Russia’s “Scramble for Africa” and Its Church
On December 29, 2021, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate decided to establish a Russian exarchate for the entire African continent. The exarchate is to consist of two dioceses: one for northern and one for southern Africa. The title of the bishop of the northern diocese would be “of Cairo and North Africa.”
Many saw this decision as a violation of the ancient rights of the Alexandrian patriarchate. As early as in 325, at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, which adopted the universal Christian creed, a canon of the council stated: “The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places, since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome.” In other words, the Nicene council confirmed the territorial sovereignty of the Alexandrian church in the way similar to the territorial sovereignty of the church of Rome. Indeed, from the early centuries, the two churches followed the same pattern of the evolution of their administrative structures and prerogatives. Sometimes, the church of Alexandria set an example for its Roman peer. For example, the archbishops of Alexandria were called “popes” a century before the bishops of Rome adopted this title.
The Russian synodal decision taken in the last days of 2021 effectively cancelled this and some other norms of the ancient church. The Synod justified its decision by claiming that the pope of Alexandria has apostatized to a schism—by commemorating the primate of the newly established autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This church received its recognition through a Tomos issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate three years ago, in January 2019. Three other Orthodox churches followed the cause: those of Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus. The Russian Orthodox Church did not recognize such recognition and threatened with severe consequences those churches who would dare to support the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Moscow unilaterally broke communion with Constantinople, Alexandria, Athens, and Nicosia. However, so far, the Patriarchate of Alexandria has been retaliated against in the most brutal way.