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Leader comment: No, Patriarch Kirill, we don’t understand

25 March 2022

THERE are perils in talking with your enemy. Volodymyr Zelensky knows this well. The very fact that talking takes place can be manipulated into pretended agreement. We know, of course, that Kirill, President Putin’s right-hand patriarch, is not an enemy, because he says so. He spoke to the Supreme Council of the Russian Orthodox Church last week about his video conversations with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Perhaps, the most important impression is that our interlocutors have not moved away from us, nor have they become our enemies . . . despite the resounding criticism from a certain part of our church community.”

The Pope and the Archbishop were, indeed, at pains to express their respect for the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill goes too far, however, to describe them as “partners . . . who regard the stand of the Russian Orthodox Church with understanding”. Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have broad sympathies and wide experience, but it is impossible for anyone to understand the stance of a church hierarchy that suggests, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the prime obstacle to peace is not the indiscriminate shelling by their compatriots but the existence on the internet of “much disinformation, downright lie, provocative statements, which can arouse negative feelings among people”.

It is sometimes hard to decide which is the more evil: physical violence or deceit. The first causes bodily harm; the second can destroy trust and hope. There is no dilemma, however, when dealing with a policy of deceit that enables the perpetrator to continue to inflict physical violence, as is the case of Putin’s Russia. Those who connive with the deceit are thus complicit in the violence, since it can be presumed — and this is certainly the belief of President Putin — that if ordinary decent Russians were told the truth about the war in Ukraine, they would find some way to stop it and him.

This, then, is the challenge to Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox hierarchy: if they genuinely think that the death and destruction being inflicted on Ukraine is a justified Christian act, then they should tell their congregations exactly what is going on. Not the sanitised, mendacious version to which they have so far subscribed, but the reliable account offered to them by their fellow priests and Orthodox followers in the firing line: the truth about the elderly and infirm bombed out of their homes, the millions displaced, the families separated, the infrastructure destroyed. If Patriarch Kirill and the others actually believe that their president’s conduct complies with Christ’s instruction to love one’s neighbour, the least they can do is lay the facts before the people they purport to represent at the altar (risking, of course, a 15-year sentence for doing so) and discover the reaction of the anxious and bereaved parents whose sons have been duped into fighting an evil and wholly unnecessary war.

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