This open letter of Metropolitan Sergei of Singapore and Southeast Asia of the Moscow Patriarchate to Metroplitan Ambrose of Korea of the Patriarchate of Constantinople was published in English on Orthodox World by request of Met. Sergei, as that site had published the original article from Met. Ambrose that Met. Sergei is responding to.
Open Letter of Metropolitan Sergei of Singapore and Southeast Asia,
Patriarchal Exarch of Southeast Asia,
to Metropolitan Ambrose of Korea (Patriarchate of Constantinople)
Your Eminence Metropolitan Ambrose,
I have long hesitated to respond to your interview published on The Orthodox World website on April 12: https://theorthodoxworld.com/exclusive-how-the-moscow-patriarchate-tramples-on-church-canons-and-undermines-orthodox-unity-in-korea/. However, the impression from my recent trip to Ukraine, to attend with a blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia the celebrations on the occasion of the Name Day of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, led me to the decision to respond to your public statements.
Since your interview remarks are published on a website that gives no information about those who run and edit it, I can see no other way to respond to these publications than to appeal personally to you. However, considering the public nature of your statements, my letter will be open as well, so that readers can draw their own conclusions.
I remember with joy how warmly you welcomed me with a brotherly kiss when I visited you in Seoul in June 2017. So, it is much more painful to see in what dark colors you, without being shy of rumors and conjectures, paint the pastoral and missionary work of the Russian Orthodox Church. Have the complicated relationships between our two Churches caused by the decisions of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to create a new “church” structure in Ukraine really made such a radical impact on your attitude to us? But no, you write with a reference to an anonymous “elder,” saying that for a thousand years many Church leaders in Russia have never learned what the Gospel teaches, thus cultivating “a satanic and imperialistic theory of ‘Moscow as the Third Rome.’” And all this is said as if you have always believed it. Should I now conclude that the welcome you gave me in Seoul was hypocritical, and that now your attitude is sincere?
My two great-grandfathers, who were priests, went through prisons and prison camps for their faith and service to the Church. One of them was executed by shooting for his faith in God. The authorities sought to deprive my mother of parental rights for bringing up us, her children, in the faith. When in school, I had my small baptismal cross torn away from me, and I was mocked for being a believer. In my childhood we copied texts of Holy Scripture and prayers by hand and cherished them as the greatest treasure. We did not just copy these texts but kept reread and studied them with profound reverence and love. The story of my family is not unique. Very many endured the horrors of persecution and mockery. Just think how it is to read in your text the revelations of a nameless “elder” that we failed to learn the Gospel. It is equally painful for me to read that you “firmly believe” that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has hatched some insidious plan for several decades now, has only awaited an occasion to stop the liturgical commemoration of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. It is impossible to imagine anything more absurd.
In your interview you clearly allege that the activities of the Moscow Patriarchate in Southeast Asia are uncanonical. I take the liberty to remind you the history of the emergence of Orthodoxy in the region: Russian priests began their pastoral ministry in China in 1685, St. Nicholas (Kasatkin) came to Japan in 1861, and the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Korea was established in 1897. Russian parishes appeared in Indonesia in 1934; in the same year, a parish was opened in Manila. St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai celebrated the first Divine services in Vietnam in 1949. This is only some of the documentary evidence of the beginning of the Russian Church’s mission in the countries of South and Southeast Asia during which no other Orthodox Church was represented.
In your interview you cite an alleged dialogue that you heard second-hand between Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, now His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, and a certain Russian-speaking parishioner, during which a claim was made to the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seoul. I specifically asked His Holiness about it. It is not true. There was no such talk and could not be, as His Holiness is well versed in the history of the Orthodox Church in Korea. The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Korea once owned plots of land and buildings not only in Seoul but also throughout the Korean Peninsula. What happened to them later? Were they sold or transferred? If they were, then by whom, to whom and on what terms? We do not know in full measure as yet, but we will study this matter.
The historical fact is also that for hundreds of years not a single complaint or reproach has come to the Russian Church from her Orthodox brothers as to our actions in Asia up to the recent times when the Patriarch of Constantinople has changed his ecclesiology and wished, instead of being “the first among equals” to become “the first without equals.”
