Russia’s Spiritual Expansion in the Global South
Ivan U. Kłyszcz

May 27, 2024
At first glance, it seems that religion cannot play a role in Russia’s profoundly immoral foreign policy, especially in the context of the aggression against Ukraine. Yet, the Moscow Patriarchate – headed by Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) – is profoundly enmeshed with the Kremlin and has openly embraced the war. While the Patriarchate does not run the country, it does offer an ideological backbone to the Putin regime and its illiberal, conservative (if not reactionary) outlook. In turn, the Kremlin facilitates Patriarch Kirill’s quest to undermine the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and centralize the church around his authority.

While deeply chauvinistic and xenophobic in its rhetoric, the Moscow Patriarchate has an expansive role internationally, as the ROC is a global religion. The Moscow Patriarchate has an external relations department, in the past led by Patriarch Kirill himself, but headed by Metropolitan Anthony (Anton Sevryuk) since 2022. In 2019, the Moscow Patriarchate also established special missions abroad, covering Africa, South-East Asia, and Western Europe. These missions are led by patriarchal exarchs over which the Moscow Patriarchate exerts close control. In addition to these, the ROC has regional structures in various countries, including the previously schismatic Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Yet, when compared with the post-2019 exarchates, the Moscow Patriarchate has less influence over the regional structures, with many branches of the ROC in open rebellion against the Moscow Patriarch because of its support of the war.

In the context of Moscow’s search for partners internationally, the ROC’s role in the so-called “Global South” deserves scrutiny. Indeed, there is collaboration between the Moscow Patriarchate and Russia’s commercial, diplomatic, and military presence worldwide. The funding sources for operations such as these remain opaque, as the ROC is not transparent about its finances. A report from 2016 suggests that the income of the ROC is a mixture of contributions from its parishes and eparchies, commercial revenue, sponsors, investments, and direct state transfers. On top of this, there is the income derived from obscure sources and investments—Patriarch Kirill is rumoured to be quite wealthy.

Creating a presence abroad

Leading with its exarchates, the Moscow Patriarchate has been expanding its influence in Africa and Asia. This expansion is a response to the 2019 decision to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Traditionally – and at risk of oversimplifying – different Patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodoxy have different geographical areas of canonical jurisdiction. The Patriarch of Moscow has led part of the Eastern European Orthodoxy, and the Patriarch of Alexandria leads the Eastern Orthodoxy in Africa. In response to Ukraine’s autocephaly, the Moscow Patriarchate has sought to undermine the authority of the Patriarch of Alexandria in Africa, and that of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in East Asia.

Officially, before 2019, there was only one ROC-run church in sub-Saharan Africa, the Church of St. Sergius of Radonezh in South Africa, and a handful more in North Africa. These operated in parallel to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. East Asia is home to relatively large Eastern Orthodox communities, such as the Orthodox Church in Japan and the Metropolis of Korea, both under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Smaller communities exist in each county of the region, and most of them are under Constantinople as well. Only a few parishes in East Asia were previously under ROC jurisdiction.

Aware of its sparse presence in Africa and Asia, the ROC is generally not establishing new communities but seeking the allegiance of already established local communities. The churches that switch allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate are still run by local priests but become incorporated into the structures and hierarchy of the ROC and no longer those of Alexandria and Constantinople. Reportedly, salaries and some expenses are then covered by the ROC, and scholarships for training in Russia are also available through the church. Similar tactics may be at play in Greece, Jerusalem, and Mount Athos, the most sacred place for the Eastern Orthodoxy. Analyst Ksenia Luchenko has described this trend of co-option as “hostile takeovers.”

Not considering the Ethiopia and Eritrean Oriental Orthodox churches, the approximate number of Eastern Orthodox believers in sub-Saharan Africa is one million, with Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda among the largest communities. According to the Moscow Patriarchate, the African exarchate had over 200 parishes in 25 countries by the time of its official founding in 2021, split between the north and south (roughly sub-Saharan) African dioceses. In Asia, the patriarchal exarchate of South-east Asia claims to have 72 parishes in 13 countries under its jurisdiction, divided among the dioceses in Singapore, Korea, and one dioceses in the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Moscow Patriarchate has gained two main benefits from this expansion: cooperation with Russian diplomacy and better resources. Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria has accused Russia of wanting to expand in Africa, describing his own patriarchate as a “poor missionary.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that resources may indeed be swaying priests to seek accommodation with Moscow. In the Central African Republic, the country’s one Orthodox community switched allegiance to Moscow in 2022, with its finances reportedly “improving” thereafter thanks to Russian funding. The origin for these funds is murky and reporting is scarce, though a portion of the money may be coming from the Russian government and from Russian state-owned companies.

Sometimes, co-option goes well beyond traditional Orthodox communities. Today, the Philippines hold a large portion of the ROC parishes in East Asia. With few exceptions, these parishes used to belong to the National Philippines Christian Church or to the Anglican Church. The largest single cluster is in the southern island of Mindanao, which witnessed decades of Islamist extremist insurgencies.

According to the Southeast Asia exarchate, these communities requested to join the ROC and received support from Russia for some of their activities. The Khanty-Mansi dioceses has supported some of these operations, as this is the region where the head of Philippines and Vietnam dioceses comes from. Other operations have received support from the Holy Martyr Boniface Foundation, an organisation with links to the Lukashenko regime and to the Russian occupation of Ukraine.

