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Russian media tries to sort out source of attack on Syria air base

An attack on Russia’s Khmeimim air base suffered an assault on Dec. 31st – from whom is not totally clear

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(Al-Monitor) – The last day of 2017 turned out to be one of the gloomiest for the Russian military in Syria. First, one of its helicopters crashed north of Hama due to a technical failure, killing two servicemen. Then, rumors spread that on Dec. 31 militants had shelled the Russian Khmeimim air base, which President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had visited about three weeks beforehand.

News of the attack wasn’t reported until Jan. 3, when the authoritative Kommersant newspaper published a story saying two “political diplomatic sources” confirmed the air base had suffered one of its worst attacks during Russia’s entire military campaign in Syria. According to the report, Islamist militants shelled the air base, allegedly destroying at least four Su-24 attack aircraft, two Su-35S multirole fighter aircraft and one An-72 transport aircraft, as well as an ammunition depot that detonated after it was hit by a missile. The report said that more than 10 servicemen were injured.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Jan. 4 denied that seven planes were destroyed, calling that part of the report “fake,” but acknowledged that two military personnel were killed in the attack.

During the four days it took Moscow to comment on the incident, numerous journalists found sources with differing stories, multiplying the number of theories about what happened at the key Russian military facility and sowing doubt about the accuracy of the official narrative. Moreover, subsequent days saw more reports of attacks or attempted attacks on Khmeimim air base: On Jan. 4, Russian anti-air defense systems downed two handmade drones over Latakia. That same day, an Il-76 heavy transport plane flying from Russia to Syria couldn’t land at the air base for undisclosed reasons and had to go back. On Jan. 6, the Russian air base reportedly was attacked yet again by small armed drones.

The official version from the Russian Defense Ministry reads: “On December 31, at nightfall, the [Khmeimim] airfield came under a sudden mortar fire from a mobile militant subversive group. Two military servicemen were killed in the shelling.” However, the ministry added, “Russia’s air group in Syria is combat ready and continues to accomplish all its missions in full.”

Franz Klintsevich, the deputy head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Russian Senate, argued that “foreign intelligence” was behind the Khmeimim attacks.

Some Russian military experts suggested the “mobile militant subversive group” mentioned by the Defense Ministry approached the base by car, coming as close as 2 miles carrying mobile 82 mm mortars. If that were the case, the attack should have lasted no more than a few minutes and the air defense systems wouldn’t have detected the mortar rockets due to their size (3.2 inches), which is smaller than that of unguided rockets. Others argued the attackers used 2B9 Vasilek (Cornflower) — an automatic 82 mm gun mortar. This type of weapon is easy to move as it fits into a van, can be loaded with cassettes for four shots each and used on repeat fire.

The Syrian army and different loyal militias provide security to the base. However, the base is difficult to secure because of the absence of a clear-cut front line, difficult terrain features, alleged corruption and the relative weakness of Syrian intelligence services. Besides, the attacks might not have been carried out by jihadis. As Syrian government forces, with the support of the Russian airpower, continue their offensive against the opposition in de-escalation zones, it is possible that any rebel faction could be behind the incidents.

In most cases, journalists’ theories don’t actually contradict the official narrative but rather complement it or interpret it differently.

According to Russian business news outlet RBC, militants shelled the base using mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS). RBC cites its own source in the Defense Ministry as saying, “Defense of the base was duly organized: Rockets were downed by respective air defense systems, yet mortars are almost impossible to tackle.” The source mentioned the fire came from the “zone under control of the Syrians” and said one helicopter and a Su-24 aircraft were damaged.

“You aren’t always ready when they shoot you in the back,” he added.

Hypothetically, the extended coverage range of the BM-21 Grad MLRS is able to reach Khmeimim from such settlements as Nahr al-Bared (about 22 miles away) and Qalaat al-Madiq (25 miles away) in the Hama province.

Roman Saponkov, a Russian military correspondent, posted images allegedly showing the damage at Khmeimim, suggesting six Su-24 aircraft were hit as well as one Su-35S, one An-72, one An-30 spy plane and one Mi-8 helicopter. According to him, the Russian military didn’t know the militants had “achieved a new technological level” and could reach the base, thus insinuating the attackers had “foreign backup.”

Alternative theories propelled by liberal media insinuate the base was not attacked Dec. 31 and that the ammunition depot might have been accidentally detonated by New Year’s celebrations in Latakia. This could in part explain why no group has yet claimed responsibility for the Khmeimim attacks. Opposition media outlets report the Latakia province saw some shooting on that night resulting in a number of civilian injuries and one death, yet local residents didn’t confirm any serious blasts.

