How Russia’s Information Warfare Targets the Church of Constantinople

by Evagelos Sotiropoulos

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew occupies a unique position in Christendom and shepherds his flock from an almost Muslim-only country: Turkey.

Headquartered in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarchate experienced prominence during the millennial-long Byzantine Empire, but persecution following the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and emergence of Ottoman rule, eloquently captured in Sir Steven Runciman’s classic The Great Church in Captivity.

Today, Bartholomew’s role is purely religious and like his predecessors he is primus inter pares (first among equals) in the hierarchy of global Orthodoxy, which is administratively comprised of 14 self-governing churches who share the same faith.

The Church of Russia is fifth in order of precedence, following Constantinople, and the other ancient Patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Its long-standing desire to be first, however, is well-known and unconcealed.

Strongly supported–some say co-opted–by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the Moscow Patriarchate has not been shy about both advancing Russian foreign policy and flexing its ecclesiastical influence internationally. One tactic employed as described by Lucian Leustean, a well-known scholar of Eastern Christianity, is “Visits by high-ranking clergy in the name of cultural and political diplomacy in the Western world.” Marcel H. Van Herpen, the author of Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy, describes the Moscow Patriarchate as Putin’s “secret weapon”.

In 2010, for example, Russia provided over $100 million to purchase a prize piece of property beside the Eiffel Tower, beating out other state bidders, including Canada and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, a more than 50,000-square-foot Russian “spiritual and cultural centre” opened on it in Paris. More recently, the Moscow Patriarchate has leveraged Russia’s military intervention in Syria to champion the Church of Antioch, earning them a key ally in the process.

It is Constantinople, the First Throne of Orthodoxy, and especially the person of Patriarch Bartholomew, however, that is targeted, particularly in recent years by the weaponization of information.

Following the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, for instance, a number of fabricated articles directed against Bartholomew were published that, among other things, tried to connect him to Fethullah Gulen (for obvious and potentially dangerous reasons), who Turkish authorities continue to blame for orchestrating the failed coup.

The initial article used as a springboard for other publications was “written” by retired U.S. ambassador Arthur Hughes and circulated widely, including on Russian-backed religious websites. While Hughes unequivocally denounced the forged article in a formal statement, retractions rarely compensate for the damage done by the original story.

Since Christmas, another orchestrated round of disinformation has targeted Constantinople, executed with added nuance and subtlety this time around.

In late December, a Russian-language article appeared in a Kremlin-connected news agency trying, once again, to link the Patriarch with Gulen and the CIA. As is common in the clickbait world of the Internet and social media, other websites without any critical analysis simply repackaged the article with their own sensational headline until the original, questionable source of information, was forgotten or even accepted as true.

This is consistent with the strategy outlined in a 2016 report by the Information Warfare Initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), which made the case that the Kremlin “disseminates information through barely credible conspiracy websites or by discredited spokespeople.”

The fake Hughes article, for example, appeared online in an “independent Moscow-based Internet journal.” Now other commentary is appearing in equally dubious websites such as “World Religion News” to denigrate Bartholomew, the Patriarchate, and push preposterous stories.

As is revealed by the ongoing attempt to undermine the Church of Constantinople, it matters little if the accusations are completely erroneous or even eventually retracted, because in many ways they serve their purpose. According to CEPA, the goal of disinformation is to “destroy trust, sap morale, degrade the information space, erode public discourse and increase partisanship.”

While the Constantinople-Moscow rivalry is not new, the methodical use of propaganda and disinformation online is. This modern-day challenge necessitates a systematic effort to fact-check and respond to the information warfare that has infiltrated and infected so many spheres of society including spiritual ones.

It is actually in Turkey’s own self-interest to ensure that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Bartholomew, one of the longest-serving ecumenical patriarchs in history, is protected from this propaganda and able to carry out his irreplaceable role in Christendom that brings prestige to the country and especially Istanbul, a celebrated city full of history.

Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes about Orthodox Christianity and is a Contributor to HuffPost Religion.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.