Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is driving a wedge into the Orthodox Church. While the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, justified the war in Moscow, it was condemned in Ukrainian Orthodox churches, as well as by some priests in Russia.
“The Moscow Patriarchate had been silent about the war for a long time,” says Thomas Bremer in a video interview with DW. The professor of ecumenical theology, Eastern European ecclesiastical studies and peace research at the University of Münster adds that this position has now changed with Patriarch Kirill, who presents Vladimir Putin’s war as a legitimate resistance to Western values in his sermons in Moscow.
“He bases this on gay pride parades,” says Bremer, “which he says were meant to be imposed on Donbass.”
In line with Putin and in line with the President’s ban on reporting on war or even calling it that, the Patriarch also did not use the word “war” for the invasion of Ukraine. but spoke of “events” and “military actions”. .”
The Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OKU) is led by Metropolitan Epiphanius
Religious diversity in Ukraine
While the Russian Orthodox Church is the main church in Russia, Ukraine is characterized by its religious diversity. Orthodox Christianity has had a checkered history in Ukraine, especially since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Currently, two Orthodox churches exist in Ukraine. One is the Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OKU), led by Metropolitan Epiphanius. This church was recognized by Bartholomew I in Istanbul, who is considered the “spiritual leader” of some 260 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
On the other hand, there is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOK), which is an autonomous Church within the Russian Orthodox Church and has not often expressed itself politically in the past.
What is the position of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine?
Each of Ukraine’s two Orthodox churches referred to the “war” by name and strongly condemned it, Bremer said in an interview with DW. He added that while OKU’s reaction was predictable anyway, even the Patriarch of the UOK, which is after all part of the Russian Orthodox Church, had spoken of an “invasion” of Ukraine as early as the first day of the war and called on Putin to end it.
“The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church even called on the Patriarch of Moscow to use his influence on Putin and work for peace,” notes Bremer. “But it was not covered in Russia. The horrors of war are not visible there at all.”
Will there be a split in the church?
According to Bremer, the Patriarch of Moscow’s inability to speak out for peace led many UOK bishops in Ukraine to issue instructions to stop mentioning his name in prayer, as is the custom. Even in northeastern Ukraine, on the Russian border, this is the case, he says. “In the church, this shows a great movement away from Moscow”, analyzes Bremer. The Patriarch of Moscow has lost the trust of his brothers in Ukraine – and with it many practicing believers in the country, he said. He explained that about 12,000 of the 38,000 parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine and are part of the UOK: almost a third.
Bartholomew I is the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its approximately 260 million Orthodox Christian followers
Resistance is also stirring in the Russian Orthodox Church
In early March, Russian Orthodox clergy and priests published an open letter calling for an end to the war. Written in Russian, the letter reads: “We, the priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, appeal in our name to all those in whose name the fratricidal war in Ukraine will end and call for reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire.”
They spoke of “the ordeal to which our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are unjustly subjected” and referring to the future added: “We are saddened to think of the abyss that our children and grandchildren in Russia and Ukraine will have to bridge to become friends. once again, to respect and love each other.” As of March 8, 2022, 286 priests and deacons have signed the letter.
“It’s very brave,” Bremer says of these clerics, who are a relatively small group out of about 36,000 priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. But they are now facing reprisals and persecution from Russian authorities and the Federal Secret Service (FSB), Bremer adds.
“Russian Orthodox” as cultural identity
Professing to be part of the Orthodox Church in Russia can be both a religious and a cultural affiliation. “There are people in Russia who call themselves Orthodox, but at the same time say they don’t believe in God,” Bremer explains. “It’s also a question of identity.”
Orthodox Christianity is historically closely linked to Russia, says the theologian, and Vladimir Putin benefits from this. In a speech justifying “military actions” in Ukraine, for example, he even referred to the religious dimension when he falsely referred to the persecution of members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Both Orthodox churches in Ukraine have rejected this narrative at least since the war broke out.
The impact the war would have on the Orthodox Church, Bremer said, would depend on its subsequent course — and who emerges victorious. If Russia took Ukraine, it would mean the end of the Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Churches (UOK), he predicted.
But the Russian Orthodox Church has already lost many believers in Ukraine, and perhaps also in Russia.
This article was originally written in German.