Journalists covering global Orthodoxy were particularly busy this year. In fact, 2023 marked a momentous period for reporting on the church.
The ongoing Russian invasion, the calendar change in Ukraine and the deepening of the rift between Constantinople and Moscow defined the year that ends in just a few days.
And with 2023 coming to a close, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the year related to Orthodox Christianity:
The start of the year marked a grim anniversary: It was on Feb. 24 that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned one. Commemorative ceremonies took place across Ukraine and the world.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate, “there have been approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Russian combat fatalities in Ukraine between February 2022 and February 2023.” The total number of casualties is much higher – roughly 200 to 250 thousand. These casualties include regular Russian soldiers, members of paramilitary groups and private contractors from the Wagner Group.
On the Ukrainian side, leaked Pentagon documents suggest casualties ranging between 124 and 131 thousands. According to the United Nations officials, at least 8 thousand civilians died during the first year of the Russian invasion, while approximately 8 million refugees have been forced to flee the country.
The war in Ukraine is the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
In March, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited Lithuania, with the goal of countering the Russian Orthodox church in the Baltic region.
Although brewing for years, the Orthodox schism between Constantinople and Moscow officially began in 2019, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, an action that angered the Russian Orthodox church. In response, Moscow established the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa, expanding into the canonical territory of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.
While in Lithuania, Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his desire to collaborate with the country’s authorities in establishing a branch of the Orthodox church, independent from the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Bartholomew met with Viktorija Nielsen, the president of Lithuanian parliament.
“From the 13th century until 1686, the Orthodox living in the territory of Lithuania considered Constantinople as the Mother Church from which Orthodoxy came to our country,” Nielsen said after the meeting.
The Lithuanian Prime Minister assured the Ecumenical Patriarch and all Orthodox that the government will do everything it can to protect freedom of belief, conscience, & religion, as enshrined in the Constitution of Lithuania for every citizen & resident. https://t.co/BgGtDigc31 pic.twitter.com/BhHFqAFbmu
— Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (@OrderStAndrew) March 31, 2023
The Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — are perceived as the “canonical backyard” by the Russian church, which heightened the importance of Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit and the decision to establish the new branch of Orthodox Church.
The conflict in Ukraine also holds a spiritual component, as demonstrated by Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Lithuania, showcasing its depth. Despite being under-reported by mainstream media, Religion Unplugged has been on forefront, covering theological aspects of the war in Ukraine this past year.
Ukraine took another step in its cultural shift away from Russia by switching calendars and changing the date of Christmas celebration from January to December.
For centuries, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians had celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, following the Julian calendar. On May 24, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine adopted a revised Julian calendar, which is aligned with the Gregorian calendar used in everyday life.
In a Facebook post, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine stated: “This question arose with new impetus as a result of Russian aggression. Nowadays, the Julian calendar is perceived as connected with Russian church culture.”
Following this decision, President Zelensky signed a law moving Christmas in Ukraine to Dec. 25.
The Macedonian Orthodox church-Ohrid Archbishopric celebrated the first anniversary of receiving the tomos (decree) of autocephaly from Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox church.
Patriarch Porfirije presided over the divine liturgy with Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid at the Church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid, Macedonia. Following the liturgy, Archbishop Stefan awarded Patriarch Porfirije with the Medal of Saint Clement of Ohrid, for love for Macedonian people and church.
A few weeks later, the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox church-Ohrid Archbishopric finalized the union by integrating the Serbian Orthodox church’s structure into its institutional organization.
The schism that endured since 1967 when the Macedonian Orthodox church non-canonically declared independence was healed in May 2022.
Representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox churches reached the first agreement since 2016. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, adopted the document “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today” in Alexandria, Egypt.
The meeting was hosted by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and it took place at the peak of the Orthodox schism between Constantinople and Moscow. While the majority of Orthodox churches participated in the meeting, notable absences included representatives of the Serbian Orthodox church and the Russian Orthodox church due to disagreements over ecumenism and other canonical issues.
This marked the third dialogue document in the last 16 years, following the Ravenna (2007) and Chieti (2016) documents. It represents a step forward to restoration of “fuller communion” between East and West. However, the impact of Pope Francis’ decision to approve blessings for same-sex couples on the dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church is yet to be seen.
The Orthodox church in America’s Bulgarian diocese of Toledo announced the formation of a new monastery known as the Athonite Saints Orthodox Hermitage.
The new monastic hermitage was consecrated on July 15. It is located in Hanover, Ill., and is open for visitors. This is the third monastic community established by the Bulgarians, with two others located in California and Michigan. Additionally, three years ago, the Georgian Orthodox Church established a monastery in Piedmont, Oklahoma.
