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Patriarch Bartholomew’s Visit to Hungary: Christian Unity in the Shadow of Ukraine

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, will from Wednesday enjoy an extended stay in Hungary as a guest of the Roman Catholic Church’s Benedictine Order at St Martin’s Arch-Abbey at Pannonhalma in Western Hungary.

During his five-day visit, besides meeting local Orthodox and other church leaders, Bartholomew will on Friday be a keynote speaker at a conference at the abbey to discuss “Seek Peace and Pursue It” (Psalm 32:15) – a pointed topic given the war in neighbouring Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked invasion last year.

While the conference program features serious experts on Christian moral thought, it is also officially co-sponsored by Hungary’s Fidesz-led government, which still enjoys close ties to Moscow.

The conference will be opened by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen. And Zoltan Balog, formerly Fidesz’s human resources minister, also features in the line-up, though technically in his present role as presiding bishop of the Reformed Church in Hungary.

Semjen, leader of Fidesz’s satellite Christian Democratic People’s Party, is scheduled to speak ahead of Patriarch Bartholomew. He does so in the same week that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, awarded the “Order of Glory and Honour” to Semjen’s deputy Miklos Szoltesz, the state secretary for religious affairs, for services to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) – a move which further cemented the ties between the Hungarian government and the Kremlin.

The ceremony took place in Budapest’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyv – formerly head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign department, now Metropolitan of Hungary – representing Patriarch Kirill. Both Semjen and Orban are themselves both past recipients of the award in September 2022 and June 2023 respectively.

In June 2022, Orban had found favour with Kirill by vetoing the latter’s addition, as a key associate of the Russian president, to an EU sanctions list, citing “religious freedom” concerns. Hungary has also continued to import large quantities of Russian oil in an exemption to an EU-wide ban and obstructed Ukraine’s quest for closer ties with NATO.

In a statement to journalists in Budapest on April 13, US ambassador David Pressman told journalists: “We have concerns about the continued eagerness of Hungarian leaders to expand and deepen ties with the Russian Federation despite Russia’s ongoing brutal aggression against Ukraine and threat to transatlantic security.”

Uncomfortable

This background makes the conjunction of Semjen and Patriarch Bartholomew on stage together on Friday potentially uncomfortable. In contrast to the Hungarian government, Patriarch Bartholomew has been assertive in his support of Ukraine. He has also been resolute in refusing to bow to Russia’s pressure to rescind the “Tomos of Autocephaly” he granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018.

The Tomos, issued at the request of a large body of Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful, separated the OCU from the Moscow Patriarchate’s canonical jurisdiction – an historical link which often served to instrumentalise Ukraine’s church structures as vehicles for Russian political influence.

“Painful to us is the fact that the Patriarchate of Moscow has stooped to the level of submitting to political ambitions of the Russian Federation… seemingly blessing this cruel invasion and unjustifiable bloodshed,” Patriarch Bartholomew told The Pillar, a US Catholic newspaper in October 2022. “We have fervently and fraternally appealed to the Patriarch of Moscow that he separate himself from political crimes, even if it means stepping down from his throne.”

Patriarch Bartholomew renewed his criticism of both Russia and the ROC in a message inaugurating the Orthodox liturgical year on September 1, issued after meeting with Ukraine’s primate, Metropolitan Epiphany Domenko. He accused the ROC of generating “a new theology of war as it tries to justify an unjustified, unholy, unprovoked, diabolical war”.

In a separate statement to the Greek Newspaper Patris on September 4, Bartholomew warned Patriarch Kirill and his associates not to expect “the war unleashed by their state to settle their ecclesiastical claims [to jurisdiction in Ukraine]”.

“How is it possible to claim to be brother to another people and bless the war waged against them… to tolerate destruction of their homes and churches by Russian missiles?” he asked.

Manipulated

The risk is that Bartholomew’s participation in a Hungarian government-funded “peace conference” alongside Fidesz representatives could be exploited for propaganda purposes by Orban’s nationalist-populist party, especially given the difficulties arising from Pope Francis’s visit in May.

Janos Reichert, religious affairs commentator for the Hungarian weekly Magyar Hangpoints out how manipulation by the Hungarian state broadcaster MTVA and Fidesz’s informal media empire worked to devastating effect during Francis’s trip.

“The news blackout worked well,” Reichert says. “It was predicated on the hoax that the entire program of the head of the Catholic Church was broadcast by public media [yet] discreet misrepresentations and concealments achieved their aim [and] the Pope’s visit became immortalised in public consciousness as if he’d come to Budapest out of respect for the person and policies of Viktor Orban.”

Francis also seemed naive about the potential usefulness of the Hungarian government as a channel for mediating a peace – and the misuses to which his visit might be put. Orban’s advocacy for a ceasefire in Ukraine has been criticised as cover for freezing the conflict at a stage advantageous to Moscow and allowing Russia to retain control of seized Ukrainian territory.

Patriarch Bartholomew’s tougher stance towards Russia and the ROC means he is less likely to fall into the same trap as Pope Francis. Yet the involvement again of Hungary’s state broadcaster in publicising his visit could once again lead to serious distortion through selective editing, even if he guards his words with greater care than his Catholic counterpart.

However, according to Zoltan Laky, a Catholic journalist writing for independent Hungarian outlet Válasz Online, Barthlomew’s visit could yet prove to be a useful opportunity to achieve something positive, beyond deepening ecumenical ties.

“I try to be optimistic,” Laky says. “I hope he will use this opportunity to deliver a strong message about Russia’s aggression, one which will actually  be heard by Hungarians.”

The message that Bartholomew delivers could indeed cause serious upset to his Hungarian hosts if he repeats some of the words he used in his recent statement to Patris. Not only did he describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “a great shame for those who inspired it and who continue, directly or indirectly, to justify and support it”, but also that it’s “a disgrace for those who remain silent, tolerating or pretending not to see it.”

Source : Balkans Insight

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