On specialized online forums, some commenters — allegedly retired Russian military personnel — speculate that only two aircraft were damaged as a result of the night attack by mortar fire and homemade drones. The tail unit of one jet, according to them, was damaged not by a mortar, but by a crash with a car that happened during the confusion of the shelling.

Proponents of all theories seem to share a view that the government might have leaked some initial details of the story as Moscow wanted it presented, and chose Kommersant specifically because the paper is known for its quality and reliability, so the account wouldn’t be questioned. But once Kommersant fleshed out more details, and so many contradictions surfaced, the Defense Ministry might have turned to Sputnik to say the some of the Kommersant story was fake. The ministry’s “alternative facts,” however, didn’t strike many as being terribly credible.

It’s also possible the government simply doesn’t know what happened, so multiple sources shared various theories.

Some pro-government Russian experts insist that no opposition group claimed responsibility for the attack because they fear the Russian military will take revenge. Yet previously, the opposition hasn’t been afraid to “sign” the missiles they launched toward Syrian government forces in Latakia, saying in reference to peace talks in Russia and Kazakhstan, “Neither Astana nor Sochi, we are for Hama,” and “Sochi is yours, Hama is ours.”

The experts also deny the attacks might have been a provocation by pro-Assad forces, though the Syrian opposition suggests that might have been the case. Ayman al-Asami, a member of the delegation of the Syrian Revolutionary Forces to the Astana peace talks, said the Khmeimim base was shelled from the Bustan al-Basha settlement in Latakia by the pro-Iranian group Imam al-Murtada to block Moscow-led initiatives on the political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Another opposition media outlet shared a document — allegedly issued by Syrian intelligence — that orders an investigation of the attacks delivered from Bustan al-Basha, which is under the control of the pro-government militia the National Defense Forces.

Moscow declared that from now on the base will be better guarded. But the Russian military long ago should have taken measures such as spreading its aircraft across the base and mounting reinforced-concrete shelters that could protect the aircraft, ammunition and fuel from mortar shelling and missile and bombing raids. Most importantly, however, instead of just increasing the fighting in de-escalation zones, Russia should take the appropriate political steps to support the cease-fire and increase pressure on its allies in Damascus and Tehran.

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Kiev ‘Patriarch’ prepares to seize Moscow properties in Ukraine

Although Constantinople besought the Kiev church to stop property seizures, they were ignored and used, or perhaps, complicit.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The attack on the Eastern Orthodox Church, brought about by the US State Department and its proxies in Constantinople and Ukraine, is continuing. On October 20, 2018, the illegitimate “Kyiv (Kiev) Patriarchate”, led by Filaret Denisenko who is calling himself “Patriarch Filaret”, had a synodal meeting in which it changed the commemoration title of the leader of the church to include the Kyiv Caves and Pochaev Lavras.

This is a problem because Metropolitan Onuphry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is canonically accepted and acts as a very autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate has these places under his pastoral care.

This move takes place only one week after Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople unilaterally (and illegally) lifted the excommunications, depositions (removal from priestly ranks as punishment) and anathemas against Filaret and Makary that were imposed on them by the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate.

These two censures are very serious matters in the Orthodox Church. Excommunication means that the person or church so considered cannot receive Holy Communion or any of the other Mysteries (called Sacraments in the West) in a neighboring local Orthodox Church. Anathema is even more serious, for this happens when a cleric disregards his excommunication and deposition (removal from the priesthood), and acts as a priest or a bishop anyway.

Filaret Denisenko received all these censures in 1992, and Patriarch Bartholomew accepted this decision at the time, as stated in a letter he sent to Moscow shortly after the censures. However, three years later, Patriarch Bartholomew received a group of Ukrainian autocephalist bishops called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA, who had been in communion with Filaret’s group. While this move may have been motivated by the factor of Bartholomew’s almost total isolation within Istanbul, Turkey, it is nonetheless non-canonical.

This year’s moves have far exceeded previous ones, though, and now the possibility for a real clash that could cost lives is raised. With Filaret’s “church” – really an agglomeration of Ukrainian ultranationalists and Neo-Nazis in the mix, plus millions of no doubt innocent Ukrainian faithful who are deluded about the problems of their church, challenging an existing arrangement regarding Ukraine and Russia’s two most holy sites, the results are not likely to be good at all.

Here is the report about today’s developments, reprinted in part from OrthoChristian.com:

Meeting today in Kiev, the Synod of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” (KP) has officially changed the title of its primate, “Patriarch” Philaret, to include the Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras under his jurisdiction.