Maximizing diplomacy

Conventional religious diplomacy and inter-faith dialogue are also recurrent instruments used by the Moscow Patriarch to articulate his foreign policy. In the context of Russia’s militarized foreign policy, Patriarch Kirill has embraced some of Moscow’s campaigns internationally, framing them as a way to “protect Christians abroad.”

Russia’s decade-long war against Ukraine is the best known case, as in 2014 the patriarchate facilitated early reconnaissance in Crimea and eastern Ukraine by Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and then in 2024 proclaimed the war to be “holy.” A similar rhetoric accompanies the patriarchate’s comments on Russia’s intervention in Syria and Russian engagements in the Central African Republic and Mali. We have not witnessed similar rhetoric addressing East Asian security as the region has no Russian military deployments. Still, in 2011, the ROC held a webinar about the protection of Christians abroad, and the violence in Mindanao was included as an example of Christian persecution.

Protecting believers is a long-standing subject in the Kremlin’s foreign policy narratives and strategic communications. The Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations is in close collaboration with the Kremlin on this topic, leading the interreligious working group on the subject at the Presidential administration. The group also features Yevgeny Primakov Junior, head of Russia’s “soft power” “aid” agency Rossotrudnichestvo. According to the Moscow Patriarchate itself, the Africa Exarchate was created in consideration of the Ukrainian “schism”, as well as the persecution of Christians. Namely, the exarchate is meant to “[take] pastoral care of the Russian citizens living [in Africa] and local Orthodox Christians.” Ethiopia and Nigeria stand out among these countries.

In Ethiopia, Moscow has not sought to co-opt congregations like in neighbouring Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. Ethiopia has one of the oldest Christian communities worldwide, and like the ROC in the Romanov Empire, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) has been associated with the power of the Ethiopian emperors and of the unity of the country. The EOTC is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church) with an estimated 35 million believers. Here, the Moscow Patriarchate seeks to coalesce with the EOTC.

During the Cold War, Moscow wielded the ROC as a tool to engage religiously conservative Ethiopia, building bases for future dialogue. After the fall of the USSR, these ties were only renewed in the 2010s. The ROC has characterized its recent engagements with the EOTC as part of a broader concern over the persecution of Christians in Africa and the spread of ‘Western’ values worldwide. In 2018, the ROC created a commission to maintain a dialogue with the EOTC, with the topics of “Christianophobia” and “traditional moral values” leading the agenda, along with the importance of coordinating the message being spread on the international stage and in pilgrimage programmes.

These ties are valuable for Russia’s foreign policy, especially in the context of growing Russo-Ethiopian ties in all directions and the BRICS expansion to Ethiopia. So, Russia’s secular diplomacy has delved into the spiritual realm, sponsoring events on “Russian spiritual culture” and hosting ministerial-level meetings with the EOTC Patriarch, Abuna Matthias. In fact, the patriarch met Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in 2018, and had a delegation present at the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit.

Seeking to build influence with the EOTC, Patriarch Kirill has spoken against violent incidents targeting Christians in Ethiopia. During the ongoing schismatic crisis in the EOTC, Patriarch Kirill has expressed his support for the unity of the EOTC. On this matter, Russian diplomacy has not been as overt in its support, though it would have coincided with the views of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who also waded into spiritual waters by supporting the EOTC.

Similar coordination between Russian diplomacy and the Moscow Patriarchate can be seen in the Central African Republic and the Philippines among other countries. In contrast, relations between the ROC and Eritrea are ambiguous. In fact, the Moscow Patriarchate is often critical of the state of freedom of religion there.


The ROC’s incursions into the jurisdictions of the other patriarchies risks entrenching the conflict in Eastern Orthodoxy even further. Those communities switching allegiances to alleviate their urgent needs might find themselves inadvertently caught in larger religious and secular conflicts. Moreover, the Moscow Patriarchate and its exarchates actively launder Russia’s image abroad, presenting the country as benevolent and not as an aggressor state, thus adding to Russian state propaganda and wartime diplomacy.

To be sure, Russia’s actions haven’t gone unnoticed. In a move that surprised the local Russian embassy, the sole Orthodox church in North Korea kept its allegiance to Constantinople despite being a symbol of Russia-North Korea “friendship.” There is also the possibility that the ROC is spreading itself too thinly. The over 200 parishes of the African exarchate are sometimes barely shacks, as funding from Moscow arrive slowly, if at all. Moreover, the former exarch of Africa – Leonid Gorbachev, or Metropolitan Klin – was a supporter of Yevgeny Prigozhin, which earned him the moniker “Prigozhin in a cassock.” After Prigozhin’s mutiny, Klin was demoted and replaced.

Other actors are responding, too. Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore II has said that he can only “tolerate” the creation of the ROC African Exarchate. Ukraine has taken notice, imposing sanctions on the former ROC exarch in Africa. The US special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, J. Peter Pham, has also taken note of the ROC’s expansion in Africa. The expansion in Asia has been under-reported, especially in The Philippines, but its similarities with the expansion in Africa are striking. Moreover, the religious diplomacy with Ethiopia and the EOTC can be seen as part of a broader diplomatic offensive Moscow is pursuing to gain further strategic depth in the Horn of Africa. In the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – and of the global implications thereof – none of these interactions are purely benign. They deserve scrutiny.
  • Ivan U. Kłyszcz

    The International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), in Tallinn, Estonia
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