The pastoral and missionary ministry of the Russian Orthodox Church in Asia has never been challenged by any Local Orthodox Church; on the contrary, it was welcomed, as is clear, for instance, from the letters sent by patriarchs of Jerusalem to St. Nicholas of Japan Equal-to-the-Apostles. Thus, as far back as 1896, His Beatitude Patriarch Gerasimos of Jerusalem sent icons, holy relics and other shrines as gifts to the Japanese Church. Consequently, support for Orthodoxy in Japan and profound personal respect for St. Nicholas continued to be shown by both Patriarch Gerasimos’ successors and hierarchs of various Local Orthodox Churches.
When in 1956 the Russian Orthodox Church granted autonomy to the Chinese Orthodox Church founded on the basis of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in China and the Exarchate of East Asia (which at that time exercised canonical jurisdiction over communities in Korea), this decision was not challenged at all by Local Churches, nor was the Russian Church’s canonical jurisdiction over Orthodox church structures in China ever disclaimed. His Holiness Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople in his time sent an icon for a Russian church under construction in Harbin, thus supporting our Church presence in China.
When in 1970, the status of autonomy was given to the Japanese Orthodox Church, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople refused to include the primate of the Japanese Church in the diptychs because of his autonomous rather than autocephalous status. He did not challenge the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Church over Orthodox ecclesial structures in that country, just as no doubt had been cast on it for over a century.
A very clear testimony to it is given by an outstanding missionary of our times, the primate of the Albanian Orthodox Church, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, in this book Unto the Uttermost Part of the Earth.
I will dwell separately on the history of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Korea. The history of Russian-Korean relations traces back to the time of the Kievan Rus’, when the conception of “Moscow as the Third Rome” mentioned by Your Eminence did not as yet exist. Additionally, the only historical document that declares this idea directly is the Charter on the Establishment of the Patriarchate in Moscow signed by His Holiness Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople (1589); whereas the Russian Orthodox Church began its missionary work among the Koreans in 1856, when St. Innocent (Veniaminov) began sending Orthodox preachers to the South Ussuriysky land, a destination of an inflow of Korean re-settlers. In 1885, an agreement was reached between Russia and Korea that gave Russian nationals a right to freely celebrate Divine services in the territory of Korea. By the 1897 decision of the Most Holy Governing Synod, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was established in Korea with the task to take care of Russian Orthodox Christians residing on the Korean Peninsula and to preach Orthodoxy among the local non-Christian population. On February 17, 1900, the head of the mission Archimandrite Khrisanf (Schetkovsky) celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Seoul, thus marking the beginning of the Russian Mission’s activities.
From the time of its foundation until 1908, the Korean Mission was in the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of St. Petersburg; from 1908 to 1921 in that of the bishop of Vladivostok; from 1921 to 1945—of the archbishop of Tokyo, and from 1945 to 1954 it was part of the Exarchate of East Asia.
However, the Mission’s work was forcibly stopped. After the end of World War II, the South Korean authorities and the American occupation administration waged a struggle for several years, seeking to bring the Mission out of the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Incapable of doing so by any legal means, the South Korean authorities banished the Mission’s head Archimandrite Polycarp from the country in 1949. For political reasons, the work of the Mission was suspended and its property was confiscated. It was only in 1955 that the surviving parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, deprived as they were of archpastoral care, and not without the influence of the military presence of foreign powers in South Korea, joined the Archdiocese of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in America. It is hardly possible to recognize as lawful the move of the clergy and communities to another jurisdiction under pressure from political forces (and without any letters of release).
Therefore, today we speak not of the establishment of a “parallel Church” but of the restoration of the ecclesiastical mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is conditioned by the historical process of revival of the Russian Church which suffered under the yoke of the godless power for seventy years and by the need to provide pastoral care to our compatriots in all parts of the globe including Asia, as well as by the impossibility of our flock at present to partake of the Mysteries in the Church of Constantinople as it has entered into communion with schismatics and invaded the canonical bounds of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
I will repeat, historically the destiny of Orthodoxy in Korea was linked with Russia. And today the Church exerts efforts to revive the spiritual closeness between our peoples, to restore the spiritual bonds which used to tie them in the past. The Russian Orthodox Church has historical and canonical reasons for resuming its missionary work, interrupted by force of historical circumstances in the Korean Peninsula.
