An interview with His Eminence Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea
Your Eminence, thank you for speaking with me. We were informed by the media that the Moscow Patriarchate has recently established a “Diocese of South and North Korea.” Can you please comment on this development?
Thank you, as well, Mr. Sotiropoulos, for this opportunity.
It is unfortunate that our Russian brothers did not listen to our appeal, which we made repeatedly with much heartache, not to destroy the canonicity of the Orthodox Church in Korea. It is a great pity and a scandal to the local faithful that, under the pretext of their disagreement with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the issue of Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate has established an Exarchate and Diocese within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Far East and throughout East Asia.
To me, and likely for readers as well, the references to “canonicity” and “pretext” stand out in your response. Please explain what you mean by these terms.
I will gladly answer your question.
By using the term “canonicity” I mean that until just before Christmas 2018 there was only one Orthodox Church in Korea, that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was – please allow us the term – a “model” for Orthodoxy all over the world. There was a single local bishop, the Metropolitan of Korea, because we, as a Church, do not separate the country – as the great powers unfortunately divided it between South and North 70 years ago. Under the Metropolitan of Korea’s omophorion all Orthodox Christians who reside on the Korean peninsula belonged to the one, unified Church regardless of their ethnicity. In other words, in Korea, for many decades, we have been following the canonical tradition of the Ancient Church, which was the existence of a single Bishop in each geographical area who, as the responsible spiritual father, cared for the liturgical and pastoral needs of his multinational flock. The anomalous phenomenon of the existence of many bishops, and indeed of the same title and in the same region, is a situation that emerged with the emigration of Orthodox believers during the 19th century from Orthodox countries to the New World. Anyone who has even a basic knowledge of the Church’s Canon Law immediately understands its irregularity. Moreover, the decision of the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Conference for the Orthodox Diaspora at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambesy (June 6-13, 2009), which was signed by all Orthodox Churches, including His Beatitude Kyrill, Patriarch of Moscow, called for the restoration of the canonical order of the Ancient Church. This official decision shows clearly that the recent act of the Moscow Patriarchate in Korea, and in other parts of the Far East, East Asia, Europe, and Latin America, are entirely anomalous or contrary to Orthodox ecclesiology and canonical tradition.
Please also explain your use of the term “pretext” and its connection to the situation in Ukraine?
I did not use this term by accident, because I strongly believe that the Patriarchate of Moscow’s decision to suspend commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, well before Autocephaly was granted to the Church of Ukraine was a pretext designed by Moscow in order to begin implementing a premeditated plan conceived several decades ago.
Your Eminence, isn’t your reference to a “premeditated plan” excessive?
The term “premeditated plan” is not a form of rhetorical exaggeration. I have a lot of evidence that proves, in my opinion, the accuracy and truthfulness of this claim.
Can you provide this evidence or information to substantiate your claim?
I will only cite some facts about Korea, my own direct context. Other Brother-Hierarchs, who are overseeing the Metropolises of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Diaspora have had similar experiences, and I encourage them to publicize their experiences in order to inform the public fully.
Immediately after the collapse of the communist regime, when the first economic immigrants began to come to Korea from Russia and other Slavic countries, the Patriarchate of Moscow in Korea simultaneously began making jurisdictional claims. For example, Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow, when he was still Archbishop of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, visited St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seoul, the cathedral of the Korean faithful under the spiritual care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. After the Sunday Divine Liturgy, he told a local person of Russian descent, “You see all these? (meaning the church and the surrounding buildings). They were once ours, and were taken by the Greeks!” When Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia, then Archimandrite and Dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral, heard this from the local Russian person to whom Kyrill had confided it, he replied: “Please tell His Eminence that, when the Russians were present in pre-war Korea, there were no buildings at all here where the cathedral of St. Nicholas is today. All these buildings were constructed after the Korean War when the Russians had already left Korea.”
So, claims began a long time ago, back in the early 1990s?
