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Ukraine and Russia mark Orthodox Easter in shadow of war

10 May 2024

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow praises President Putin’s ‘war-hearted’ leadership


People queue outside the Cathedral of the Holy Dormition, Kyiv, on Sunday, waiting for their Easter baskets to be blessed

People queue outside the Cathedral of the Holy Dormition, Kyiv, on Sunday, waiting for their Easter baskets to be blessed

THE Orthodox in Ukraine and Russia have celebrated Easter under the shadow of war for the third year running.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow praised President Putin’s “kind, intelligent, and war-hearted” leadership at the start of his latest six-year term as President.

“We are fighting a Russian empire of evil, which has declared its aggression a holy war through the mouths of its religious and state leaders, and openly seeks our destruction and enslavement,” the Primate of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), declared in his Easter message.

“But our God is a God of truth and justice, and we believe the Lord will protect his gift of dignity and freedom from the onslaught of a godless tyranny. Every day we offer prayers for the victory of truth and a just peace.”

The Kyiv-based Primate issued the message as measures were taken to protect Ukraine’s religious communities against a new wave of Russian missile and drone strikes during last weekend’s Easter.

Speaking during inauguration ceremonies on Tuesday, however, Patriarch Kirill lauded Putin’s commitment to the Orthodox faith, and compared his “kindness and severity” to that of the canonised medieval ruler Alexander Nevsky (1221-63).

“The head of state must sometimes make fateful, formidable decisions, which are almost always associated with victims, but may have extremely dangerous consequences for people and state, if not taken,” the Patriarch told President Putin at a liturgy in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin.

“May God help you carry out the service entrusted to you, in love for the fatherland, with boldness, since boldness is sometimes needed when you have to overcome obstacles in ordinary life. Boldness and strength must accompany a head of state on whose actions the country’s fate depends.”

Ukrainian media said that many Easter services had been held behind closed doors to comply with curfew and security requirements, as Kharkiv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, and other areas suffered weekend air strikes, and fresh Russian assaults were reported against Ukrainian front-line positions.

Several church leaders, including the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, echoed a recent appeal from the Pope for full-scale prisoner exchanges, as another Metropolitan of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC), Luka (Kovalenko) of Zaporizhzhia-Melitopol, was placed under house arrest on charges of inciting religious enmity and undermining state security.

More than 83 per cent of Ukrainians said they believed that the UOC should be banned or taken under state control for acting as a “Kremlin fifth column”, according to a new poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. A government-backed law to prohibit Moscow-affiliated church groups, now running to more than 900 pages, was published by the Verkhovna Rada parliament.

Speaking at his presidential inauguration, President Putin thanked those participating in the “special military operation” against Ukraine, and the “unwavering resolve” of Russian citizens in defending their “choices, values, freedom, and interests”.

He said that Russia was open to “dialogue on an equal footing” if its power was respected “without arrogance, conceit, or exceptionalism”, and if Western countries withdrew from their “policy of aggression and relentless pressure”.

“We must never forget the enormous price we paid for internal unrest and troubles — our state and socio-political system must be strong and resistant to any threats and challenges,” President Putin said. He was awarded a fifth term with more than 87 per cent of votes in March elections, after 24 years in power.

“Our top priority is the people’s preservation; I am confident that support for centuries-old family values and traditions will continue to unite public and religious associations, political parties, and all levels of government.”

Preaching at an Easter vigil in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow, Patriarch Kirill said that God would strengthen Russians in their faith, aware that they “belong to a chosen race”, and urged prayers for those “defending the fatherland” at a time of “difficult, perhaps fateful trials”.

In a separate Easter message to the Coptic Patriarch, Tawadros II, and other Eastern Christian leaders, Patriarch Kirill said that his and other Churches were “called to bring the light of the gospel to the world” and “establish high moral ideals in the lives of people”.

In a sign of further pressure against Russian Orthodox influences, however, the Finnish Orthodox Primate, Archbishop Leo (Makkonen), warned this week against the spread of Moscow-linked church communities in his country; and the Estonian parliament called on Orthodox Christians to sever ties with the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Ukrainian SBU security service reported that it had foiled a new Russian plot to kill President Zelensky and other top officials, as numerous critical infrastructure facilities across the war-torn country were hit by air strikes on Wednesday morning.

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