The establishment of new Orthodox monasteries across the country could offer insight into the growth of the Orthodox Christianity in the United States.
In September, Bulgarian authorities expelled Archimandrite Vasian, the head of the Russian Orthodox church in the country, along with two employees of the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker in Sofia.
This action was taken because expelled individuals were considered a “threat to national security.”
The Russian embassy in Sophia posted on Facebook: “We are outraged by the fact and form of the decision taken by the Bulgarian side.”
Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox church has faced accusations of assisting Moscow’s intelligence agencies in spying abroad.
The Ukrainian parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of banning the Ukrainian Orthodox church, under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The UOC (distinct from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, known as the OCU) had faced accusations of collaborating with Moscow during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, however, claimed that they were no longer associated with the Russian Orthodox church and expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the law.
The law also raised concerns that Zelensky’s government is actively prosecuting the Ukrainian Orthodox church and limiting religious freedom in the country.
The matter of banning the UOC entered American politics when TV commentator Tucker Carlson released an interview with Robert Amsterdam, the UOC’s lawyer, and presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy raised concerns about the law’s democratic nature during his presidential campaign.
After nearly a decade, and several failed attempts to resolve the matter, the Holy Synod of the Antiochian Patriarchate decided to restore communion with the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
Eucharistic communion was severed on April 29, 2014, by the Antiochian Synod due to the dispute over the canonical jurisdiction of Qatar, claimed by both churches.
The Antiochian Patriarchate asserted that Qatar falls under canonical jurisdiction of its Archdiocese of Baghdad, Kuwait and the Arabian Peninsula. However, despite this claim, the Jerusalem Patriarchate established a new Archdiocese of Qatar and elected Archimandrite Makarios as its head (he was later elevated to the position of metropolitan).
The Antiochian Patriarchate has restored ecclesiastical relations, yet it maintains its claim of canonical jurisdiction over Qatar. This decision followed Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. In the official statement, the Antiochian Patriarchate expressed love for the people of the Jerusalem Patriarchate and the importance to “stand by them in these difficult and crucial circumstances.”
In addition to Constantinople and Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem are two of the four ancient patriarchates of the early church.
Matushka Olga Michael, a Native Alaskan of Yup’ik origin who died in 1979, was canonized by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox church in America in early November. Beloved by Orthodox Alaskans, she has long been venerated by Orthodox Christians around the world. Her life’s mission was to aid the poor and help women who suffered from physical and sexual abuse.
Today, November 8, the Orthodox Church in America has declared that the time for the glorification of Matushka Olga of Alaska has arrived & has hereby decreed that she be numbered among the saints.
Holy Mother Olga, pray to God for us! pic.twitter.com/y5Ey5AK8a5
— St. Herman of Alaska (@hermanofalaska) November 9, 2023
Matushka Olga, now St. Olga of Kwethluk, became the first Orthodox female saint of North America and the first-ever Yup’ik saint. St. Olga’s glorification is consequential because she was a married woman, not a nun or a hermit. Her life could serve as an example of how the concept of sainthood will evolve in the decades to come.
After decades of ethnic cleansing, the Serbian Orthodox community in Kosovo is still undergoing prosecution. On Nov. 28, the Serbian Orthodox church of St. Archangel Michael in the village of Rakitnica, in central Kosovo, was broken into by a group of Albanians. The group was led by Nikolla Xhufka, a self-proclaimed Orthodox priest of the Albanian National Orthodox church.
Despite its history as property of the Serbian Church dating back to the 15th century, Xhufka declared that the Church of St. Archangel Michael now belongs to the Albanian National Orthodox church.
This is the most recent case of blatant violation of the religious freedom and the property rights of the Serbian Orthodox church in Kosovo.
The Albanian National Orthodox church is an uncanonical and unrecognized church, distinct from the canonical, autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania. Last year, the Orthodox Church of Albania released a statement condemning Xhufka’s activities.
And finally, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 for the first time in history. Traditionally, they, as mentioned, had followed the Julian calendar, which aligns with Orthodox Churches of Russia, Georgia, Serbia, among others, celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7.
The move aligned Ukrainians with a majority of Christians denominations around the world who celebrate Christmas in December.
Earlier this year, President Zelensky signed a law, officially changing from the Julian to the Gregorian. The aim of the law, he said, is to “abandon the Russian heritage.”
“We all celebrate Christmas together,” Zelensky proclaimed in his Christmas message. “On the same date, as one big family, as one nation, as one united country.”
These were the top 12 Orthodox Christian news stories of 2023.