Widespread Orthodox Church Backlash Unleashed Against Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine

Many Orthodox leaders have openly criticized Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch the war, in a contrast to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s continuing tacit support.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, shown leading a service with at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul on March 6, has said that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a ‘violation of human rights.’
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, shown leading a service with at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul on March 6, has said that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a ‘violation of human rights.’ (photo: YASIN AKGUL / AFP via Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — Increasing numbers of Orthodox Church leaders have been speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all of them — with the notable exception of the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and his ecclesiastical allies — have condemned the military operation and urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt the war.  

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, who is regarded as “the first among equals” of the Orthodox Church’s patriarchs, was one of the first to decry Russia’s actions, condemning what he called an “unprovoked attack by Russia” as a “violation of human rights” and “brutal violence” against civilians.

In a Feb. 24 statement issued on the day of the invasion, Bartholomew called for prayers for peace and appealed to Russian and world leaders to work toward a peaceful settlement of the situation, which, he said, “may even trigger global warfare.” The world, he said in a later interview, was already “entering a new era of Cold War.”

On the same day, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky of Kyiv, appealed to Putin for an “immediate end to the fratricidal war.” He noted that the Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the “baptismal font” of the Dnieper, one of Europe’s longest rivers running through Ukraine and Russia, and that the war is therefore “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” 

“Such war has no justification neither with God, nor with people,” said Metropolitan Onufry, whose church is self-governing but under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Metropolitan Epifaniy Dumenko of Kyiv and All Ukraine, 43, head of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine — the country’s second Orthodox church that severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2019 — said in a March 9 statement that “the Russian occupiers” would have to “answer before God” for the conflict “and will receive as promised, by God, no mercy and eternal suffering for their crimes and unmerciful actions.” The bishop went so far as to liken Putin to the Antichrist and Adolf Hitler. 

The Russian Orthodox Church broke from communion with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in 2019 because of his recognition of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine as a self-governing Church that is not subordinate to the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.

 

Putin’s Justifications

After months of mobilizing its troops on the border of Ukraine, the Russian military invaded the country on Feb. 24, amounting to a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014. 

Although it was the largest conventional military attack in Europe since World War II, Putin said that what he characterized as a “special military operation” was intended only to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. He accused NATO of threatening Russia’s security by wishing to make Ukraine a member of the alliance and claimed Ukraine had been committing genocide against its Russian speakers in the country’s eastern regions. Putin also indicated his actions had a “spiritual” dimension.

Putin’s stated goal has been to take control of Ukraine and overthrow its democratically elected government led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian leader has been steadfastly defiant in resisting Russia’s military invasion, but on March 9 said he had “cooled” on Ukrainian demands to join NATO and was open to finding a possible diplomatic solution. One of Putin’s demands for a resolution to the conflict has been for Ukraine to be banned from ever joining the Western military alliance.

The invasion, which, in addition to thousands of casualties, has caused 2.5 million refugees to cross the border into Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania, has received international condemnation. The U.S. and other Western nations immediately imposed new sanctions on Russia, triggering a financial crisis there and prompting Putin to place Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert on Feb. 27.

 

Orthodox Condemnation

The tumultuous events have prompted other Orthodox leaders to speak out. 

Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and all Africa, one of 15 self-governing (autocephalous) Orthodox churches that make up the world’s 220 million-member Orthodox community, said on March 3 he believed Putin was “drunk on power” and “thinks he’s the emperor of our times.” 

The patriarch, who said he knew Putin personally, told Greek state radio that he had met the Russian leader many times. Putin, he said, had a “piety for the Church, for Orthodoxy,” but added that “all of this has disappeared, and there is only interest and boldness in these people ahead that will not come to a good end. You cannot say that you love God and kill people.”

He said his meetings with Putin halted when the Russian Orthodox Church began intruding on his “poor, missionary church.” The Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with the patriarch of Alexandria in 2019, at the same time as it broke communion with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and recently established an African Orthodox exarchate loyal to Moscow, a move that was widely viewed as retribution for Theodore’s alignment with Bartholomew in support of the creation of the autonomous Orthodox Church in Ukraine. 

For its part, the primate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Daniel, has called for an “immediate end to hostilities” in Ukraine, calling it “a war launched by Russia against a sovereign and independent state.” He pledged “full solidarity” with Orthodox Romanians living in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Patriarch Illia II of Georgia warned of a “world tragedy” on Feb. 24 and recalled Russia’s invasion of his country in 2008. Georgia, he said, knew from “bitter experience” the importance of territorial integrity and added that he was watching events in Ukraine with a “pained heart.” 

Orthodox Archbishop Leo of Helsinki and all of Finland issued a statement in early March firmly condemning the invasion and saying the country’s Orthodox bishops unanimously stated there is no justification for the war in Ukraine, while also stressing that members of the Finnish Church of a Russian background are not to blame. He urged all believers to join in prayer for peace.

