The invasion of Ukraine splits the Orthodox Church and isolates the Russian patriarch

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on the 11th anniversary of his enthronement in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on the 11th anniversary of his enthronement February 1, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

March 14, 2022

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Russian Patriarch Kirill’s lavish blessing of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has fragmented the world’s Orthodox Church and sparked an internal rebellion experts say is unprecedented.

Kirill, 75, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, sees the war as a bulwark against a West he sees as decadent, particularly for its acceptance of homosexuality.

He and Putin share a vision of the “Russkiy Mir” or “Russian World” that combines spiritual unity and territorial expansion targeting parts of the former Soviet Union, experts told Reuters.

What Putin sees as a political restoration, Kirill sees as a crusade.

But the patriarch has sparked a backlash both at home and among churches abroad affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate.

In Russia, nearly 300 Orthodox members of a group called Russian Priests for Peace signed a letter condemning the “murderous orders” being carried out in Ukraine.

“The people of Ukraine should make their own choices, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” it said, referring to millions in Ukraine now divided between Moscow and Kyiv.

Russia is calling its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” aimed not at occupying territory but at destroying and capturing its southern neighbor’s military capabilities, which it considers dangerous nationalists.

Reuters has emailed Kirill’s office for comment.

Out of 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 100 million live in Russia itself, and some of them abroad are in agreement with Moscow. But the war strained those relationships.


In Amsterdam, the war convinced the priests of the Orthodox parish of St. Nicholas to no longer commemorate Kirill in services.

A Russian bishop in western Europe visited him to try to change his mind, but the congregation split with the Moscow Patriarchate, describing the decision as a “very difficult step (along the way) with pain in the heart”.

“Kirill simply discredited the church,” said Rev. Taras Khomych, a senior lecturer in theology at Liverpool Hope University and a member of the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church in Ukraine. “More people want to speak out in Russia but are scared,” he told Reuters in a phone interview.

Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and two other Orthodox churches, one of which is the autocephalous or independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine is of great importance to the Russian Orthodox Church as it is considered the cradle of the Rus’ civilization, a medieval entity where Byzantine Orthodox missionaries converted the pagan prince Volodymyr in the 10th century.

Kyiv Metropolitan (Archbishop) Onufry Berezovsky of the UOC-MP appealed to Putin to “stop the fratricidal war immediately,” and another UOC-MP Metropolitan, Evology of the eastern city of Sumy, urged his priests to stop praying for Kirill pray .

Kirill, who claims Ukraine as an indivisible part of his spiritual jurisdiction, had already severed ties with Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, who acts as first among equals in the Orthodox world and supports the autonomy of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

“Some churches are so angry with Kirill for his stance on the war that we are about to see a shift in world orthodoxy,” Tamara Grdzelidze, a professor of religious studies at Ilia State University in Georgia and former Georgian ambassador to the Vatican, told Reuters.

In a joint statement, Orthodox theologians from institutions such as the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece condemned those church leaders “who direct their congregations to pray in a manner that actively encourages hostility.” .

Other Orthodox leaders who have criticized the war include Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and All Africa, Patriarch Daniel of Romania and Archbishop Leo of Finland.


Kirill’s stance has also created a rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian churches.

The acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Ian Sauca, wrote to Kirill asking him to “intervene and mediate with the authorities to end this war”.

Kirill replied that “forces that openly viewed Russia as their enemy were approaching its borders” and that the West was engaged in a “large-scale geopolitical strategy” to weaken Russia. The WCC published both letters.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet leaders began liquidating the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin revived it after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in World War II to mobilize society.

“The same idea is now being revived by Putin,” said Olenka Pevny, a Ukrainian-American professor of Slavic and Ukrainian studies at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

“As the Russian position in the world and Russian identity began to falter, Putin again asked the Church to help him bring the Russian people under his control and tried to bind the peoples of independent nations like Ukraine to Russia by promoting the idea of ​​a Unified Russian Orthodox Church to deny any religious diversity,” she told Reuters in a phone interview.

Kirill’s pro-Putin stance has also turned relations with the Vatican upside down.

In 2016, Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pope to meet a head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

A second meeting, which both Francis and Kirill wanted to hold this year, is now virtually impossible, the experts said.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Nick Macfie) The invasion of Ukraine splits the Orthodox Church and isolates the Russian patriarch

Bobby Allyn

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