THE Patriarch of Moscow has endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s denial of the independence of Ukraine, while voicing hopes for “fraternal relations” between the Ukrainian and Russian populations. This is despite growing condemnation of Russian atrocities across the Orthodox world.
It was now essential to “defend God’s truth” that Russians and Ukrainians were “really one people”, joined by a “common national identity”, Patriarch Kirill told a Sunday congregation in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.
“May the Lord protect the Russian land and the peoples who today inhabit this land in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. All of us, representatives of these three peoples, are connected by a single Slavic culture. . .
“Our most important prayer must be that the devil does not permit brother to raise hand against brother. . . We are a united people who, though living today in different countries, came out of a single Kiev baptismal font, united by a common faith and common historical destiny.”
Patriarch Kirill said that Russia had defeated historic encroachments by Mongol-Tatar and Polish armies, “not through miracles or angels descending from heaven with swords, but thanks to the strength and courage of its army”, and had also survived the 1917 Bolshevik revolution by preserving a “system of common values”.
The Patriarch’s view is not shared outside Russia, however. More than 100 churches and religious NGOs from Ukraine and Europe appealed last week for Orthodox churches to break off ties with the Moscow Patriarchate “because of its support for the baseless aggressive war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine”, urging the World Council of Churches (WCC) to exclude the Russian Church from membership.
The Russian Orthodox claims have been challenged in an international declaration (reproduced here), now signed by more than 1150 theologians and academics, that condemns the Russian Church’s “false and destructive teaching” of a Russki Mir, or Russian sphere of influence, and accuses Patriarch Kirill and others of underwriting President Putin’s “heinous invasion” of 24 February with a “religious blank cheque”.
“How, at the beginning of Great Lent, when our tradition calls us to forgiveness, fasting and prayer, can Orthodox Christians unleash violence and bloodshed against their brothers and sisters in Christ?” the signatories noted in a covering letter.
“Pray for repentance for those who propagate this evil teaching, which continues to feed the megalomaniacal ambitions of Vladimir Putin. Pray also for repentance by every Orthodox Christian, for our complicity in this evil through silence, obfuscation and denial.”
AlamyResidents sift debris outside a residential building in Kyiv after it was shelled by Russian forces last weekend
Fresh condemnation of Russian aggression came over the weekend from Orthodox leaders linked to the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia and Latvia, as well as in Lithuania, where Metropolitan Innocent (Vasilyev) of Vilnius said that Patriarch Kirill’s “political statements about the war” were his “personal opinion” and not shared elsewhere. He said that his own Church would now “strive for greater church independence”.
In a declaration on Tuesday, the Polish Orthodox Church, traditionally close to the Moscow Patriarchate, compared Russia’s invasion to “the blood of Abel in the murder by his brother Cain”, and republished a message from its leader, Metropolitan Sawa (Hrycuniak), urging Patriarch Kirill to “express opposition to the bloodshed”.
“The normal life of citizens is destroyed, many innocent people killed, and the degradation of church and social life is progressing”, the Church’s bishops added.
“Guided by biblical truth, we call on the authorities of the Russian Federation, headed by the president, to stop hostilities in Ukraine, considering them wicked and incomprehensible. . . Let us not destroy what our fathers and mothers have left us, beginning with the Baptism of Prince Vladimir.”
In Ukraine, the former spokesman of the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, the Revd Georgy Kovalenko, said that Patriarch Kirill’s current teaching had “nothing to do with Christianity and Orthodoxy”, and should be condemned throughout the Christian world.
“By his actions, Putin has already excommunicated himself from Christianity, along with those who bless him for this war,” the priest, who now heads Kyiv’s Open Orthodox University, said in a message on Facebook at the weekend.
“Unfortunately, we see a component of the Moscow Patriarchate which collaborates and consciously joins the occupier in setting this fire.”
The spokesman for Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Archbishop Evstratiy Zorya, deplored Putin’s invocation of St John’s Gospel during a pro-invasion Moscow rally last Friday, and accused Russian Orthodox leaders of “complicity in crime” by “placing pseudo-religious delusions” in the President’s head.
In a speech last Friday to the Moscow Patriarchate’s Supreme Church Council, Patriarch Kirill said that his online talks last week with Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury had “revealed a high level of consent and understanding”, and had proved positive in “forming as far as possible a common attitude to the situation in Ukraine’’.
