Among the Russian Orthodox, glimmers of dissent against the invasion of Ukraine

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(RNS) – More than 275 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons from around the world have signed an open letter expressing their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, challenging the Russian government and breaking tacit support for military action by Church leaders in Moscow.

The letter called for “the cessation of the fratricidal war” against Ukraine, insisted that “the Ukrainian people should make their choice for themselves” and deplored the “trial to which our Ukrainian brothers and sisters have been unjustly subjected. “.

“The Last Judgment awaits every person,” reads a machine translation of the letter. “No earthly authority, no doctor, no guard 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 who give orders murderers, not in life, but in eternal torment.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long lent its considerable influence, in Russia and abroad, to the geopolitical aims of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, in turn, enjoyed close personal support from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who once called Putin’s leadership a “miracle of God.”

While Kirill called on military leaders to minimize casualties when Putin’s assault on Ukraine began last week, he appeared to support Putin’s disputed argument that Ukrainians and Russians are one people and in particular, made no call for a cessation of hostilities. A few days later, Kirill called Russia’s opponents in Ukraine “forces of evil”.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, talks with President Vladimir Putin, right, during the Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Russian church has a long history in Ukraine, but in 2019 Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Greek Orthodox primate, challenged Kirill and recognized a new independent Orthodox body in Ukraine that broke away from the Moscow-based church. In an interview this week with CNN Turk, Bartholomew said the recognition of the new branch made him a “target” of the Russian Patriarchate.

But the letter from the priests showed that the invasion of Russia further challenged Moscow’s leadership. Although their protest is qualified and the number of signatories tiny compared to the total number of clerics (ecclesiastical authorities estimated that around 40,000 operated within the church in 2009), it indicates a broader trend of dissent in the within the church regarding the invasion of Ukraine, and could signal significant changes for a tradition that has operated in recent years in close collaboration with the Kremlin.


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“We are sending the message that there is no way for a Christian to enter into eternal life without forgiving – but also without being forgiven,” said the Very Reverend Andrey Kordochkin, Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Madeleine de Madrid and one of the priests who launched the letter, Religion News Service said in a phone interview.

“To enter into (eternal) life being cursed by thousands of mothers, Russian mothers and Ukrainian mothers, is not really the most appropriate way for a Christian – especially if he is getting old – to prepare for the end of his earthly life,” Kordochkin said. .

The Very Reverend Andrey Kordochkin.  Picture via Facebook

The Very Reverend Andrey Kordochkin. Picture via Facebook

Kordochkin stressed that the open letter was not addressed to religious authorities such as Kirill, saying he did not believe that “state authorities consult a higher hierarchy before doing anything.” But the signatories, he said, wanted to push back against the idea that the Russian Orthodox Church “has only one voice”.

Kordochkin said some complained the language was “not radical enough”, but explained that any dissent under the current Russian regime carries risks. This is especially true for priests who live and work in Russia, who he said made up the majority of signatories.

“For any priest who signed it, wherever he is – whether in Russia or abroad – I think he puts himself under certain pressures,” he said. “The reaction to any specific type of protest is very aggressive.”

He added: “Any priest who lives in Russia and signs such a letter, it is a sign of courage. But therefore, when he does, it is also an important event in his own life.

Kristina Stoeckl, a sociology professor at the Austrian University of Innsbruck and an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, pointed out that the letter was carefully worded: she avoided the words “war” or “invasion”, while the Russian government -even called his action a “special military operation.

Stoeckl said other recent open letters from Orthodox priests — particularly one pushing back on the treatment of Russian protesters in 2019, which Kordochkin also signed — were more forceful, drawing condemnation from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

The most recent letter does not represent a “revolt” against the patriarch per se, but rather “a call for peace”, she said.

However, she noted that it comes as more overt forms of dissent among Russian Orthodox priests have emerged in Ukraine over the past week. According to OrthoChristian, Ukrainian clerics still loyal to Moscow, especially in western Ukraine, have stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill in their liturgies.

