THE leader of Poland’s minority Orthodox Church has apologised for praising the stance of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during the war in Ukraine, amid growing outrage over Russian Orthodox backing for the invasion as its first anniversary approaches on 24 February.
“I have condemned and I condemn the criminal invasion of independent Ukraine by the Russian Federation,” said Metropolitan Sawa (Hrycuniak), whose self-governing Church has about half a million members, mostly in eastern Poland.
“I have also repeatedly expressed amazement and embarrassment at Patriarch Kirill’s words about the war. I did not and do not share these opinions, believing they negatively affect the perception of Orthodoxy and do not serve to restore peace.”
Metropolitan Sawa published the statement after drawing harsh criticism for writing, in a message for the 14th anniversary of his enthronement, that “the enemy of faith” was using Ukraine “to destroy church stability”, while the Russian Orthodox Church “shone with spiritual revival and served as an example to others”.
He said that he had sent the message “only to comply with protocol requirements without taking account of the difficult geopolitical situation”. The hostile reactions demonstrated that the situation had “required more caution”, he said.
The public broadcasting agency in Estonia reported that the Baltic state’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church had cancelled a planned “prayer service for peace” to mark the anniversary of the invasion, after warnings from the Interior Ministry that “any support for Russian aggression” would cross “a red line”.
In a statement at the weekend, Metropolitan Yevhenii (Reshetnikov) of Tallinn, a Russian citizen, said that his Church had “become the victim of a political provocation”, after threats by Estonian parliamentarians to strip him of his residence permit.
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The exchanges took place as several NATO member-states pledged to begin sending battle tanks to Ukraine within two months, and as the Kyiv Defence Ministry said that 1030 Russian troops had been killed in a single day during Moscow’s continuing assaults with newly mobilised forces.
Ukraine’s Religious Freedom Institute said that 494 churches and religious buildings had so far been destroyed during the war, which has left tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead, including 170 Protestant churches, and 143 belonging to Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, the UOC.
The UOC reported that an elderly priest and nun had been killed at the weekend when a monastery near Vugledar was destroyed with precision rockets and cluster shells, and an Orthodox deacon had also died during fighting in Bakhmut.
Government-backed legislation to outlaw UOC communities allegedly siding with Russia has faced further criticism, amid comments that the move could strengthen Russian claims that the invasion of Ukraine was aimed at safeguarding the Orthodox faith.
In a Holy Synod statement last week, however, Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the OCU, said that the UOC remained “a part of the Russian Orthodox Church”, with a leadership acting “in concert with the aggressor country”, and urged the international community to show understanding for the Ukrainian state’s efforts “to protect national security in the religious sphere”.
The Synod also confirmed that OCU congregations and monasteries could change from the eastern Julian calendar to the Western dating system if at least two-thirds of their members agreed, and said that the proposed calendar reform would be finally confirmed at a meeting of bishops in May.
Meanwhile, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told a TV interviewer on Monday that 90 per cent of his Church’s members, who combine the Eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, now also favoured adopting the Western calendar, and would make the switch on 1 September, while giving hesitant parishes until 2025 to complete the transition.
Addressing a Ukrainian delegation at the weekend, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who holds honorary first place among the world’s nine Orthodox patriarchs, praised the country’s “courage and heroism”, and pledged that his Church of Constantinople would “use all possible means to ease its pain”.
“The whole free world is on the side of Ukraine,” he said. “We have full faith in God’s will and the courage of the Ukrainian people, and we are sure the victory of Ukraine will be a victory for justice and truth.”
Returning from Africa on Sunday, Pope Francis told journalists that he remained ready to meet both the Ukrainian and Russian presidents, although the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with State, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, told Russia’s Tass agency the same day this could “only happen in a situation of peace”.