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Russian Orthodox Church faces schism following patriarch's support for Ukraine invasion

By Olha Chepil

Early in the invasion, Russian troops set up a headquarters in the village of Lukashivka, outside Chernihiv, in the Church of the Ascension, an architectural monument built more than a century ago. After the Russians were driven out, locals found a grotesque scene: vandalised domes, broken crosses and mounds of garbage. Rescue workers have also found the bodies of local residents near the church. [State Emergency Service of Ukraine]

KYIV -- The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is waning in Ukraine, as splits emerge between the church and its Ukrainian component.

Almost 400 Ukrainian priests serving in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate are demanding that the church's leader, Patriarch Kirill, be deposed by a church tribunal over his support of the war.

Kirill in sermons had justified aggression against Ukraine and called on all Russians to support the government -- citing an unspecified "third" world power that supposedly poses a threat to Orthodox Christians.

"Genuine solidarity will help fend off the blows of domestic and foreign enemies," Kirill said in a sermon April 10.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, lays flowers at a monument outside the Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a military theme park outside Moscow on June 22, 2020. [Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik]

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, lays flowers at a monument outside the Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a military theme park outside Moscow on June 22, 2020. [Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik]

This file photograph taken on April 7 shows an aerial view of body bags in a trench of a mass grave in the grounds surrounding St. Andrew's Church in Bucha, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP]

This file photograph taken on April 7 shows an aerial view of body bags in a trench of a mass grave in the grounds surrounding St. Andrew's Church in Bucha, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP]

In response, Andriy Pinchuk, an archpriest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, demanded in an open letter on his Facebook page that Kirill be deposed.

"Kirill has committed moral crimes in blessing the war against Ukraine and in fully supporting the aggressive actions of the Russian troops on Ukrainian soil," Pinchuk wrote on April 10.

Some 437 clergy had signed the letter as of April 16.

Religious leaders in other countries, including those in Central Asia, have also criticised the war.

In Kazakhstan, a group of priests and deacons of the Orthodox Church publicly called on "everyone on whom the cessation of the fratricidal war in Ukraine depends to immediately cease fire".

"We grieve over the trial to which our brothers and sisters in Ukraine have been unjustly subjected," they said in a statement March 1.

A 'Russian world'

Kirill's conspiracy theories play a key role in justifying and feeding the imperial ambitions of Russia, say analysts.

"Russia's war against Ukraine is grounded in the concept of a 'Russian world'," said George Kovalenko of Kyiv, a specialist on religious matters and rector of the Open Orthodox University of Saint Sophia the Wisdom, referring to a worldview that sees Russia as not a mere nation-state but a civilisation-state.

Kovalenko previously headed the education division of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv. He was stripped of all his duties after he condemned pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

"The Russian church is not a religion but rather an imperial ideology that has been dressed up in religious clothing," he said.

Kirill is "a political officer, not the patriarch. Instead of working closely with the faithful, he is working closely with Russia's intelligence agencies," Kovalenko said.

"Spirituality is also part of the propaganda. Where is the spirituality here? Russian soldiers have shot countless icons and bombed churches all over Ukraine," he said.

Moscow's efforts to establish a "Russian world" have backfired in Ukraine, and the church is quickly losing influence there.

Before the invasion, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was the largest in Ukraine, with more than 12,000 parishes -- more than the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church combined.

Many parishes have since switched from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which itself broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018.

According to a survey conducted on April 8-9 by the pollster Rating Group Ukraine, 63% of Ukrainians support having Ukrainian churches that are subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate cut ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

In addition, Ukrainian members of parliament have already filed a bill banning the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.

Kirill is serving Russian President Vladimir Putin, not God, according to Kovalenko, who added that he does not a see a future for the church in Ukraine.

"This war will destroy the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine," he said. "Putin and Kirill want to establish the 'Russian world' here -- but all their actions are burying it in Ukraine."

Imperial ambitions

As leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church such as Kirill justify Russia's war in Ukraine as an alleged preservation of moral values, Russian troops -- indifferent to the ostensible teachings of their country's largest church -- have been slaughtering their co-religionists in Ukraine.

Numerous Ukrainian churches under the Moscow Patriarchate have experienced the violence of the Russian army firsthand.

Russian forces have destroyed more than 60 Ukrainian churches and religious structures in eight provinces since the start of the invasion, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has estimated.

"While the Kremlin propagandists cynically hide their imperial ambitions behind arguments about 'defending Orthodoxy,' the aggressive attack by Russian troops is destroying Orthodox churches and other relics of Ukraine's religious communities," said an official at the ministry, which has created an interactive map showing the churches damaged by the hostilities.

The churches themselves have been the site of Russian atrocities.

Early in the invasion, Russian troops set up a headquarters in the village of Lukashivka, outside Chernihiv, in the Church of the Ascension, an architectural monument built more than a century ago.

After Ukrainian forces drove out the Russians, locals found a grotesque scene: vandalised domes, broken crosses and mounds of garbage.

Rescue workers have also found the bodies of local residents near the church.

"We collected the remains of civilians who had been shot," said Olena Taranova, a volunteer who is working in the province. "For the first few days, I couldn't even talk."

"I saw a car that was riddled with bullets and had been carrying an ordinary family: a mother, father and two kids," she told Caravanserai. "All they wanted to do was leave Chernihiv and get away from the war."

Only the mother and the younger daughter survived.

"It's unbearable," Taranova said.

"Mass killings of the civilian population are an indication of genocide," Metropolitan Epiphanius, the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, wrote on his Facebook page on April 3.

The "Russian world" ideology is synonymous with Nazism, he said.

"It justifies violence, murder, war and genocide, and that is why it needs to be cast away and condemned just as Nazism was condemned," Epiphanius wrote.

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I don't understand how the Orthodox Church can support a dictator. Putin is killing children in Ukraine, but the Orthodox Church stands with Putin. The Orthodox Church should teach people what Jesus preached and ask them to stop the war in Ukraine.

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The Patriarch is an old geezer wrong in the head; he's a Russian propaganda bitch.

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There's not that much left from church, and the church rules there. Commerce and propaganda, that's it.

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How can a church support the invasion of a different country, violence, looting, killings of children, etc.? It's just like the Inquisition that we thought could only be found on the old pages of worn-out textbooks.

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Not all people in Russia support the war, to say the least.

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