He reiterated that the Russian Church was called, “despite a very negative political context”, to preserve “the spiritual unity of our people — the Russian and Ukrainian — as one nation”, and said that his talks with the Pope and Archbishop had disproved claims about the Russian Church’s isolation.
In an apparent rebuff to the Patriarch’s earlier claims, however, a Vatican statement said that Pope Francis had rejected any idea of a “holy war or just war”, and warned that those paying the price for the Ukraine conflict were “the people, the Russian soldiers, and those who are bombed and die”.
In his strongest statement to date, the Pope told pilgrims in St Peter’s Square on Sunday that there could be no justification for the “violent aggression against Ukraine”, and the “senseless massacre where every day there is a repetition of slaughter and atrocities’’, and urged the international community to commit to ending the “inhuman and sacrilegious cruelty”.
In a post on Twitter on Tuesday, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that he had asked the Vatican to mediate and help “end human suffering” in a telephone conversation with the Pope.
Addressing the Italian parliament the same day, President Zelensky said that the Pope — with whom he also spoke on 26 February — had expressed understanding that Ukrainians wanted peace, but were also determined to defend their homeland.
AlamyRussian tanks on the outskirts of the besieged city of Mariupol on Monday
The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters in Rome that he still believed a “solution honourable for everyone” was possible, and that the Holy See remained ready, in line with previous offers, to assist negotiations.
More of the 12,000 parishes belonging to Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church announced their transfer this week to the independent denomination, headed by Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, which issued “emergency procedures” on Monday for communities wishing to defect.
At least 15 of the church’s 53 eparchies, or dioceses, have also publicly stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill in their liturgies, while about half its bishops are reported to favour independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, without necessarily merging with Metropolitan Epiphany’s Church, which has been recognised by just four of Orthodoxy’s 14 main churches since its creation in January 2019.
Many clergy cited Patriarch Kirill’s presentation of a sacred icon to the commander of Russia’s National Guard during a Moscow service on the 13 March Feast of Orthodoxy to justify their outrage, and have called for a council of bishops to determine their Church’s future.
On Tuesday, however, a Metropolitan with the independent Church, Symeon Shostatsky, of Vinnytsia-Bar, urged Moscow-linked Orthodox bishops not to wait for a time-consuming council, and condemned Patriarch Kirill and other Russian leaders for justifying their government’s “imperial aspirations” by linking the “imaginary unity of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians with the mystery of the Holy Trinity”.
He continued: “Today, our so-called brother has shown his true face — the face of an invader, terrorist, and barbarian who kills Ukrainians, destroys cities and villages, destroys the fruits of our hard work, cultural values and shrines that stand mutilated, burned, and destroyed.
“Russian propagandists went so far as to deny the existence of the Ukrainian people. The consequence of this propaganda was public approval by the vast majority of Russians of the destruction and death brought by their army to Ukraine.”
Leaders of eight Orthodox Churches have so far directly condemned the Russian invasion on 24 February, and urged an end to the war, including Patriarch Elias II of Georgia, who accused Patriarch Kirill last week of “closing his eyes and mouth” to the atrocities; and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who charged Russian leaders on Sunday of “seeking the utter humiliation of their proud and loyal Ukrainian brothers”, while also “leading their own young people to ruin”.
In an interview last week with the Rossiya-24 TV channel, however, the Russian Church’s foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, insisted that nothing could “ever break down the unity” between Russians and Ukrainians, and accused forces opposing it of also “acting against the Church and against God”.
In his Supreme Church Council speech, Patriarch Kirill said that Russian-Ukrainian unity had been “exposed to certain dangers” because of current hostilities. He went on to say that “disinformation, downright lies, and provocative statements” on the internet had aroused “negative feelings” and prevented a “speedy resolution of the conflict and reconciliation”.
On Monday, the head of Ukraine’s State Service for Freedom of Conscience, Olena Bohdan, said that 44 religious buildings, mostly Orthodox, including several cathedrals, were so far known to have been damaged or destroyed in the war, but warned that the fate of churches in Mariupol, Sumy, Irpen, and other centres had not been accurately recorded.