Your Eminence, you prefer not to see the political nature of your Church’s actions in Ukraine, but you speak of a political nature of the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate in Korea, where we allegedly undermine the canonical order of the Church and practice proselytism. You show indignation at the formation of parishes and dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in Southeast Asia on the whole and in Korea in particular. This matter was recently dealt with in detail by my fellow-hierarch, His Eminence Theophan (Kim), Archbishop of Korea: https://mospat.ru/en/2019/06/03/news174877/. I will only add that in many countries in Europe and America, which do not belong to the canonical territory of a particular Church, there are several coexisting bishops of various Local Churches, and this does not present an unsurmountable obstacle for their ministry and common witness to Christ. It is a good example of a situation in which it is Christ and the Church and immortal human souls that are made the cornerstone.
The Russian Church is focused on dialogue and takes an active part in all episcopal conferences without pushing forward unacceptable conditions in the places where the Russian flock is in the majority, resolving arising issues in the spirit of love and cooperation. Therefore, I see your reproaches as groundless.
Today, a considerable number of our faithful in Seoul assemble for the Divine Liturgies in a facility that is simple but lovingly arranged as a temporary church. We receive many letters from our faithful both from Seoul and various parts of Korea with gratitude and with requests for pastoral care. Should we push away these people who regard the Russian Orthodox Church as their Mother and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as their spiritual father? You should note that these people will not come today to churches of the Patriarchate of Constantinople for the above-mentioned reason.
Has not the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s Metropolis of Korea recently celebrated the 119th anniversary of the first Divine Liturgy in Korea—that is, the anniversary of the beginning of the Russian Church’s mission in Korea? Do you want to say that you celebrated an anniversary of “non-canonical actions?” And what then did Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrate fraternally together with Archbishop Clement of Kaluga and Borovsk and an assembly of archpastors in Seoul in February 2000? And Metropolitan Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain who officiated at the Divine Liturgy in Seoul in 2010 in con-celebration with Archbishop Veniamin of Vladivostok and Primorye—what did they celebrate?
Your story about a meeting with a priest is also perplexing. All the Orthodox Christians in Seoul are well aware of the person in question. He is an unfortunate man but God vouchsafed him the grace of priesthood. It is difficult for me to imagine his behavior such as you describe, but even if it is so, I can only recall the words of the Apostle: If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness (Gal. 6:1).
You write that in November 2018, at the round-table conference on the Russian Orthodox Church and Compatriots: An Experience of Cooperation in Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, chaired by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, signatures were collected under a document signed by very few. Apparently, you were told a lie as in fact no Church document was signed at that meeting.
The longstanding history of relationships between our Churches unfortunately knows of sad pages as well, which, until the recent events, we preferred not to recall. However, as far back as the 1920s, the Patriarch of Constantinople tried to depose His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon (Belavin) and did everything possible to support the Renovationsists’ “Living Church,” established by the State Political Directorate under the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic—the development to which the confessor-Patriarch gave this response: “Having read these minutes, We were greatly confused and astonished that a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the head of the Church of Constantinople, without any preliminary contact with Us as the lawful representative and head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church, has interfered in the internal life and affairs of the autocephalous Russian Church. The Holy Councils (see Canons 2 and 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council, etc.) recognized and recognize the Bishop of Constantinople’s […] primacy over other autocephalous Churches in honor, not in power… Any sending of any commission without a contact with Me as the only lawful and Orthodox First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church without my knowledge is unlawful, will not be accepted by the Russian Orthodox people and will bring not appeasement but even a greater trouble and schism in the life of the already much-suffering Russian Orthodox Church.”
The change in the attitude of the Patriarchate of Constantinople happened as far back as the 1940s, when, during World War II, there was a radical change in the Soviet leadership’s policy towards the Church. After his famous meeting with three metropolitans of the Patriarchal Church in September 1943, Stalin decided that the authorities did not need the Renovationist schism any longer and authorized its liquidation. In this situation, the Patriarch of Constantinople had no reason whatsoever to deal with the Renovationist outsiders and he restored communion with the Moscow Patriarchate as if nothing had happened. The Russian Orthodox Church, on her part, did not opt for calling anybody to account for their recent canonical depravity.