In fact, those who study church history know that the Patriarchate of Moscow began making claims to jurisdictions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate many centuries ago. It began with the Tzars’ Satanic and imperialistic theory of the “Third Rome.” That is, the made-up and baseless idea that the Russian Empire was to become the continuation of the Byzantine Empire, and that the Moscow Patriarchate would replace the See of Constantinople as “Ecumenical Patriarchate.” Since then, with some historical breaks, the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church have worked together to achieve this goal. They have collaborated with the delusion that if, hypothetically, it were possible for someone to “give” the Patriarchate of Moscow the title of “Ecumenical Patriarchate” and declare it first in rank, then all the problems would magically and immediately be solved. To be sure, if this goal were to be reached, then we would see that all the practices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the past 100-plus years that the Moscow Patriarchate today labels as “irregularities” or “uncanonical” would immediately be viewed as fully canonical. In other words, the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate do not oppose the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decisions and actions because these decisions and actions are against the ecclesiology and ethos of the Orthodox Church, they oppose them simply because the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decisions and actions do not serve their aspirations to become the “Third Rome.”
But let us now return to our primary concern. The claims of the Patriarchate of Moscow in Korea began in the early 1990s. We have in our possession documents from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Affairs asking the Protestant Churches for money to build a church in Seoul. We have reports from the Korean media, apparently planted by the Russian authorities, in which they “explain” that the Russians have no church for their liturgical needs. Thus, they deliberately ignore the existence of the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in which they have a church and a priest as well as everything else necessary for their liturgical and pastoral needs in their own language. We have repeatedly been pressured by Russian diplomats in Korea for the same reason. To make a long story short, at every formal meeting between Russian and Korean diplomats, whether in Korea or Russia, the permanent topic on the agenda of the bilateral talks was the donation of a piece of land for the construction of a Russian church in Seoul. And please allow me to finish the report on the premeditated uncanonical and expansionist policy of the Patriarchate of Moscow against the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea with the following fact. Two years ago, Archbishop Solnechnogorsk Sergei (now Metropolitan of Singapore and Southeast Asia and President of the South East Asian Patriarchate Exarchate) came to Korea. As I mentioned in an interview nearly two years ago, he and the Russian Ambassador to Seoul visited the Mayor of Seoul for the singular purpose of requesting a plot of land for the erection of a Russian church! After meeting with the Mayor of Seoul, Archbishop Sergei came to our Metropolis accompanied by diplomats from the Russian Embassy. In an act of exceptional hypocrisy, he asked me to accept with love a Korean man, whom he himself called a priest, and to teach him liturgical and other ecclesiastical practices because he had not studied theology. This Korean man, whom the Moscow Patriarchate for years referred to as an “Officer of the Russian Mission in Korea,” also accompanied Archbishop Sergei at his meeting with the Mayor of Seoul. And while they had, as it turned out afterwards, a premeditated plan to install him as a priest in the Russian church they would erect, Archbishop Sergei had described him to us like a fool who needed our help, but as it turned out, their premeditated plan the whole time was to install him as the priest in the Russian church they would erect.
Your Eminence, do you know this “priest”? And if so, why don’t you mention his name?
Of course, I know who he is, but out of respect for him and realizing he is being used, I do not mention his name. Yet, because your question provokes me, I will mention one more incident: after the afore-mentioned meeting with Metropolitan Sergei in our Metropolis, I received a phone call and a written message from someone who introduced himself as “Mr. So” and asked to meet me.
On the day and time of the meeting, my associates at the Metropolis and myself were astonished to see “Mr. So” dressed as a clergyman and wearing a Russian golden cross around his neck; on his business card he proclaims himself as an “Archpriest”. He was accompanied by a Korean layman, who has trade relations with Russia and who claimed to be an acquaintance of Dmitry Petrovsky, a clerk working at the Department of Foreign Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Two of our associates led them to the reception hall where they were offered refreshments.
