Briefs

Kremlin plays the religion card

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Romanian news outlets are covering the visit of Patriarch Kyrill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to Bucharest during the last week of October. Kyril has been invited by the Romanian Patriarch, Daniel, who is celebrating 10 years as head of the Romanian Orthodox Church. As many articles noted, this marks the first-ever visit of a Russian patriarch to post-communist Romania. The announcement triggered debates about the extent to which the Kremlin is using the Romanian Orthodox Church as a political weapon against other nations. Some have wondered if it is it Romania's turn to join the "real" defenders of traditional Christian values—as the Kremlin's propaganda machine insist the Russian Church and President Vladimir Putin to be.


Not much evidence support journalists’ fears of a possible rapprochement between the two churches, especially because past relations have been relatively cold. The main dispute has been over the status of Moldova’s two Orthodox churches; one answers to Moscow, the other to the Romanian Church. Also, very little information is available on the extent to which the Kremlin is manipulating Romanian-Russian church relations, and whether some Romanian priests are being used to promote Kremlin-endorsed anti-Western discourse. Christian and socially conservative values, though sincerely held by many Orthodox believers, are an important propaganda element that the Kremlin’s disinformation machine consistently uses to advance its interests in Orthodox countries. The Romanian Church is no exception.

The online media space has become an extremely rich environment for so-called Orthodox platforms and Church activists. While some of these websites are genuinely preoccupied with faith and the Church, others use it to disguise political agendas. Moreover, some of these, such as ortodoxinfo.ro, are almost exclusively dedicated to political news and international affairs rather than religious issues. Some sites also publish conspiracies about wars and world domination by obscure Western forces. Still others, such as Cuvantul-ortodox.ro, pretend to offer more sophisticated analyses, even engaging debate on the issue of Russian propaganda and influence. At the same time, this website publishes stories from the list of conspiracies and anti-Western narratives that are very dear to the Kremlin (such as those about George Soros meddling in domestic affairs and the use of vaccinations to decimate the population).


Both Ortodoxinfo.ro and Cuvantul-ortodox.ro have high viewership numbers: 45,000 unique visitors monthly and 1,500 daily, as well as over 12,000 members on the Facebook page for the former, and more than double these figures for the latter, but with no social media presence.


While tracing the ownership of these platforms is difficult, the messages they spread are very much in line with the narratives and techniques used by known Russian propaganda channels. Equating the Putin regime with Orthodox values is a frequent theme on Facebook groups, such as one called “We don’t want to fight against Russia.” Both so-called Orthodox sites discuss topics that parrot pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives: the West’s moral decay; Romania’s kinship with the Eastern “spiritual space” and its brotherhood with other Orthodox nations; the promotion of traditional values (sometimes in harsh terms) and the bashing of so-called progressive organizations and policies.


Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 2.27.08 PM

  (Photo: "Romania and Russia – brought together by orthodoxy.")


While it is true that the Kremlin uses the Russian Orthodox Church for political purposes, this may not have trickled into the ranks of the Romanian Church as an institution. The Romanian Orthodox Church has actually issued several statements over the years disassociating itself from such websites, which are not under its sponsorship. The most recent such statement regarded vaccination and the fact that the Church is not advising people not to vaccinate their children – as some of these obscure websites were trying to imply. Because these websites promote so-called good Orthodox values (mainly when it comes to the anti-gay and anti-abortion discourse), the Church is often called upon to answer to things that have nothing to do with its official positions. Some Romanian commentators even talk about the Western orientation of the current patriarch.


However, using the discourse about Christian values and the idea of Orthodox unity is a common instrument in the Kremlin’s toolbox. By appealing to religious sentiments, conservative values and conspiratorial mindsets, Moscow’s propaganda machine can reach a broad audience with targeted anti-Western (and occasionally pro-Russian) messages. Although so far their influence has been low, without proper attention this may constitute a Trojan horse within Romanian society. Since Kremlin-sponsored disinformation against Romania has a strong religious component, it is important to also look inside the Orthodox Church and assess whether vulnerabilities to Russian influence exist and how they can be mitigated. There may be a role for the Church to play in educating churchgoers about what its messages are—and how they differ from hostile forces trying to manipulate their faith and values.