She went on to say that the list of registered religious organisations from all faiths in Crimea had dropped from 2220 to 907 since the peninsula’s annexation by Russia in 2014, while the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s parishes had dropped from 45 to seven, served by just four clergy.
Speaking last week, the press secretary for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, said that four priests from the independent Church had died at Russian hands since the invasion, while ten others, including Bishop Vsevolod Matvievsky, of Slovyansk, were missing.
In a weekend open letter to the acting secretary general of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Revd Ioan Sauca, President Zelensky’s wife, Olena, urged the Geneva-based WCC to become “the voice of those who suffer from war today” and to support the protection of civilians, saying that her country was now home to “many martyr cities” besides the largely destroyed Mariupol.
AlamyCivilian women at a firearms-training class in Odesa, southern Ukraine, on Monday
In his speech on 18 March in the Luzhniki sports centre, Moscow, however, President Putin insisted that the main goal of Russia’s “special military operation” had been to end “genocide” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and commended officers and soldiers currently fighting in the country.
“Words from the holy scripture come to my mind: Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” he told the applauding crowd.
“These words stem from the holy scripture, from Christianity, from what is dear to those who follow this religion. It is a universal value for all peoples and representatives of all religions in Russia. . . We have not enjoyed such unity for a long time.”
Patriarch Kirill asked the Russian Orthodox last week to pray for the Virgin Mary’s intercession for peace during Lent, in what was widely seen as an attempt to rival the Pope’s plan to dedicate Russian and Ukraine symbolically to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Friday during a ceremony in Rome broadcast internationally.
The Pope’s prayer, released on Tuesday, says that Christians “solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the Church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine”, to the Virgin Mary’s protection.
“At this hour, a weary and distraught humanity stands with you beneath the cross, needing to entrust itself to you and, through you, to consecrate itself to Christ,” the prayer continues.
“The people of Ukraine and Russia, who venerate you with great love, now turn to you, even as your heart beats with compassion for them and for all those peoples decimated by war, hunger, injustice, and poverty.”
Speaking on Tuesday after visiting Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania in a joint delegation with the Geneva-based Action by Churches Together Alliance, the WCC’s Malawian deputy general secretary, Isabel Apawo Phiri, praised the work of faith-based organisations among Ukrainian refugees. She said that churches were usually the “first responders to any crisis in the world”.
In a joint press release with the RC Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) said that all Christians were “united in condemning the Russian aggression and crimes committed against the people of Ukraine”, and called on religious and political leaders to “engage in true dialogue” and stop the “untold suffering”.
It continued, in an apparent rebuff to Patriarch Kirill, that religion could not be “used as a means to justify this war”, and pledged solidarity with the struggle of Russians who were “courageously protesting against the invasion”.
In a weekend sermon, the president of the CEC, the Revd Christian Krieger, said that Europe was reliving “traumas of war” once consigned to the past, and that political and religious doctrines “unshakeable for decades” had been “reconsidered and abandoned in the space of a few hours”.
The Moscow Patriarchate has published details of church help for Ukrainian refugees arriving in Russia. It disclosed this week that it would have to postpone an international May meeting of the Russian Orthodox Bishops’ Council because of current sanctions and travel restrictions.
Ukrainian government sources said that 15,000 invading troops had so far died in ambushes and military reversals; most had been buried in mass graves because Russia was unwilling to repatriate their remains.
Preaching last Sunday, the leader of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, described the Russian state as “a personification of darkness, an empire of evil, a tyranny of slavery”, as proved by the “destruction and murder” being inflicted on Ukraine.
“What is happening here now is not just a war, an armed conflict between two countries, as outsiders sometimes think. It is a struggle of darkness against light, death with life, slavery against freedom,” he said.
“But we can be sure once again that the evil planned by Moscow will not succeed; for the Lord promises curses and condemnations for servants of the devil.”
The head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told a congregation in Resurrection Cathedral, Kyiv, on Tuesday, that Ukraine’s triumph would be “the victory of good over evil, of God’s power over the meanness and lust of the invader”, and that Friday’s invocation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would mark the moment “when the head of the serpent is removed again by the power of prayer”.
Leader comment: No, Patriarch Kirill, we don’t understand
Comment: ‘Russian world’ ideology is destructive