However, because “Mr. So” came to the meeting dressed in priestly clothes, without informing us, we felt it was advisable not to meet with him. That is why the Deacon of the Metropolis presented him with the following message: “You asked by telephone and in writing to meet with the Metropolitan as a layman, not as a priest. Our Ecumenical Patriarchate does not recognize you as a canonical priest, therefore since you asked for the meeting as one person and now present yourself as another, our Metropolitan will not see you.” When the Deacon conveyed this message, “Mr. So” was so angry that he began to scold him with vulgar words that cannot be repeated. The Deacon, despite the shock he suffered, was trying to complete the message, but “Mr. So” would not listen. Instead, he repeated the same phrase with anger and indignation: “Shut up! I came to meet the Metropolitan. Shut up! Do not tell me anything. Tell me only if he will meet me.” Eventually, when he heard from the Deacon that the Metropolitan would not see him, he stood up from his seat and clenching his fists with anger, opened the door and left almost running, leaving everyone flabbergasted and his companion utterly embarrassed.
Your description of events is quite astonishing Your Eminence.
It is indeed a very sad situation with all that is happening. In order to fully understand how intense the wish of the Patriarchate of Moscow was to destroy the canonicity of the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea, let me give you another example: A new couple from South Korea, who belong to one of the largest and most dangerous heresies in Korea, visited Russia in March 2017 to meet with Patriarch Kyrill. During their meeting, His Beatitude blessed them, wished them well for their marriage, gave them an icon as a gift, and did not miss the opportunity to tell them that the Russian Church had deep roots in Korea and would come back again to continue the work of the Russian mission that had stopped due to political circumstances. All of this can be seen on a video published on the internet, following the meeting of His Beatitude with the couple. Apparently, His Beatitude, losing control of things, was led by his desire to speak of his plans in Korea. The unpleasant thing about this story is that these young people, as we have learned, used their meeting with Patriarch Kyrill for the benefit of their heresy, because their strategy is to communicate with “VIP’s” and then to publish photos and videos of their meetings with high-ranking political and religious figures.
Returning to the issue in Korea, what is the current status? Has an Orthodox Church under the Russian jurisdiction been established?
Unfortunately, yes. In a private room allotted to them by the afore-mentioned “Mr. So,” on December 30, 2018, they began conducting Church services with a priest sent by the Patriarchate of Moscow and being assisted by “Mr. So.”
At this point in our interview I find it appropriate to relay to you the following incident: from the 23rd to 25th of November (2018), just a week before the blessed and very successful 4th Official Visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Korea, a meeting of the representatives of Russians living in Southeast Asia took place at the Russian Embassy in Seoul. The meeting was attended by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. About 50 Russians from various Southeast Asian countries, including Korea, attended the meeting. To those living in Korea, His Eminence Hilarion stressed that they would send a priest from the Moscow Patriarchate before Christmas following the old calendar. At hearing this announcement, many of those who for years belong to the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea reacted negatively. His Eminence Hilarion “explained” to them that those belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate are “schismatic” and they should neither attend our churches in Korea nor receive Holy Communion at parishes under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. One of the faithful said:
“Vladika, we have been here in Korea for many years. From the very beginning, when we first came here, His Eminence Sotirios, Metropolitan of Pisidia, embraced us with much love and affection and provided us with all that we needed. We have a church, we have a priest, we have a hall for our meetings, we have Sunday schools and summer camps for our children, we have everything. We do not need a new church. Another one of the faithful told him:
“Vladika, you told us that this will happen because the Ecumenical Patriarchate accepted the schismatics in Ukraine. Didn’t the Moscow Patriarchate accept the schismatic church ROCOR without any particular process?” At that His Eminence Hilarion replied:
“This was done because the Patriarchate of Moscow, as the mother Church of the Russians, embraced the schismatics with love and forgave them everything they had done.”
