THE Russian Orthodox Church has criticised the UK’s imposition of sanctions on Patriarch Kirill, as religious leaders have continued to exchange bitter accusations over the war in Ukraine.
“Attempts to intimidate the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, or force him to give up his views, are pointless and futile: he was shaped under colossal pressure against the faith, always resisting with dignity,” the Moscow Patriarchate’s press officer, Vladimir Legoyda, said.
“There is no other way for me to react to such absurd, counter-productive measures, which do nothing but ruin already shattered communications between the European community and Russia.”
He was reacting to the British Government’s announcement last week of a travel ban and asset freeze on the Moscow Patriarch, for his “prominent support of Russian military aggression in Ukraine”.
The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, said that the latest sanctions, which also covered Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for assisting the “forced transfer and adoption” of vulnerable Ukrainian children, were targeted at “enablers and perpetrators of Putin’s war, who have brought untold suffering to Ukraine” and chose “to turn a blind eye to alleged war crimes”.
The move was also attacked by Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who said that the “British regime” had acted against the Patriarch without sanctioning “a single Ukrainian Nazi with a swastika”.
Meanwhile, Western criticism of Kirill, whose name was removed from a parallel European Union sanctions list at Hungarian insistence in early June, was rejected as “false and unfounded” by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which said that the Russian Church leader remained “a true spiritual symbol of modern Orthodoxy”.
“His Holiness is Primate for over 100 million believers, not only in Russia and Ukraine but in many other countries,” Metropolitan Theodosius (Hanna) of Sebastia said in an interview with the online Orthodox Times.
“As a man of peace, he always favours dialogue — he has always called all sides to reconciliation, to renounce wars and violence.”
In a speech on Sunday, however, Patriarch Kirill again lauded his country’s invading forces for “defending Russia on the battlefield” against “enormous external dangers”. Western countries that were facing a “decline of faith” were “horrified” to see new churches constructed in his country, he said.
“The priests caring for our soldiers tell me of amazing cases of courage and self-sacrifice, of ability to lay down lives for friends,” he said during the dedication of a new cathedral at Penza. “Where does this come from? Not from high pay, encouragement by superiors, or a wish to advance in the services, but from an inner moral sense nurtured from the Orthodox faith.”
The exchanges took place as Ukrainian forces made a last-ditch defence this week of the Donbas city of Severodonetsk, and faced heavy bombardment north of Kharkiv, but also launched counter-attacks around Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as a cholera outbreak was predicted in the destroyed Azov port of Mariupol.
President Zelensky again accused Moscow of deliberately cutting off Ukrainian grain and wheat supplies to the world, after hosting weekend visits by Boris Johnson, and heads of state and government from France, Germany, Italy, and Romania.
In a message on Sunday, the Primate of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Svietoslav Shevchuk, said that he was heartened that 95 per cent of fields had still be sown with seeds, despite the fighting, but warned that no area was now safe from Russian attack.
“The enemy seeks methodically to destroy all Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure; so we will face severe difficulties during the coming winter and be unable to feed and keep our children warm,” the Primate said.
“Let us ask the Holy Spirit to help Ukrainians accept the gift of knowledge, so they better understand this enemy, and see and recognise the strategy pursued by St Michael and his army as they wage war with the devil.”
The Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the PCU, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), invoked the Virgin Mary’s protection in a Sunday sermon for those “forced to defend their homeland against invaders and murderers”. He said that he, too, was praying for “a speedy victory over evil and untruth”.
Churches in Ukraine have carried daily news of funerals of soldiers killed, such as Artemy Dymyd, the 26-year-old son of a renowned iconographer, Ivanka Krypyakevych, and the first Rector of the country’s Catholic University, who was buried in Lviv on Tuesday.
Leaders of the PCU and Ukraine’s larger Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (the UOC) both complained of violent church seizures by rival supporters.
On Monday, the PCU’s honorary Patriarch Filaret (Denisenko) urged President Zelensky to build on the UOC’s 27 May reassertion of its self-governing status by launching a unification process between the two Churches.
In letters to EU ambassadors and the United Nations mission, however, the UOC’s Chancellor, Metropolitan Antonii (Pakanich) of Borispol-Brovary, said that 36 local councils had so far banned or suspended his Church, in violation of religious-freedom clauses in Ukraine’s constitution and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.
“Anti-church forces are continuing to use the difficult situation in our country for their own purposes,” Metropolitan Antonii told Orthodox leaders abroad in a separate appeal this week.
“I have addressed open letters about this to our President and international human-rights organisations. So far, however, we have not received any clear answers and do not see any appropriate actions by the state.”
Accompanied by Ukrainian children at his Rome audience on Wednesday, the Pope urged Christians not to forget about the war or “remove the suffering of this tormented nation from memory”.
The Holy See’s British Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, told a seminar in Rome that the Roman Catholic Church should continue peace efforts, but also “resist the temptation to agree to compromises on Ukraine’s territorial integrity”.
During a visit to Berlin last week, Metropolitan Epiphany also spoke out against ceding territory to Russia, and said that President Putin’s aim was to “restore the Russian empire” and “the Yalta system of a divided Europe”.
“When Hitler was given the Sudetenland for a promise of peace, the aggressor’s appetite for victory only grew,” the PCU leader told a religious conference. “This is why we are requesting all possible help from the democratic world. . . The more help provided and the earlier it arrives, the sooner we will repel the aggressor and regain our sovereignty.”
In a statement last weekend, the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, COMECE, said that the Ukraine war reflected “significant geopolitical shifts” worldwide, with “diminishing respect for fundamental human values and peaceful coexistence principles”. It urged the EU and the international community to ensure “a free, secure, and independent Ukraine within internationally recognised borders”.
“The unjust Russian aggression has not only brought horrific suffering to the Ukrainian people, but also greatly challenged the vision of a rules-based international order,” COMECE said after hosting Metropolitan Epiphany and other Ukrainian church leaders.
“While lasting peace will only be possible on the basis of a negotiated agreement, the right of Ukraine to legitimate self-defence in line with the principles of international law cannot be denied.”
Presenting an icon of the Archangel Michael to staff and wounded troops on Tuesday at the Central Military Hospital in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill said that all true warriors should “face danger and even death” to “defend the Fatherland”, and that victory required “moving forward and achieving”.
He continued: “The struggle between good and evil is taking place both along state borders and along the many other borders dividing human society. Our servicemen and army must always be on the side of good, since this will not only assure full support from the people, but will also undoubtedly help them gain support from the divine power.”