Russian Patriarch Kirill’s full-throated blessing for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church and unleashed an internal rebellion that experts say is unprecedented.
Kirill, 75, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, sees the war as a bulwark against a West he considers decadent, particularly over the acceptance of homosexuality.
He and Putin share a vision of the “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian World,” linking spiritual unity and territorial expansion aimed at parts of the ex-Soviet Union, experts told Reuters.
What Putin sees as a political restoration, Kirill sees as a crusade.
But the patriarch has sparked a backlash at home as well as among churches abroad linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.
In Russia, nearly 300 Orthodox members of a group called Russian Priests for Peace signed a letter condemning the “murderous orders” carried out in Ukraine.
“The people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” it read, referring to millions in Ukraine now split between Moscow and Kyiv.
Moscow says its action is a “special military operation” designed not to occupy territory but to demilitarize and “de-Nazify” its neighbor.
Of the 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 100 million are in Russia itself. Some of those in other countries are in unity with Moscow, but the war has strained those relations.
No prayers for the patriarch
In Amsterdam, the war convinced priests at St. Nicholas Orthodox parish to stop commemorating Kirill in services.
A Russian bishop in Western Europe visited to try to change their minds but the parish severed ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, calling the decision a “very difficult step (taken) with pain in our hearts.”
“Kirill has simply discredited the Church,” said Rev. Taras Khomych, a senior lecturer in theology at Liverpool Hope University and member of Ukraine’s Byzantine-rite Catholic Church. “More people want to speak out in Russia but are afraid,” he told Reuters in a telephone 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 visceral significance to the Russian Orthodox Church because it is seen as the cradle of Russian civilization, where in the 10th century, Byzantine Orthodox missionaries converted the pagan Prince Volodymyr.
Kyiv Metropolitan (Archbishop) Onufry Berezovsky of the UOC-MP appealed to Putin for “an immediate end to the fratricidal war,” and another UOC-MP Metropolitan, Evology, from the eastern city of Sumy, told his priests to stop praying for Kirill.
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 a first among equals in the Orthodox world and backs the autonomy of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
“Some Churches are so angry with Kirill over his position on war that we are facing an upheaval in world Orthodoxy,” Tamara Grdzelidze, professor of religious studies at Ilia State University in Georgia and a former Georgian ambassador to the Vatican, told Reuters.
In a joint statement, Orthodox theologians from institutions including the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University in New York and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece condemned those Church leaders “directing their communities to pray in ways that actively encourage 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.
Chasm with other Christians
Kirill’s stand has also created a chasm between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian churches.
The acting secretary general of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Ian Sauca, wrote to Kirill asking him to “intervene and mediate with the authorities to stop this war.”
Kirill responded that “forces overtly considering Russia to be their enemy came close to its borders” and that the West was involved in a “large-scale geopolitical strategy” to weaken Russia. The WCC released both letters.
After the 1917 Russian revolution, Soviet leaders began liquidating the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin revived it after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in World War II to rally society.
“This same idea is being revived now by Putin,” said Olenka Pevny, professor of Slavonic and Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK and an American of Ukrainian origin.
“As the Russian position in the world and Russian identity began faltering, Putin once again enlisted the Church to help him gather the Russian people under his control and attempted to tie the peoples of independent nations such as Ukraine to Russia by pushing the notion of a unified Russia Orthodox Church so as to deny any religious diversity,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Kirill’s pro-Putin stand also has upended relations with the Vatican.
In 2016, Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to meet a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the great schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.
A second meeting that both Francis and Kirill said they wanted to hold this year is now virtually impossible, the experts said.