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Symbolism Of Russian Church In North Korea

by | Tue, Jul 9 2024

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin was in North Korea last month, he visited a Russian Orthodox  church called The Church of the Life-Giving Trinity. Hardly anyone worships there, but it’s a reminder of the global influence of Russia.

“It was a piece of political theatre from the old Soviet days, with the complete cooperation of the Patriarch of Moscow. It might not make sense that anyone, particularly the Russian president and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, would care about a tiny congregation, locked inside an isolated Stalinist state. But to think this is to ignore the huge importance that the Russian Orthodox Church has as an instrument of Russian soft power around the world,” wrote Dr. Katherine Kelaidis, research fellow at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England for Religion News Service (RNS).

“While many are dismayed at the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s refusal to condemn nearly any aspect of Putin’s political project, the truth is that this line of behavior from Kirill has been nothing short of inevitable since becoming primate in 2009. From the beginning, he and Putin forged an alliance that tied the ascendancy of the Russian state to its church and vice versa. The Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, founded before Patriarch Kirill’s episcopacy, has now become part of this partnership,” Dr. Kelaidis continued.

Orthodox Christians have been in the Korean peninsula for more than a century since the last days of Imperial Russia. They kept an almost invisible presence for decades following the Russian Revolution and the Japanese occupation of Korea until a Greek Orthodox church opened in South Korea in 1953 and became part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

After the second supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il visited Russia in 2002, he ordered the construction of an Orthodox church and in 2006, the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity was consecrated. In 2019, the Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which incensed the Patriarchate of Moscow, but allowed it to move into territories where Constantinople had long held power, like South Korea.

Dr. Kelaidis concludes in her RNS article: “The presence of a Russian Orthodox church in Pyongyang is meant to send a powerful message about Russia’s sphere of influence. This influence is not just economic or martial, but cultural as well. For a man like Vladimir Putin, just as for his friend, Kirill, the mission is not just about power, but a particular kind of power — one that restores the perceived lost dignity of Russia.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons