How Russia’s war in Ukraine is dividing the Orthodox Christian world


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Residents pass a church that served as a military base for Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian village of Lukashivka. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

The United Nations Secretary-General called this week for an Easter truce between Russia and Ukraine. Orthodox Christians in both countries observe Easter on Sunday.

But as the fighting continued to rage, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow on Thursday of rejecting the U.N. proposal.

Russia’s invasion has roiled global markets, revived the NATO alliance and triggered war crimes investigations. It has also torn a rift in the Orthodox Church, pitting the Russian wing and its pro-Kremlin patriarch against Orthodox leaders in Kyiv and around the globe.

Orthodox Christianity is one of the largest Christian communions in the world — after both Catholicism and the Protestant church. Most of its roughly 260 million adherents are concentrated in Europe, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

It is the dominant faith in both Russia and Ukraine, where the status of the church has become a source of tension between Moscow and Kyiv. For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub.

Because of this, Kirill, 75, has offered a full-throated endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils at widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support.

As the Orthodox world celebrates its Easter holiday Sunday, here’s how the tensions within the church are playing out.

Russian Orthodox leader backs war in Ukraine, divides faith

Russian Orthodox Church
Patriarch Kirill at an April 8 memorial service for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. (Moscow News Agency/Via Reuters)

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the largest and most influential in the world, with more than 100 million followers, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2009, Kirill was elected patriarch — the first since the fall of the Soviet Union.

At first, Kirill was seen as a modernizer who might carve out some independence for the church, after his predecessor, Alexiy II, used his political ties to raise the church’s profile after decades of atheist communism. Russian politicians bankrolled the construction of new churches, and religious leaders appeared front and center at state functions.

Since then, however, Kirill has solidified his role as an ally of the Kremlin, helping Putin cloak his political and military ambitions in the language of faith.

On Feb. 23, one day before the invasion, Kirill released a statement praising Putin for his “high and responsible service to the people of Russia,” and describing mandatory military service as “an active manifestation of evangelical love for neighbors.”

In the weeks since the war started, Kirill has used his sermons to justify the campaign, portraying it as a struggle against sinful Western culture — although he is careful to avoid referring to the conflict as a war or invasion that was launched by Russia.

He has focused almost entirely on what he calls Ukraine’s “extermination” of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in the eastern part of the country. Earlier this month, Kirill delivered a sermon urging Russians to rally around the government “during this difficult time,” the Reuters news agency reported.

“Let the Lord help us unite during this difficult time for our Fatherland, including around the authorities,” the Interfax news agency quoted Kirill as saying at a sermon in Moscow.

The Christian nationalism behind Putin’s war

Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate
An Orthodox church stands near an oil refinery that caught fire in an early April missile attack near the Ukrainian port city Odessa. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

The vast majority of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christian, according to Pew. Their loyalties, however, are split between at least two major ecclesiastical bodies, one being the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is “self-governing” but remains under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

For centuries, churches in Ukraine and Russia were both under the leadership of the Moscow patriarch. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church in Ukraine pressed for — and obtained — semiautonomous status in 1990.

But in recent years, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, an increasing number of Ukrainian followers have sought to counter what they see as Moscow’s influence.

Since the invasion, those calls have intensified — and parishioners have grown angry over the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the war. All of this has put the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its leader, Metropolitan Onuphury, in a precarious position, particularly as reports of civilian massacres and other atrocities mount.

On Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, Onuphury released a statement calling the military campaign a “disaster” and appealing to Putin to “immediately stop the fratricidal war.”

The war between Russians and Ukrainians “is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy,” Onuphury said. “Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.”

The church has emphasized its role in providing assistance to civilians and presiding over the burial of Ukrainian forces. Some priests have stopped commemorating Kirill in their services or have called on Onuphury to break away from Moscow entirely.

Orthodox Church of Ukraine
A destroyed Russian military vehicle lies in front of an Orthodox church in the Ukrainian village of Lypivka on April 11. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is three years old. Its founding was the direct result of the burgeoning movement to peel away from the Russian Orthodox Church and create a purely independent ecclesiastical entity for Ukraine. The church’s recognition by the patriarchate in Turkey angered Moscow, and the Russian Orthodox Church severed its ties with that body.

The leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is Metropolitan Epiphanius, 43, who has been vocal in his criticism of Putin and the war. Soon after the invasion, Epiphanius released a statement likening the Russian leader to both the Antichrist and Adolf Hitler.

“The spirit of the antichrist operates in the leader of Russia, the signs of which the Scriptures reveal to us: pride, devotion to evil, ruthlessness, false religiosity,” he said. “This was Hitler during World War II. This is what Putin has become today.”

This week, after he visited the devastated city of Chernihiv, Epiphanius urged Ukrainians to continue to fight against the Russian invasion.

“Seeing the suffering, destruction, brutal violence and spread of death that Russia brings to every corner of Ukraine … we understand even better that only the fight against the aggressor [and] his expulsion from our land can bring us a just peace,” he said.

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople leads the official door-opening ceremony of Manhattan’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in November 2021. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is one of the world’s oldest institutions. The Orthodox Church has no single leader, but Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is considered its spiritual guide and “first among equals” with the other patriarchs.

Bartholomew has been critical of Moscow and the war, as well as Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.

On the first day of the invasion, he condemned what he said was an “unprovoked attack by Russia against Ukraine.”

Later, in an interview with CNN Turk, he defended his decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and warned that Russia’s aggression and isolation could lead to a “new Cold War.”

“The whole world is against Russia,” Bartholomew said. “The distance between Russia and the Western world is getting bigger. It means that we are entering a new Cold War period.”

The patriarchate has delivered humanitarian aid to the church in Kyiv. On a visit to Poland in late March, Bartholomew denounced the invasion as an “atrocious” act.

“It is simply impossible to imagine how much devastation this atrocious invasion has caused for the Ukrainian people and the entire world,” Bartholomew said at a news briefing, according to the Associated Press.

He added that solidarity with Ukrainians “is the only thing that can overcome evil and darkness in the world.”

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