(Photo source: thelithuaniatribune.com)
The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, supports President Vladimir Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine as a holy war. His attitude has drawn criticism from various parties, including Vatican leader Pope Francis. Patriarch Kirill, 75, is a long-time ally of President Vladimir Putin. Pope Francis, through the Vatican press office, warned Kirill not to hide behind religion to justify armed aggression and conquest.
“At one time there was also talk in our churches about a holy war or a just war,” the Pope said. “Today we can’t talk like this,” he added, as quoted by Al Jazeera, Wednesday (30/3/2022).
Ten days earlier, in a sermon, Patriarch Kirill endorsed Moscow’s so-called “special peacekeeping operations,” a Russian term that eschews narratives of war or invasion.
“We have entered a struggle of not physical, but metaphysical significance,” Kirill said.
He cites the gay pride march as an example of what outsiders are trying to force on the Donbas people of eastern Ukraine, who are interfering in Moscow’s name ostensibly.
“He expressed his view that behind the war in Ukraine there is a spiritual difference between the West and the Orthodox world, and clearly to him, the latter is better,” Thomas Bremer, who teaches Eastern Churches Studies at the University of Münster in Germany, told Al Jazeera.
So according to him, war is not about political ends or influence, but about spiritual, or, as he puts it, “metaphysical” goals. In doing so, he gave the official Russian point of view a “theological basis”. Putin and Patriarch Kirill enjoy a close relationship, with Kirill describing Putin’s victory in the 2012 election as “a miracle of God”.
While Putin sees Ukraine as part of the “Russian world”, Kirill claims power over the churches in Ukraine and Belarus. But despite their common origins in 10th-century Kievan Rus, when Byzantine missionaries converted the pagan Prince Vladimir, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018.
Disappointed, Moscow then severed ties with the Istanbul-based Eastern Orthodox Church, which supports the independence of the Ukrainian clergy.
“Today, a real division appears to be occurring between the Russian Orthodox Church and the [remaining] branch in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Bremer said.
“After the war, the Russian Orthodox Church will probably lose most of its faithful in Ukraine, because they feel betrayed by the Patriarch,” he added.
As the war continued, more and more figures of the Russian Orthodox Church became frustrated with Patriarch Kirill, signaling a deepening division. Nearly 300 priests and deacons, including military veterans, recently signed an open letter entitled “Russian Priests for Peace”.
“We respect God-given human freedom, and we believe that the Ukrainian people should make their own choices, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” the letter reads.
The three signatories spoke to Al Jazeera. “I don’t follow politics, but now I see only one thing – people dying,” said Alexander Vostrodymov, a priest from a village near Moscow, who was among those who signed.
“The rest doesn’t matter to me.” Abbot Andrey Sokolov, who is based in Damascus, Syria, said while several hundred signed the letter, others held the same view but did not want to identify themselves out of fear.
“I consider it my pastoral duty to sign this petition. It is impossible to remain silent at such a time when the bloody ‘special operations’ fratricide is unleashed,” he said.
“There are people who, although they agree with the contents of the letter, do not sign it: some are shackled by fear, some are afraid of losing their position as chancellor, some are worried about their careers.”
“I already know of cases of repression against the signatories. From one of them, his boss, the ruling bishop, demanded to withdraw his signature under threat of removal from office,” he said. A third priest, based in Russia, requested anonymity.
“This is a disaster and a crime of enormous proportions. This is a total violation of God’s commandments. And we Russians must answer this and compensate for all the destruction,” he said.
The priest said the signatories to the letter were under pressure from ecclesiastical authorities and state bodies. The only position allowed was to pray for peace, he said.
“Without refusing such a prayer, it should be noted that we will answer such silence later,” the priest said.
“Of course, our religious obligation obliges us to speak out against such a horrible war.”
Others who signed the letter, in Russia and abroad, declined to give further statements when contacted by Al Jazeera. Priests have not been spared a crackdown on dissent. A pastor in central Russia has reportedly been fined $330 for using the word “war” in an article on his church’s website. It is illegal to call an ongoing invasion a war; instead, the Kremlin-approved “special military operations” euphemism should be used.
Meanwhile, Orthodox clergy around the world have condemned the invasion, including Patriarch Daniel of Romania, Archbishop Leo of Finland, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and all of Africa, as well as heads of the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris and Estonia.
In an open letter on March 9, Metropolitan John of Dubna, archbishop of the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe, urged Kirill to raise his voice “against this terrible and senseless war and to mediate with the authorities of the Russian Federation so that the murderers in this conflict ends as soon as possible.”
A Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam split from the Moscow Patriarchate in protest, joining their rivals in Istanbul instead. The Amsterdam Church received a serious visit from a senior Russian archbishop and was then threatened; the pro-war Z symbol was painted on the gates of the Amsterdam church. In recent Russian history, the role of the church has changed.
Communists who came to power after the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s tried to eradicate religion by burning churches and shooting priests, only to revive them to rally the faithful during World War II. Since the end of Soviet atheist rule, religion has resurfaced and more than 70 percent of Russians now identify as Orthodox, although far fewer are regular churchgoers.
Observers say, President Putin, an Orthodox Christian, views the church as a symbol of Russian nationality. The Kremlin has embraced “traditional values” as an ideology, passing laws against “propaganda” about same-sex relations. Cyril Hovorun, a Professor of Ecclesiology and International Relations at the St. Ignatius Academy of Theology in Sweden, describes the church’s relationship with the state as “complex”.
“It’s not just about the complete surrender of the church to political authorities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The Church is also trying to influence the Kremlin. In a sense, the Russian Orthodox Church succeeded, as the Kremlin at some point adopted the political language of the church, which came to be known as the ideology of the ‘Russian world’. This ideology originated in the church and was then armed by the Kremlin.”