Another invasion into the canonical space of the Russian Church happened in the 1990s in Estonia. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, supported by the Estonian President, Prime Minister and Ministry of the Interior, recognized a Church structure, which then enjoyed political support and was not shy of using nationalistic overtones in its rhetoric, while ignoring the presence in the country of the only canonical Church in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. What is especially astonishing and sad is that this attitude was supported personally by Patriarch Bartholomew. The canonical communion between the Russian Church and the Church of Constantinople was then severed. Can the Church of Christ violate canons so daringly and divide people into ethnic entities and sow enmity between them? This gravest conflict in the history of the Orthodox Church, repeatedly called a “schism” in the press, was settled by the end of 1996 through a compromise, as the Orthodox Churches of Russia and Constantinople agreed to the existence of two jurisdictions in the territory of the Estonian state, which is not consonant with either canon law or historical justice. Were the actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople beneficial for the Church, beneficial for the Estonian people? Did the total number of believers increase? You yourself know that, according to Estonian official information, the Estonian Orthodox Church has over six times more followers than the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s structure in Estonia. In the last years, the authorities appear shy of publishing the statistics, for the people’s historical choice refutes the political plans of politicians. The political project, which is attempted to be repeated now in Ukraine has actually failed and cannot be justified by any Church goal because the people of God, the guardian of truth, feel where the truth lies.
Moving to the Ukrainian problem, which occupies a noticeable place in your statements, I will note that in your interview you draw a parallel between the way in which the Moscow Patriarchate reconciled with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) and the way in which the Patriarchate of Constantinople admitted the Ukrainian schismatics from the so-called “Kiev Patriarchate” and the “UAOC.” However, one cannot help but see fundamental differences between these actions.
ROCOR’s communion with the Moscow Patriarchate was suspended in the 1920s due to the political system in the USSR and pressure put on the Russian Church. The Church of Constantinople, which survived the Ottoman-Turkish rule, is well aware of the weight of pressure exerted by power structures. The Russian Church has never rejected the grace-giving nature of ROCOR’s sacraments. In ROCOR itself, the apostolic succession of episcopal consecrations has never been broken. When the times became favorable, Eucharistic communion was restored.
Whereas the Ukrainian situation is very different. The former Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko) was deposed due to his canonical offences, and this decision was supported by the primates of all the Local Churches. On August 26, 1992, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, in his letter to Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and All Russia concerning the deposition of Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev, wrote, “Our Holy Great Church of Christ, recognizing the fullness of the competence of your Most Holy Church in this matter, accepts the synodal decision on the above.” Can one first approve a deposition and then cancel one’s decision on it? How does it correspond with the Gospel words, But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil (Mt. 5:37)? For his further persistence in schism, Denisenko was anathematized, which was also authenticated by all the Churches. With the support of Ukrainian power structures, he organized a “Kiev Patriarchate” and began “consecrating” bishops. These “consecrations” are now recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Constantinople also unilaterally recognized the episcopal “consecrations” administered in the so-called “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church,” whose head “Metropolitan” Makary Maletich left the Moscow Patriarchate without permission, being in the rank of presbyter. The conclusion is clear—supported by a majority of Orthodox episcopate and clergy as well as theologians—that the episcopal consecrations administered by “Kiev Patriarchate” and the “UAOC” are invalid and remain such in the newly created “church.” These “church” entities, just as ordinations performed in them, have never been recognized by a single Local Church. Ignoring these facts, the Synod of the Church of Constantinople supported the appeal of the Ukrainian president, the Supreme Rada, and the above-mentioned heads of religious communities by admitting them into Eucharistic communion and accepting their ordinations as valid.
Thus repeated are century-old events about which Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky) wrote with such a pain in his heart: “We know that only those are in the unity of the Church who are in communion with their lawful bishop and patriarch, that one who is excommunicated by his patriarch cannot be accepted in communion with others (Canon 1, Council in the Church of the Holy Wisdom). And the one who comes into communion with an excommunicated one should be excommunicated (Apostolic canons 10, 12) [...] All, both patriarchs and lay people, are equal before the law of God. So, when in the fifteenth century the Patriarch of Constantinople fell away into union with Rome, the Russian Church refused to follow him [...] So the communion of the Patriarch of Constantinople with the Renovationists can only make the Patriarch a Renovationist rather than make Renovationists Orthodox.”
