too many moral issues remain unresolved in Russia – the huge numbers of AWOL fathers for ex. Yet perhaps Russian Orthodoxy wants only to claim possession of a superior theology. I do in any case well understand Russia’s geopolitical concerns regarding an ever-advancing NATO.
I regret the cancellation or delay of the BGEA-ROC summit on religious persecution. It might indeed have been a breath of fresh air, something very different from singing to the choir of like-minded in Washington or Kiev. It might indeed have heralded greater religious freedom within the Russian sphere of influence and beyond.
The BGEA did not respond to my requests for an interview
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 25 May 2016
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited.