Sunday, August 12, 2018

Moscow’s Imperial Palestine Orthodox Society has Far Larger Role than Many Imagine

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 11 – One of the more curious Russian institutions, established in tsarist times and that has continued to operate ever since, is the Imperial Palestine Orthodox Society, an institution that now has offices in more than two dozen countries and that plays a far larger role for Moscow’s foreign policy than many suspect.

            The Palestine Orthodox Society was created in 1882 and given the title imperial seven years later.  After the Bolshevik revolution, the society was divided into two parts, Russian and foreign, with the former becoming the Russian Palestine Society attached to the Academy of Sciences and the latter retaining its “imperial” name.

            In 1992, after the fall of communism, the two were reunited under the imperial name; and since that time, Ukrainian analysts point out, the society has been used by the Kremlin for both its domestic and foreign policy goals (

                Officially, the society says its “main goal” is to support the Russian Orthodox Church in its spiritual and peacemaking efforts in Russia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean region and “other parts of the world.”  In fact, it has focused on recovering church property and providing a base for Russian agents of influence everywhere the society has an office. 

            It works closely with the Russian foreign ministry – Sergey Lavrov is on its board – and with the Kremlin – since 2007, it has been headed by Sergey Stepashin. Its humanitarian efforts have often served as a cover for Russian military and espionage operations across the region, the Kyiv analysts continue.

            The society not only controls Russian Orthodox Church property in the Holy Land but has become one of the leaders in Moscow’s fight against granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, making contacts with other patriarchates and organizing groups within Ukraine both in the occupied territories and elsewhere, including in Kyiv itself.

            It has even played a role, the Ukrainian analysts say, in providing funds to the hybrid armed formations Moscow has been using the Donbass. But most recently the society has focused on fighting Kyiv over autocephaly. While few pay attention to this activity, others see it for what it is – an extension of the Kremlin’s foreign policy -- and they have resisted.

            Last year, for example, the society tried to open an office in Turkey; but the Universal Patriarch in Constantinopole refused to be drawn into the game. As a result, Ankara ultimately refused to give the Imperial Society official registration, thus profoundly limiting its ability to function.

            But that setback has not kept the society from stepping up its activities in its 26 representation offices abroad, including prominently those in Bulgaria, Greece, Cypturs, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Estonia and Latvia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Lebanon, Moldova, Malta and the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and Transdniestria.

                Sometimes these offices violate the rules of the countries in which they are located, the Ukrainian analysts say; and sometimes this has negative consequences for Moscow. Athens recently expelled two Russian diplomats, they point out, at least in part because of their links to the Imperial Palestine Orthodox Society office in the Greek capital.

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