The Russian Orthodox Church this year announced plans to build a “spiritual centre” directly opposite the presidential palace in Kampala, on land reportedly gifted by the Ugandan president himself. In echo of an ancient settlement, a high stone wall is to be erected, encircling a golden-domed church for 400 worshippers, along with a bell tower, a hospital, a school, a hotel. A new-old citadel embodying Russia’s 21st century civilisational mission.
The Russian church’s activity has only intensified since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. An existing split in global Orthodoxy dating back to 2019 created a breach which the Moscow church has moved into. The church is tightly linked into the networks of power and patronage that are routed through the Kremlin and Russia’s state corporations. This helps fund what it does in Africa – including directly taking on the existing (and now rival) Orthodox church on the continent, alongside seeking to strengthen conservative, anti-Western coalitions of support. The Russian Orthodox Church’s expansion is not driven by a mission to convert pagans or unbelievers; ultimately, it is looking to suffuse Russia’s reputation with the soft power of piety.
Bricks and morals
The Russian Orthodox Church is actively engaged in promoting anti-Western narratives and uniting conservative forces that support the rhetoric of “traditional values” under Russian patronage. At the Russia-Africa summit on 27 July this year, the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, told African leaders: “We are united by adherence to traditional values, conservative view of human nature, rejection of the ideology of permissiveness and overconsumption”. Vladimir Putin reaffirmed this message at the same gathering.
But the Russian church is also working to undermine the Orthodox church in Africa in a split relating to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The entire territory of Africa traditionally falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, one of the ancient Orthodox churches. In 2019, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria recognised the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine – following which the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church broke eucharistic communion with the episcopacy of the Church of Alexandria.
At the end of 2021 it announced the creation of the African exarchate – dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church in African countries. Since then the Russian church has competed directly with the Alexandria church. This is part of a growing split in world Orthodoxy, exacerbating the conflict between Moscow (of all Orthodox churches, only the Serbian and the Georgian churches consistently support it) and the churches of the Greek tradition.
Wagner, diaspora, competition
The countries where the Moscow Patriarchate has expanded in Africa divide into three groups.
First are those states where Russian interests are concentrated and the private military company Wagner is present: the Central African Republic (where the Russian Orthodox Exarchate first set up in Africa), Uganda, which has been dubbed “the spiritual hub of the Russian Orthodox Church in East Africa,” and Mali. The death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is unlikely to alter this situation.
The second group of countries are those with historically large Russian diasporas, primarily South Africa, but also, for example, Morocco.
And the third group includes those countries where there is already a sizeable Orthodox population that the Russian church hopes can be drawn away from the Alexandrian Patriarchate – primarily Kenya and Tanzania.
Holy hostile takeovers
The Russian Orthodox Church works closely with Russian state-backed corporations to finance its growth; major sponsors include Russian Railways, Rosatom, and Rusal. The Kremlin and the church have also deployed trusted senior figures to support this activity.
To take on the other churches, the Russian Orthodox Church wins over individual African Orthodox churches and priests, who then come under its jurisdiction. In Africa, the state does not pay salaries to priests (in contrast to, for example, Greece or Cyprus), and the flock is too poor to support its own clergy. Thus, the Moscow church arrives, pays salaries, and builds infrastructure such as new churches and schools. It offers exchanges, training, and travel: in November 2022, the first group of students from Kenya, Rwanda, and Nigeria arrived at the St Petersburg Theological Academy to study to become priests – a project financed by the state corporation Rosatom.
When parishes are transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, they display the words “Russian Orthodoxy” on church buildings, whereas previously signs will have read, for example, “African Orthodox Church in Kenya”. Indeed, the Moscow church prefers to take over ready-made parishes. That being said, this may not fully work to its advantage. Following the beginning of its African venture, the Russian Orthodox Church initially claimed around 100 priests had moved over. But other sources known to the author suggest at least some of these individuals had been banned from ministry and had questionable moral reputations. Meanwhile, some priests have even continued to maintain relations with two jurisdictions simultaneously – Moscow and Alexandria – taking advantage of the confusion. In 2022, Bishop Neophytos of Nyer from Kenya compared the takeovers to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Heading up the new Russian church in Africa is Metropolitan Leonid Gorbachev; and again the ramifications of the Ukraine war are clear. This bishop is known as “Prigozhin in a cassock” and is under Ukrainian sanctions. He runs a Telegram channel in which he publishes videos of Wagner soldiers and abuse of Ukrainian prisoners of war, calls Ukrainians “Ukronazis”, and praises the Russian special services. Gorbachev supports the Russian military presence in Africa and claims that “People from Mali and the Central African Republic are very happy with the presence of those military specialists who ‘protect our rights and freedoms.’” The Patriarchate of Alexandria defrocked him over a year ago for violating canon law, a decision supported by the churches of Bulgaria and Greece.
Metropolitan Leonid’s boorishness is no accident – it fully corresponds to “the language of Moscow’s foreign policy (now often compared to that of common thugs),” and he occupies his current role by virtue of belonging to elite Russian networks. During his ecclesiastical career he worked in the secretariat of the church’s Department for External Church Relations, in the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, as the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to the Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, and in Argentina and Armenia. In all these positions he worked in close contact with the structures of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian security services. Such is the resumé of the person tasked with Russia’s spiritual charge into Africa, and current overlaps with the political and diplomatic worlds are clear to see. For example, the bishop recently took part in a meeting of the heads of Russian diplomatic missions in African states.
The results of the Russian church’s activities are not hard to find. The Central African Republic’s ambassador to Russia has declared that his fellow citizens are converting, including his family. And one Russian propaganda channel has argued that Russia is replacing France in the Central African Republic, with Russian Orthodoxy supplanting Catholicism. “Religiously, we are representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Central African Republic,” one priest is reported as saying.
Metropolitan Leonid is not the only trusted adviser to be handed this file. Putin has instructed one of his favourite officials, Maria Lvova-Belova, to strengthen the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lvova-Belova is the presidential commissioner for children’s rights who shares with Putin responsibility for the deportation of Ukrainian children and is under the International Court of Justice arrest warrant. At the Russia-Africa summit, Lvova-Belova signed an agreement with Metropolitan Leonid on “humanitarian” missions for African children organised on the basis of parishes of the Russian exarchate. The financing of this project is entrusted to the same Russian state corporations and will be part of the campaign to win more parishes over.
European decision-makers should treat the Russian Orthodox Church as effectively part of the Russian state. The church is not about spiritual life, but about open and very effective propaganda and secret diplomacy. Policymakers should therefore apply the same measures to its leaders as they do to others already under sanction or at risk of becoming so.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.