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Return to Russia, Patriarch Kirill tells exiles

12 January 2024

Russian Orthodox Press Service/AP/Alamy

Patriarch Kirill celebrates Christmas in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, on Sunday. He calls on all Russians to work for a “spiritual victory”

Patriarch Kirill celebrates Christmas in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, on Sunday. He calls on all Russians to work for a “spiritual vic...

PATRIARCH KIRILL of Moscow has urged young people who fled Russia after its invasion of Ukraine to return “with a confession of guilt”, and to help the Russian Orthodox Church to continue working for Russia’s “spiritual victory”.

“There’s no need to push away a person who’s sinned if he comes back repentantly aware of his guilt; if people who left Russia, and even spoke out somewhere against it, now return, understanding they made a mistake, then the Motherland cannot reject them,” he told a TV interviewer.

“There are quite worthy people among them who erred, got scared, or just tried to find something more convenient and comfortable for themselves in life, but who were shamed along the way.”

The Patriarch made the appeal on Sunday’s Russian Orthodox Christmas, a time when Russian missile and drone strikes in the Kherson and Donetsk regions of Ukraine were killing more civilians.

Casualties were also reported in Ukrainian counter-shelling of Kursk and Belgorod, which forced the cancellation of church services; Russian forces suffered heavy losses while attempting to take the eastern town of Avdiivka.

Patriarch Kirill said that some of the tens of thousands who left Russia, often to avoid being conscripted, would face investigation for “criminal acts”, but would be accepted in a country that had now gained in “spiritual strength”, making it a “pillar of Orthodoxy throughout the world”.

He told the TV channel Rossiya 1: “Recent events indicate a great shift in our people’s consciousness and spiritual life — our Church doesn’t just play some kind of cultural role outside the fields of public life, serving pensioners on the periphery: it’s now the very centre of people’s lives.

“The trials befalling us today hurt, of course, but they cannot kill or shake us as a people, or crush our worldview, which includes love for the motherland and a readiness to defend it. . . Priests are working with our armed personnel, who make confessions and receive communion before going on the attack; this is a completely different dimension of spiritual life.”

At a reception in the Kremlin on Monday, the Patriarch assured a group of Ukrainian children from Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol, and Zaporizhzhia, who are now housed in the Pushkin district of Moscow, that they would “grow up in good families”, becoming “worthy citizens of our fatherland”.

In a televised Christmas message, delivered after attending church with widows and children of slain servicemen near his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, President Putin praised the Orthodox Church for helping to preserve Russia’s cultural heritage and family bonds, and for supporting “heroes” participating in the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

In data published this week, however, Russia’s Interior Ministry said that only 1.4 million people — one per cent of the population — had attended Christmas services, despite the deployment of 43,000 police. This was a sharp fall on figures from 2019; low participation was also reported in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox’s keeping of Christmas coincided with the fifth anniversary of formal recognition of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, which led to a severing of ties between the Moscow Patriarchate and several other Churches.

In a social-media message, the Primate of the Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said that the “tomos of autocephaly” sent by Patriarch Bartholomew had become a “guiding star” for Ukrainians, “restoring justice” and ridding them of “spiritual occupation”.

He said that Ukraine’s recent switch to the Western calendar had placed the OCU’s anniversary on the 6 January Epiphany festival, symbolising the Church’s independence “in all its fullness and truthfulness”.

In his Christmas interview, however, Patriarch Kirill insisted that the “creation of a schismatic Church” had been driven by “political considerations” that most Ukrainians did not share, and represented a “mistake and great sin” by the Ecumenical Patriarch.

“It’s clear to everyone that the Constantinople Patriarch isn’t a free person: he’s greatly influenced by those with power in this world, and has no support, or even his own flock,” Patriarch Kirill said.

“The Russian Church has played a very important role in preserving the spiritual unity of Orthodoxy. When these schismatic processes began, I’ve no doubt that what stood them was the political will not just of Russia’s enemies, but also of the enemies of Orthodoxy.”

Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), the leader of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC) — many of whose communities could be banned under a new law prohibiting links with Russia — led Christmas services in a part of the historic Pechersk-Lavra monastery still occupied by his clergy in Kiev.

“We celebrate Christmas to the sound of deadly shots, with which our enemies are destroying our land and people,” the Metropolitan noted in his message.

“We also suffer from the internal enmity kindled among our people on religious grounds — all of which, both externally and internally, has one effect of weakening and destroying us. . . We pray with deep hope that the Lord will deliver us from our enemies and protect us from those who rebel against us.”

The creation of a new Russian Orthodox diocese “at the request of local clergy” was announced two weeks ago at Skadovsk, covering Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s southern region.

About 2000 former UOC parishes have now been taken over by the Moscow Patriarchate in occupied Crimea, Berdyansk, Feodosia, Rovenkiv, and other areas.

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