The primate’s new official title, as given on the site of the KP, is “His Holiness and Beatitude (name), Archbishop and Metropolitan of Kiev—Mother of the cities of Rus’, and Galicia, Patriarch of All Rus’-Ukraine, Svyaschenno-Archimandrite of the Holy Dormition Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras.”

…Thus, the KP Synod is declaring that “Patriarch” Philaret has jurisdiction over the Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras, although they are canonically under the omophorion of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, the primate of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Philaret and his followers and nationalistic radicals have continually proclaimed that they will take the Lavras for themselves.

This claim to the ancient and venerable monasteries comes after the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that it had removed the anathema placed upon Philaret by the Russian Orthodox Church and had restored him to his hierarchical office. Philaret was a metropolitan of the canonical Church, becoming patriarch in his schismatic organization.

Representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have clarified that they consider Philaret to be the “former Metropolitan of Kiev,” but he and his organization continue to consider him an active patriarch, with jurisdiction in Ukraine.

Constantinople’s statement also appealed to all in Ukraine to “avoid appropriation of churches, monasteries, and other properties,” which the Synod of the KP ignored in today’s decision.

The KP primate’s abbreviated title will be, “His Holiness (name), Patriarch of Kiev and All Rus’-Ukraine,” and the acceptable form for relations with other Local Churches is “His Beatitude Archbishop (name), Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’-Ukraine.”

The Russian Orthodox Church broke eucharistic communion and all relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over this matter earlier this week. Of the fourteen local Orthodox Churches recognized the world over, twelve have expressed the viewpoint that Constantinople’s move was in violation of the canons of the Holy Orthodox Church. Only one local Church supported Constantinople wholeheartedly, and all jurisdictions except Constantinople have appealed for an interOrthodox Synod to address and solve the Ukrainian matter in a legitimate manner.

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Massacre in Crimea kills dozens, many in critical condition

According to preliminary information, the incident was caused by a gas explosion at a college facility in Kerch, Crimea.

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“We are clarifying the information at the moment. Preliminary figures are 50 injured and 10 dead. Eight ambulance crews are working at the site and air medical services are involved,” the press-service for the Crimean Ministry of Health stated.

Medics announced that at least 50 people were injured in the explosion in Kerch and 25 have already been taken to local hospital with moderate wounds, according to Sputnik.

Local news outlets reported that earlier in the day, students at the college heard a blast and windows of the building were shattered.

Putin Orders that Assistance Be Provided to Victims of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The president has instructed the Ministry of Health and the rescue services to take emergency measures to assist victims of this explosion, if necessary, to ensure the urgent transportation of seriously wounded patients to leading medical institutions of Russia, whether in Moscow or other cities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said.

The president also expressed his condolences to all those affected by the tragic incident.

Manhunt Underway in Kerch as FSB Specialists Investigate Site of Explosion – National Anti-Terrorist Committee

The site of the blast that rocked a city college in Kerch is being examined by FSB bomb disposal experts and law enforcement agencies are searching for clues that might lead to the arrest of the perpetrators, the National Anti Terrorism Committee said in a statement.

“Acting on orders from the head of the NAC’s local headquarters, FSB, Interior Ministry, Russian Guards and Emergency Ministry units have arrived at the site. The territory around the college has been cordoned off and the people inside the building evacuated… Mine-disposal experts are working at the site and law enforcement specialists are investigating,” the statement said.

Terrorist Act Considered as Possible Cause of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The tragic news that comes from Kerch. Explosion. The president was informed … The data on those killed and the number of injured is constantly updated,” Peskov told reporters.

“[The version of a terrorist attack] is being considered,” he said.

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Russian Orthodox Church officially breaks ties with Constantinople

Biggest separation in almost 1,000 years as world’s largest Orthodox Church cuts communion with Constantinople over legitimizing schismatics.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate became official today, October 15, 2018, as the Russian Holy Synod reviewed the recent granting of communion to two schismatic groups in Ukraine, pursuant to Constantinople’s intent to grant autocephaly (full self-rule, or independence) to the agglomeration of these groups.

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RT reported that the Synod ruled that any further clerical relations with Constantinople are impossible, given the current conditions. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev told journalists today about the breach in relations:

“A decision about the full break of relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate has been taken at a Synod meeting” that is currently been held in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, Hilarion said, as cited by TASS.

The move comes days after the Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to eventually grant the so-called autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus making the clerical organization, which earlier enjoyed a broad autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate, fully independent.

The Moscow Patriarchate also said that it would not abide by any decisions taken by Constantinople and related to the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “All these decisions are unlawful and canonically void,” Hilarion said, adding that “the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize these decisions and will not follow them.”