On March 8, both Orthodox churches of Ukraine stepped up their opposition, issuing a joint statement deploring the atrocities and the “unjustified cruelty and unrestrained aggression of the Russian invaders.” They noted that a “disdainful attitude of the Russian leadership towards human life” has carried over from “Russian soldiers who were thrown into the jaws of the war of conquest” to the “civilian population of Ukraine.” 

They also called for the establishment by Western powers of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine to protect human lives, a move that the Ukrainian government has requested but which critics have said would significantly escalate the conflict and which Putin has warned would be viewed as an act of war. The Biden administration has communicated that it has no intention of trying to impose a no-fly zone.  

Meanwhile, more than 275 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons worldwide signed an open letter in early March expressing their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They called for “the cessation of the fratricidal war” against Ukraine and insisted that the “people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own.” 

“The Last Judgment awaits every person,” read the letter, according to a report in The Washington Post. “No earthly authority, no doctors, no guards will protect from this judgment. … We remind you that the Blood of Christ, shed by the Savior for the life of the world, will be received in the sacrament of Communion by those people who give murderous orders, not into life, but into eternal torment.”

As the Russian authorities clamped down on public dissent of the invasion, at least one Russian Orthodox priest, Father Ioann Burdin, has been arrested after delivering an anti-war homily. The police said the priest had “committed a public offense aimed at discrediting the Russian armed forces which are conducting a special military operation,” Newsweek reported.  

 

Patriarch Kirill’s Position

By contrast to these Orthodox leaders and priests and owing in large part to its historical and current closeness to the Russian state, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has issued a series of statements showing tacit support for the invasion and absent of any condemnation of the Russian government. 

On Feb. 24, the patriarch said he “deeply empathize[d] with everyone affected by this tragedy” and called on “all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.” He noted the Russian and Ukrainian peoples “have a common centuries-old history dating back to the Baptism of Rus’ by Prince St. Vladimir the Equal-to-the-Apostles” and that he believed “this God-given affinity will help overcome the divisions and disagreements that have arisen that have led to the current conflict.” He prayed for a swift end to the hostilities. 

In a Feb. 27 homily, Patriarch Kirill again called for the restoration of peace, but also for unity with Metropolitan Onufry, notably omitting the breakaway Orthodox Church in Ukraine. At the same time, he also made clear that he saw Ukraine as Russian territory: “May the Lord preserve the Russian land, [a] land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.” He also called those that have always striven “against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church” as “evil forces.”

On March 6, Patriarch Kirill gave a homily in which he spoke of the importance of resisting the decadent “‘happy’ world” of the West, of “excess consumption, the world of visible ‘freedom.” Although he referred mostly to the eight-year conflict in the separatist Donbas region of Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill appeared to suggest that the invasion is a battle to preserve the Orthodox faithful from such values typified, he said, by “gay parades.” 

“What is happening today in the sphere of international relations has not only political significance,” the patriarch said. “We are talking about something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation, about where humanity will end up, on which side of God the Savior.” 

In response to a March 2 letter from the head of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Ioan Sauca, calling on Kirill to mediate “so that the war can be stopped,” the Russian patriarch lent his support to many of Putin’s arguments for invading Ukraine, especially regarding NATO expansion, and said he was especially concerned about attempts to “mentally remake” Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia. “Russophobia is spreading across the Western world at an unprecedented pace,” he said. 

Sources have told the Register that Orthodox clergy and faithful in Ukraine, including those under Kirill’s jurisdiction, have expressed their disapproval of Patriarch Kirill’s position, with several bishops from the UOC-MP refusing to pray for Kirill by name in their liturgies. 

 

Kirill’s Invidious Position

In a recent interview with the Italian news agency Adkronos, Father Stefano Caprio, a lecturer in Russian history and culture at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, explained how the Ukrainian war is causing a “deep rift” in the Orthodox Church. As Putin’s “inspirer,” in terms of articulating a vision of Russia as the defender of authentic Christianity, Patriarch Kirill is in an invidious position, he said, unable to break away from the Russian leader or “he would bring down the whole castle.” 

The war is one of high stakes for the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Father Caprio explained, as a bad outcome could imperil the dominant sway he holds within Orthodox Christianity because his Church is much larger numerically than any other national Orthodox Church.

“By losing Ukraine, Russia would lose a very substantial part of its own Church,” he said, adding that, “if it lost Ukraine, it would become much less than half of what it is now, and with this it would also lose universal primacy in orthodoxy.” 

Still, Patriarch Kirill is not entirely alone in the Orthodox world in not condemning his state’s actions. Some other autocephalous Orthodox churches are supportive of the patriarch, especially those who align politically as well as ecclesiastically. Father Caprio said the Serbian Orthodox are traditional allies “both in the political-military field and in the ideological-religious one.” He also said the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, “always faithful to Moscow, also because of its presence in Syria,” remains “on Moscow’s side.” 

The US Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC (l) and St. Peter's Basilica

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