“But doesn’t the Ecumenical Patriarchate do the same thing now in the case of the schismatic Ukrainians”?
Instead of answering, His Eminence asked all those who wish to have a new church established in Korea to sign a document to this effect. It was signed by very few of the attendees.
We understand from your words that the new Russian church in Korea was founded against the will of the majority of the Russian faithful living in Korea. Do all Russians now attend this church?
Some people have left us and attend the new church, apparently for ethno-racial reasons. But many more faithful still belong to the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea. The saddest thing, however, is that the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate do not only call Russians and other Slavophones, but also Koreans, Americans and other English speakers, trying to convince them to attend their church. They even call or meet young children and try to influence them, exploiting them at their tender age. The grotesque thing is that they have reached the sad point of asking members of our Church to go to theirs in order to catechise the Koreans who want to become Orthodox! All those who support the Russian side should ask themselves whether these tactics are in harmony with the spirit of the Gospel, or if they exemplify proselytism aimed at fellow Orthodox! Is it possible for God to bless such an anti-brotherly attitude?
With reference to the issue of the use of inappropriate means of recruiting supporters, it came to my mind the conversation between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow during His Beatitude’s second visit to the Phanar in August 2018. Just recalling the scenes we witnessed, as members of the Synod, literally make me feel sick. In any event, at this meeting the Patriarch of Moscow told the Ecumenical Patriarch: “Your All Holiness, if you give Autocephaly to Ukraine, blood will be poured out.” To this, the Ecumenical Patriarch replied: “Your Beatitude, we neither have an army at our disposal nor any weapons. If blood is to be poured out, it will not be spilled by us, but by you!”
I also remember when I was discussing with a holy Elder about the scheming and intrigues of the Patriarchate of Moscow in Korea, he, groaning deeply, told me, among other things, that I do not wish to reveal: “Unfortunately, a thousand years have passed by but most of the Church rulers in Russia have not yet learned what the Gospel says!”
These are very serious comments, Your Eminence.
Serious, indeed, but it is verified by the facts. I told you before, that in Seoul they have established a “parish” of Russian jurisdiction, in which, despite their proselytizing efforts, only about thirty people attend. Can it be conceived by a human mind, that for these few people they established a special diocese and that the Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, just a few days ago, on April 4, also elected an Archbishop, whom they will “enthrone” in Korea? Do you see that they “play” with the sacred institutions of our Church? Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR acted in a similar manner when he came to Seoul years ago, as I have mentioned in an earlier interview. At that time, he summoned a former priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and made him an “abbot” and his wife an “abbess” in a non-existent monastery with non-existent monks and nuns! It is well known, even to those with a limited knowledge of Church law, that there must be specific reasons for establishing a diocese. One of these is the existence of a good number of parishes and believers. These pre-conditions had been taken into account by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for our Church in Korea, which is why it was only in 2004 that the Metropolis of Korea was founded, while for several decades the Orthodox Church in Korea was an Exarchate, belonging to other Provinces of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Why do you think they did that?
I believe it was a reaction to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because the granting of Autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is not in their interest. Look, Mr. Sotiropoulos, no one from us belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate professes to be infallible or sinless. On the contrary. Everyone has our own spiritual problems for which we ask for the mercy of God. However, we certainly do not wish harm to anyone. Yet, unfortunately, there are some who, the first thing they ponder over when waking up in the morning, is how to hurt as deeply as possible, through their actions and decisions, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. One is compelled to wonder, do they not think what they will apologize for their actions on the terrible Day of Judgment? Doing these hostile actions, how do they celebrate the Divine Liturgy and how do they participate in the Holy Sacraments?
All that you have said is a cause of great sorrow. Please allow me, Your Eminence, to go to another relevant issue: your title says that you are also “the Exarch of Japan”. What do you do in Japan?
In the name of Christ’s love and peace we do not do anything at all there, because the time is not right.
Can you elaborate on this point?
