Orthodox Christianity is one of the largest Christian communions in the world – after Catholicism and the Protestant Church. Most of its roughly 260 million members are concentrated in Europe, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
It is the dominant religion in 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 Cyril, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world – one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual center.
For that reason, Kirill, 75, has offered wholehearted endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils from widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support.
As the Orthodox world celebrates its Easter Sunday, here is how tensions within the Church are manifesting:
Russian Orthodox leader backs war in Ukraine, divides faith
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 could give the church some independence, after his predecessor, Alexiy II, used his political connections to raise the profile of the church after decades of godless communism. Russian politicians funded the construction of new churches, and religious leaders emerged at the forefront of state functions.
Since then, however, Kirill has cemented his role as a Kremlin ally, helping Putin conceal his political and military ambitions in the language of faith.
On February 23, a day before the invasion, Kirill released a statement praising Putin for his “high and responsible service to the Russian people” and describing compulsory military service as “an active manifestation of gospel love for neighbours.” .
In the weeks since the war began, Kirill has used his sermons to justify the campaign, describing it as a struggle against sinful Western culture – although he is careful to avoid labeling the conflict a war or an invasion. launched by Russia.
He has focused almost entirely on what he calls Ukraine’s “extermination” of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region in the east of the country. Earlier this month, Kirill delivered a sermon urging Russians to rally around the government “during this difficult time”, Reuters news agency reported.
“May the Lord help us to unite in this difficult time for our homeland, including around the authorities,” Interfax news agency quoted Kirill as saying during a sermon in Moscow.
The Christian nationalism behind Putin’s war
Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate
The vast majority of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians, according to Pew. Their loyalties, however, are split between at least two major ecclesiastical bodies, one being the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is “autonomous” but remains under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
For centuries the churches of Ukraine and Russia were both under the leadership of the Patriarch of Moscow. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church in Ukraine insisted on – and obtained – semi-autonomous status in 1990.
But in recent years, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, a growing number of Ukrainian followers have sought to counter what they see as Moscow’s influence.
Since the invasion, these calls have intensified – and parishioners have become angry with the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the war. All of this has placed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its leader, Metropolitan Onuphury, in a precarious position, especially as reports of civilian massacres and other atrocities mount.
On February 24, the day of the invasion, Onuphury issued a statement calling the military campaign a “disaster” and calling on Putin to “stop the fratricidal war immediately”.
The war between Russians and Ukrainians “is a repeat 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 men.”
The church highlighted its role in providing assistance to civilians and presiding over the burial of Ukrainian servicemen. Some priests stopped commemorating Kirill in their services or called on Onuphury to separate completely from Moscow.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is three years old. Its foundation was a direct result of the nascent movement to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church and create a purely independent ecclesiastical entity for Ukraine. The recognition of the Church by the Patriarchate in Turkey angered Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church severed its ties with this body.
The head of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church is Metropolitan Epiphanius, 43, who has voiced his criticism of Putin and the war. Shortly after the invasion, Epiphanius released a statement comparing the Russian leader to both the Antichrist and Adolf Hitler.
“The spirit of the Antichrist operates in the head of Russia, the signs of which the scriptures reveal to us: pride, devotion to evil, ruthlessness, false religiosity,” he said. “That was Hitler in World War II. That’s what Putin has become today.
This week, after visiting the devastated city of Chernihiv, Epiphanius urged Ukrainians to continue fighting the Russian invasion.
“Seeing the suffering, destruction, brutal violence and spreading death that Russia brings to every corner of Ukraine…we understand even better than only the fight against the aggressor [and] his eviction from our land can bring us a just peace,” he said.
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is one of the oldest institutions in the world. The Orthodox Church does not have a single head, but the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is considered its spiritual guide and “first among equals” along with the other patriarchs.
Bartholomew criticized Moscow and the war, as well as Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.
On the first day of the invasion, he condemned what he called “Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.”
Later, in an interview with CNN Turk, he defended his decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and warned that Russia’s aggression and isolation could lead to a “new war”. cold”.
“The whole world is against Russia,” Bartholomew said. “The distance between Russia and the Western world is growing. This means that we are entering a new period of cold war.
The Patriarchate provided humanitarian aid to the Kyiv Church. During a visit to Poland in late March, Barthélemy denounced the invasion as an “atrocious” act.
“It is simply impossible to imagine how devastating this horrific invasion has caused the people of Ukraine and the whole world,” Bartholomew told a news conference, according to The Associated Press.
He added that solidarity with Ukrainians “is the only thing that can overcome evil and darkness in the world.”