Sun. May 29th, 2022


The idea of ​​a “holy war” in Europe may seem like a throwback to centuries past. Yet that, in essence, is how the Russian Orthodox Church, and its head, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, have portrayed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill has led prayers for Russian soldiers fighting for what he called Russia’s “true independence”, and echoed the Kremlin narrative that Moscow is fighting to defend itself against sinful external enemies; dissenting priests have been denounced. This behavior not only shows how church and state have become intertwined in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but it is also important to understand the motivations for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – and just how much it sees as being at stake.

Though not formally a part of it, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a de facto pillar of Putin’s autocratic regime. After being suppressed for decades under communism, the church has formed a curious bond with the descendants of the Soviet intelligence services that used to be its persecutors. It has been well rewarded in return, with privileges for its top hierarchy and thousands of new churches being built.

The linkage goes beyond simply backing the Kremlin’s actions and narrative. The Moscow church’s claimed role as a defender of “traditional” values ​​against a decadent west is a key strand of Putin’s brand of Russian nationalism. His wealthy backers include several “Orthodox oligarchs”And descendants of White Russians who fled abroad after the 1917 Revolution.

The church leadership has acquired in Putin’s creation of an ideology that fuses respect for Russia’s Tsarist, Orthodox past with reverence for the Soviet defeat of fascism in the second world war. This is epitomized in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, 40 miles west of Moscow, opened in 2020.

This thinking presents the Ukraine “special military operation” as holy, too, as it set out to reclaim Kyiv, the birthplace of Orthodoxy when Christianity was brought to 10th century Kyivan Rus. Russia oversaw the Orthodox church in Ukraine until 2019, when a new, independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke away. It was granted recognition by the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The war aimed to heal this schism – which Moscow saw as a US-orchestrated move aimed at undermining Orthodoxy and Putin’s vision of uniting Russian speakers outside its borders into a “Russian world”.

But just as Putin’s military bear hug of Ukrainians will instead drive a multi-generation wedge between the two peoples, the war is also pushing the Moscow- and Kyiv-led Orthodox churches further apart. A majority of parishes in Ukraine chose to remain subject to Patriarch Kirill even after 2019 – about 12,000, or around a third of all parishes under Moscow’s control. Now, many of Moscow’s clerical supporters in Ukraine are leaving Patriarch Kirill out of their prayers. Hundreds of Ukrainian priests who remain formally members of the Moscow church have called for the Patriarch to be tried by a rare Church Tribunal for blessing the war.

Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who visited Ukraine last week with other religious leaders, has said there is a “strong case”For expelling the Russian church from the World Council of Churches, unless Patriarch Kirill condemns the killing of members of his“ own flock ”. While there might be moral arguments for such a move, it is unlikely to change the Kremlin’s calculus. Indeed, it might only fuel Moscow’s siege mentality – and the narrative that it is engaged in a righteous religious war.



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