In 1970, the Patriarchate of Moscow granted the Orthodox Church of Japan an uncanonical status of Autonomy, which no other Orthodox Church recognizes. Our Orthodox Brothers in Japan are trapped in the Autonomy that was given to them and are essentially cut off from the other Orthodox Churches. This is a very serious matter, which, as we discussed in the Holy and Great Synod [Council] of Crete, must be solved for the spiritual benefit of our Japanese sisters and brothers. Although we have every right to be active in Japan, we do not exercise our authority, because we are striving to maintain spiritual peace in our neighbouring Orthodox Church of the Far East. However, despite our peace-making attitude, you see that our Russian Brothers come to Korea “not sparing the flock”, in order “to steal and to destroy”.
The Moscow Patriarchate has done and continues to do the same and even worse things in other Southeast Asian countries where there are Metropolises of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In Indonesia, for example, not only did they occupy a church that was erected through the donations of Orthodox Christians in Greece, but they also claimed members of the clergy, who had studied and were ordained through the care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. All these abusive acts are “accomplishments” of the Metropolitan of East America and New York Hilarion (ROCOR), which the Patriarchate of Moscow has appropriated. I remember when we mentioned these and other uncanonical acts by Metropolitan Hilarion to the current Metropolitan of Singapore Sergei, during our meeting three years ago in our Mission Center here in Seoul, he said that the Patriarch of Moscow is strictly scolding Metropolitan Hilarion for his uncanonical acts. If he had truly scolded him, then he should have returned what he had taken from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and remedied all the other uncanonical acts he did before and even after the restoration of relations between the Patriarchate of Moscow and ROCOR.
Your Eminence, anxiety about the unity of the Orthodox Church is evident in your speech. How does the Patriarchate of Moscow see the issue of unity?
Unfortunately, I do not think the Patriarchate of Moscow is interested in the unity of the Orthodox Church. On the contrary, I believe it lives by the anti-Christian doctrine of “divide and conquer.”
A simple example confirms what I have just said. You will recall that the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches was held in Busan, Korea in 2013. As the presiding local bishop of the host country, I invited all the delegations of the Orthodox Churches to celebrate a pan-Orthodox Divine Liturgy on Sunday in our church of the Annunciation in Busan. All the Orthodox delegations accepted our invitation with joy, except for Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who categorically refused to participate. He preferred to follow the devastating road of division. Specifically, while the delegations of the 13 Orthodox Churches participated in the common Eucharistic Holy Liturgy at our Church of the Annunciation, he celebrated the Liturgy separately at the Russian Consulate in Busan, assisted only by his companion priests from the Patriarchate of Moscow and 4-5 Russian lay people! In fact, he did not hesitate to place an armchair behind the portable Holy Table in the Consulate Hall where the Divine Liturgy was held, and to sit as a “master” Metropolitan at the hierarch’s throne. Someone may argue that this happened only once because there was some special reason. Unfortunately, I have learned that he has applied the same tactic several times during inter-Orthodox meetings, because he does not tolerate being fifth in line and under the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. From this incident alone, one understands whether or not the Russians want the unity of the Orthodox Church.
Now that the masks and pretenses have fallen, we see that the supposed “good relations” between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow were not always good; but not by the fault of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has tolerated Moscow’s challenges with great patience. And now that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is supposedly “schismatic,” the representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow act as if they are free to do whatever they wish all over the world, implementing their premeditated “Third Rome” plan to become themselves the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The Moscow Patriarchate did not even hesitate to set up an altar in the age-old See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Constantinople. They did not hesitate, in other words, to treat the Mother Church of Constantinople with such disrespect and ingratitude toward the Church, which a thousand years before gave birth to them and spiritually nurtured them.
It is worth mentioning here that His Eminence Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia, a ninety-one-year old man, although he was bed-ridden with the flu, decided to travel from Korea to his Metropolis in Turkey, following the decision of the Patriarchate of Moscow to establish parishes of Russian jurisdiction in the areas of Antalya and Alaya, in order to save his Flock from their predatory disposition.
