The role of the Orthodox Churches in the war in Ukraine

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine causes a schism in the Orthodox Church: while Russian Patriarch Cyril justifies the offensive, he is condemned by both Ukrainian Churches and some Russian priests.

“The Moscow patriarchy was long silent about the war,” comments Professor of Ecumenism, Eastern Catholic Churches and Peace Research Thomas Bremer, from the University of Münster. However, that has changed: in his Moscow sermons, Cyril presents Vladimir Putin’s war as a legitimate resistance to Western values.

“He affixes this to the gay pride parades, which he allegedly tried to impose on Donbass,” he explains. In line with the presidential decree prohibiting reporting, or even characterizing the war as such, the patriarch avoided using the term in relation to the invasion of Ukraine, referring to “events” and “military actions”.

Two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine

While in Russia only the Russian Orthodox Church is relevant, being followed by 75% of the population, Ukraine is marked by religious diversity. Orthodox Christianity has a busy history in the country, especially since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are currently two Orthodox communities in the country: on the one hand, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (IOdaU), autonomous and led by Metropolitan Epiphanius. She was recognized in 2019 in Istanbul by Bartholomew I, a kind of “honorary pontiff” of the 260 million Orthodox Christians around the world.

On the other side is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (IOU-PM), an independent community within the Russian Orthodox Church that in the past has not often spoken out on political issues. Together they represent 60% of the Ukrainian population.

Both call the war that Moscow started by name and expressly condemn it, explains Bremer. This was to be expected from the IOdaU, but even the patriarch of the IOU-PM, which is after all part of the Russian Orthodox Church, was already talking about an “invasion” of Ukraine from the first day of the military operation, and urged Putin to end the war.

“The Synod of Orthodox Churches of Ukraine even appealed to the Patriarch of Moscow to assert his influence over Putin and engage for peace”, says the theologian. “But the Russian news left that out. There the horrors of war are not at all visible.”

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Because Patriarch Cyril did not work for peace, several bishops of the IOU-PM advised not to mention his name in prayers, as usual. The indication was followed even in northeastern Ukraine, on the border with Russia.

“In this way, there is a great distance between the Church and Moscow”, highlights Bremer. The Patriarch of Moscow lost the trust of his brothers in Ukraine and, with that, also numerous faithful practitioners in the country: of the 38,000 congregations of the Russian Orthodox Church, about 12,000 are located in Ukraine and are part of the IOU-PM.

In early March, Russian Orthodox clerics and priests published an open letter demanding an end to the war. The Russian document reads, literally: “We, the priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, appeal in our own name to all in whose name the brother war in Ukraine will end, and we call for conciliation and an immediate ceasefire. “

They refer to “the ordeal to which our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are exposed, without deserving”, and already look to the future: “We are saddened to think of the chasm that our children and grandchildren in Russia and Ukraine will have to bridge to be friends again, to respect and love each other.” As of Tuesday (03/08), 286 priests and deacons had already signed the letter.

Thomas Bremer admires the courage of these signatories, although they are still a relatively small group among the 36,000 clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church. But now they are exposed to reprisals and persecution from Russian authorities and the FSB secret service.

Putin evokes false religious dimension

For Russians, membership in the Orthodox Church can be both religious and cultural: “There are people in Russia who define themselves as Orthodox but at the same time say they don’t believe in God,” notes Thomas Bremer. “It’s also a question of identity.”

Historically, Orthodox Christianity is closely linked to Russia, and Putin takes advantage of that. Thus, in a speech justifying his “special military operations” in Ukraine, he even evoked a religious dimension, also falsely claiming that Russian Orthodox would be persecuted in Ukraine.

It is a narrative of unity that both the IOdaU and the IOU-PM have strongly repudiated, at the latest since the outbreak of war. According to the ecumenism researcher, the effects of the invasion on the Orthodox Churches will depend on the next developments – and who will emerge victorious.

If Russia annexes its sister country, it will spell the end of the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow, he predicts. But be that as it may, the Russian Orthodox Church has already lost a number of believers in Ukraine, and perhaps also some in Russia itself.


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