At the same time, the Russian Church expressed its hope that “a common sense will prevail” and Constantinople will change its decision. However, it still accused the Ecumenical Patriarch of initiating the “schism.”

The marks the most significant split in the Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054, in which Rome excommunicated Constantinople, a breach between the Roman Catholics and Orthodox which has persisted ever since then, becoming hardened and embittered after the Roman Catholic armies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Many other local Orthodox Churches expressed support for the Moscow Patriarchate’s position prior to today’s announcement, but the break in relations between these two churches does not have any known affect on local churches who hold communion with both Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate at this time.

The website Orthochristian.com ran the entire statement of the Holy Synod regarding this situation. We offer a brief summary of statements here, taken from that source and patriarcha.ru, adding emphasis.

With deepest pain, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church received the message of the Patriarchate of Constantinople published on October 11, 2018 about the decisions adopted by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople: on the confirmation of the intention to “grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church”; on the opening of the “stavropegion” of the Patriarch of Constantinople in Kiev; on the “restoration in the hierarchal or priestly rank” of the leaders of the Ukrainian schism and their followers and the “return of their faithful to Church communion”; and on the “cancellation of the action” of the conciliar charter of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1686 concerning the transfer of the Kiev Metropolia to the Moscow Patriarchate

The Synod of the Church of Constantinople made these decisions unilaterally, ignoring the calls of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the entirety of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the fraternal Local Orthodox Churches, and their primates and bishops for pan-Orthodox discussion of the issue.

Entering into communion with those who have departed into schism, let alone those who have been excommunicated from the Church, is tantamount to departing into schism and is severely condemned by the canons of the holy Church: “If any one of the bishops, presbyters, or deacons, or any of the clergy shall be found communicating with excommunicated persons, let him also be excommunicated, as one who brings confusion on the order of the Church” (Canon 2 of the Council of Antioch; Canon 10, 11 of the Holy Apostles).

The decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the “restoration” of the canonical status and the reception into communion of the former Metropolitan Philaret Denisenko, excommunicated from the Church, ignores a number of successive decisions of the Bishops’ Councils of the Russian Orthodox Church, the legitimacy of which are beyond doubt.

By the decision of the Bishops’ Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kharkov of May 27, 1992, Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko) was removed from the Kiev Cathedra and was banned from the clergy for not fulfilling the oath made by him before the cross and the Gospel at the previous Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

By its ruling of June 11,1992, the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, confirmed the decision of the Kharkov Council and expelled Philaret Denisenko from his rank, depriving him of every degree of the priesthood on the following charges: “Cruel and arrogant attitude to the subordinate clergy, dictatorialness, and intimidation (Tit. 1:7-8; Canon 27 of the Holy Apostles); introducing temptation among the faithful by his behavior and personal life (Matthew 18:7; Canon 3 of the First Ecumenical Council, Canon 5 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council); oath-breaking (Canon 25 of the Holy Apostles); public slander and blasphemy against the Bishops’ Council (Canon 6 of the Second Ecumenical Council); the celebration of clerical functions, including ordinations, in a state of suspension (Canon 28 of the Holy Apostles); the perpetration of a schism in the Church (Canon 15 of the First-Second Council).” All ordinations performed by Philaret in a suspended state since May 27, 1992, and the punishments imposed by him, were declared invalid.

Despite repeated calls for repentance, after the deprivation of his hierarchal rank Philaret Denisenko continued his schismatic activity, including within the bounds of other Local Churches. By the ruling of the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1997, he was given over to anathema.

The aforesaid decisions were recognized by all the Local Orthodox Churches, including the Church of Constantinople.

… Now, after more than two decades, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has changed its position for political reasons.

… St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, in his Pedalion, which is an authoritative source of ecclesiastical-canonical law of the Church of Constantinople, interprets Canon 9 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, rejecting the false opinion on the right of Constantinople to consider appeals from other Churches: “The Primate of Constantinople does not have the right to act in the dioceses and provinces of other Patriarchs, and this rule did not give him the right to take appeals on any matter in the Ecumenical Church… “ Listing a whole range of arguments in favor of this interpretation, referring to the practice of the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, St. Nikodemos concludes: “At present … the Primate of Constantinople is the first, the only, and the last judge over the metropolitans subordinate to him—but not over those who are subject to the rest of the Patriarchs. For, as we said, the last and universal judge of all the Patriarchs is the Ecumenical Council and no one else.” It follows from the above that the Synod of the Church of Constantinople does not have canonical rights to withdraw judicial decisions rendered by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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