Your Eminence, what has been the impact of these new developments on the heterodox in Korea?
The impact is very ugly. It is, to speak frankly, a huge scandal. For decades, we have proclaimed that the Orthodox Church is one. In the ecumenical dialogues in which we are participating, we emphasize that fragmentation into different denominations is a point of decline. We keep repeating that we must stop this evil, at all costs. Now, the situation caused by the Moscow Patriarchate, not of course because of dogmatic or canonical reasons, but for purely political ones, confuses and scandalizes our dialogue partners. They ask us to explain what is happening. We answer them that we hope and pray daily for logic and orthodox ecclesiological consciousness to prevail over worldly aspirations and political expediency.
We must never forget that we do not spiritually inspire anyone through political and secular behavior. I remember an incident from many years ago: a group of Korean pastors returned from their trip to Russia and they commented very negatively to me about Russian clerics. In other words, they returned scandalized by the luxury and the wealth they had seen in the vestments and cars of the clergy. Even more so, they were scandalized when they compared the life of the Russian clergy to the miserable economic conditions of their Flock.
Your Eminence, what is the relationship today between the countries of Korea and Russia?
At present, they seem to be very good because both nations are looking after common political and economic interests. Some members of the Patriarchate of Moscow are deliberately stressing the friendship between the two countries and what unites the two peoples in order to justify their predatory disposition. Yet, many Koreans, particularly older ones, do not forget what they suffered from Communist Russia. They do not forget that the accursed division of South and North Korea and the tragic account of the Korean civil war was largely a consequence of Russian politics. The countless victims of the war, the dead, injured and missing persons, and the tragic separation of families in the South and North Korea cannot be easily forgotten.
How about the relationship between Korea and Greece?
It is a relationship of sincere respect and love for the great sacrifices of the Greeks during the Korean Civil War. If we were to compare the relationship between Korea and Greece with that of Korea and Russia, we would say that Koreans recognize that the Greeks gave their blood for the freedom of their country. On the other hand, the Russians, with the alliance of the North Koreans and the Chinese shed the blood of South Koreans and caused many tribulations that remain to the present day.
Your Eminence, reaching the end of this interview, for which we warmly thank you, what message would you like to pass on to readers?
I also wish to thank you very much, Mr. Sotiropoulos, for giving me the opportunity to communicate with readers about these gravely important issues.
The first and main message could be nothing else than the priority of reconciliation, love and unity.
The second point I would like to make is that we feel great pain for this sad situation. And our pain becomes even greater when our sorrows and tribulations come from a conflict within our spiritual family. Personally, I wish to repeat once again that I sincerely love our Russian sisters and brothers. I will never allow myself to brag about what we have done and still do with love for our Russian faithful in Korea, because I regard it as pettiness. Besides, narcissistic self-promotion is totally unacceptable in the Church. Since 1992, Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia has done everything he could for the Russians, who arrived in Korea distressed and traumatized from what they suffered under the Soviet regime. Presently, in his Metropolis of Pisidia (Turkey), despite his advanced old age, he continues to serve in the same manner, ministering them tirelessly, because of his great love for the Russians.
I honestly wonder, when, finally, will we understand that politics and diplomatic alliances are ephemeral phenomena? That, economic and secular power, upon which so many people base their lives, have an expiration date; and that only the Church of Christ remains unchanged and salvific throughout the centuries? I will conclude this interview by inviting every Russian of goodwill, clergy or layperson, for cooperation. Everyone is welcome to come and work with us to spread the Orthodox witness in Korea. There is room for everyone under the Omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Let us not forget that unity and cooperation will save us. For that is how we will become the “Light” and “Salt” of the world. Once again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
This interview with Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea was conducted and submitted by Evagelos Sotiropoulos, who writes about Orthodox Christianity for a number of publications.