On Monday, Metropolitan Archbishop Evlogy of the Diocese of Sumy in eastern Ukraine posted a message on Facebook signed by 28 priests and deacons lamenting that Kirill “has in no way condemned the aggressive actions of the Russian authorities but instead issued a statement last week calling on “all parties to the conflict to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties”.

“In this difficult situation, guided by the precepts of our pastoral conscience, we have decided to stop commemorating the Patriarch of Moscow during divine services,” the statement read. “This decision was also dictated by the demands of our flock which, alas, no longer wants to hear the name of Patriarch Cyril in our churches.”

Others have taken an even more dramatic step by asking Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv, the head of the region’s Russian Orthodox Church, to consider autocephaly – becoming an independent church. In a YouTube video posted on Tuesday (March 1) to an account that appeared to be associated with the Church of St. Theodore the Sanctified, a group of men identifying themselves as priests in the Kyiv diocese pleaded for a break with their leaders.

Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev.  Photo by Vadim Chuprina/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev. Photo by Vadim Chuprina/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

“I turn to Kirill, the Patriarch of the Church of Moscow: I stopped remembering your name during the blessing of the Mass. This is my response to your silence on the war between Russia and the Ukraine and for allowing Russian President Putin to enter this war,” says a priest, who identifies himself as Kyiv-based priest Reverend Peter Semachuk, in Ukrainian.

He goes on to ask Onuphry to “convene a high meeting of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” to discuss “changes to the canonical status of our church.”

Another man who identifies himself as a priest near Kiev, the Reverend Mihail Voron, claims his church was destroyed by Russian troops during the invasion. After explaining that he stopped commemorating Kirill in 2014, the same year Crimea was annexed by Russia, he spoke directly to the patriarch.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with you, and that’s why I call on our Primate Onuphry to convene an Assembly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to approve the decision to cut off communications with the Moscow Patriarchate,” he said. in Russian.

The clergy of the Volyn and Lutsk dioceses also issued a written appeal to Onuphry, who called the Russian invasion a “disaster”, asking him to “raise the issue of full autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church immediately before the clergy” because “His Holiness Patriarch Cyril did not condemn the fact that the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian people is taking place before our eyes.

Kirill, meanwhile, berated Ukrainian leaders who stopped commemorating him in their services.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill serves Christmas Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia, early Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Parishioners, wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, observed distancing guidelines social when they attended mass.  Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Julian calendar.  (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia, early Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“The termination of the commemoration of the Primate of the Church, not because of doctrinal or canonical errors, or delusions, but because of an inconsistency with one or another of political opinions and preferences, is a schism for which whoever commits it will answer before God, and not only in the future century, but also in the present,” reads the translation of a message from the ecclesiastical authorities published on Wednesday.


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The statement recalled Reverend Grigory Prozorov, explaining that he was the priest who was arrested and killed in Nazi Germany after refusing to stop commemorating a prelate. The reference, Stoeckl said, echoed Putin’s attempt to justify invading Ukraine by claiming he would “denazify” the country.

Other Orthodox leaders called on the Russian Patriarch to do more to stop the war. In an open letter published Wednesday, Romanian Orthodox priest Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, urged Kirill to convince Putin to end the bloodshed.

“I am writing to Your Holiness as Acting General Secretary of the WCC but also as an Orthodox priest,” Sauca wrote. “Please raise your voice and speak on behalf of the suffering brothers and sisters, most of whom are also faithful members of our Orthodox Church.”

Additionally, a group of Catholic Bishops from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales released a statement this week calling on “Patriarch Kirill and all members of the Russian Orthodox Church” to work to end the war.

Stoeckl said escalating tensions within the Russian Orthodox Church over the invasion could be a “watershed moment” for the church. Russian Orthodox leaders stand to lose “all of Ukraine,” she said, and there is evidence of growing distrust of the church in the region: According to The New York Times, the Last week, an angry mob in western Ukraine expelled a Russian Orthodox priest from his own church.

Kordochkin, who was born in St. Petersburg, remains focused on the Russian government. After his telephone interview, he sent an e-mail saying that he was worried about the profound repercussions of the invasion on his home country.

He wrote: “Which path will he follow? A rich, free and open country? Or poverty, isolation and dictatorship?

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