Metropolitan Luke (Kovalenko) of Zaporozhe and Melitopol related how, during your meeting with him in 2018, you assured him that Constantinople would not legalize the schism, and that if anything like this happened with time, then it would be only after the schismatics’ repentance. Today we know how it all eventually happened—without a hint of repentance and with a haughty demonstration of triumph. The healing of the schism in Ukraine stated as the goal of this act has not taken place.
Unprecedented pressure has been put upon the clergy and laity of the canonical Church in Ukraine with the use of all kinds of instruments commanded by the state, such as secret services, blackmail, intimidation, and the seizure of churches with the connivance or support of police and local authorities. The heart bleeds with pain to see continued attempts to seize by force the churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
This situation was made a tragi-comedy by the refusal of false patriarch “Philaret” Denisenko to accept the tomos granted by Constantinople and the resumption of the “Kiev Patriarchate.” It shows one more time that the decisions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant “autocephaly” to a new “church structure” in Ukraine have failed to bring peace and unity to the Orthodox Christians in the country and have only brought new divisions, the emergence of a parallel “episcopate” and people’s suffering, just as has been the case time and again in history. These people, who call themselves “archpastors” and “priests” of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” now can freely celebrate the Liturgy in churches of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Forgive me, but I cannot join together with such people in the One Cup wherever it may happen—in Istanbul, the USA, or Korea.
All this is happening in the presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by all the Local Orthodox Churches together with her lawful primate, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, who together with all the hierarchs resolutely rejected such a means of obtaining “autocephaly.”
During the festivities in Kiev on June 24-25, I felt an exceptional spiritual elation, of true Orthodox unity. Praying together were representatives of ten autocephalous Orthodox Churches and three more could not send their representatives but their primates sent messages of greeting to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry. Expressing support and wishing courage in overcoming the tragic situation, we all prayed in a conciliar way, sharing the suffering and pain inflicted on the Ukrainian faithful by the decisions of the supreme authority of your Church. The festive Liturgy at the Kiev Caves Lavra of the Holy Dormition, in which the hierarchs, clergy and God-loving people prayed together, reminded me of Pascha and became a real triumph of Orthodoxy!
At the same time, regrettably, we can see much falsehood in the words and deeds of high representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Seeing the failure of their infamous initiative in Ukraine, they seek to involve our Christian brothers in this failed adventure. In the same argument are the statements about our Church which were voiced in the course of the visit, which you had prepared, of a delegation of the National Council of Churches in Korea to Istanbul, and the attempts to slander the Russian Orthodox Church in other contacts with non-Orthodox Christians and in numerous press appearances. At the same time, the whole Orthodox world is crying out about the need to resolve this problem as soon as possible through fraternal dialogue.
The Korean and Russian peoples are tied by centuries of friendship, and I believe that we will preserve and strengthen our fraternal relations despite any trials. The Russian Church has always been a vehicle of peace in the Korean land and around the world.
Our common task, Vladyka, is to glorify and proclaim Christ, to serve Him sparing no effort, to do works of charity, love and truth, to call each person to salvation regardless of his or her race or status in society. We, on our part, are always ready for peaceful cooperation and open for fraternal embrace.
The present situation seems to be humanly insoluble. The history of the Church knows of a great deal of human divisions but also of a great many cases of reconciliation. Let us, Vladyka, not aggravate the division. Our Churches are experiencing a difficult period in relationships, but let us do all we can to ensure that the flock in Korea and other countries of Southeast Asia is not affected by them, so that everyone can have an opportunity to pray and partake of the Holy Mysteries of Christ and can preach Orthodoxy without hindrance. I call upon you not to distort facts in order to meet political interests. Let us serve not the division but a future reconciliation and unity for which we pray as commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
With hope for understanding and fraternal love in Christ,
Metropolitan of Singapore and Southeast Asia
Patriarchal Exarch of Southeast Asia