Putin’s War is Driving a Historic Schism in the Orthodox Church
Rebecca Batley 14 March 2022

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine Patriarch Kirill, Head of the Russian Orthodox Church stated that he, and through him, the church in Russia fully supported Putin’s actions. He called Putin’s enemies in Ukraine “evil forces” and stated that Russia “ must not allow dark and hostile external forces to laugh at us.” Patriarch Kirill’s support for Putin and his regime is well established. In 2012 he went so far as to call Putin a “miracle of God” and speaking last week from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow he went on to say that Russia must “defend our common historic homeland from all external actions which can destroy (Russia’s) unity.”

Putin indeed has justified his actions, against Ukraine, in part as a defence of the Moscow based Orthodox Church whose position has been significantly weakened over recent years as the Ukrainian Orithodox majority has become divided between those of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, loyal to the Patriarch in Moscow, and those loyal to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Orthodox church of Ukraine is self-governing, having been recognised as such in 2018 by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

It is notable that such a ‘breakaway’ only garnered political support in Ukraine after the 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas region and Crimea – religion and politics, it must be remembered, are no more separate in Ukraine than they are in Russia.

The decision to split is one of many that Putin hopes to overthrow, as it has undeniably weakened the position of the Patriarch Kirill in Ukraine and strengthened the idea for many Orthodox believers in the sanctity of Ukraine’s independence. Since 2018 to  be a Orthodox believer but to deny Russia’s right to Ukrainian territory has no longer been blasphemous and 700 parishes have as of the end of 2021 changed allegiance. The Moscow Patrate meanwhile vehemently insists that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine remains subject to the authority of and dependent on, the Russian mother church.

It is no surprise to anyone that Putin has called publicly on Kirill’s support, for his invasion. Right from the start of his premiership Putin has been widely, publicly and regularly, seen to seek the advice of church elders, and some would argue most crucially he has used religion to highlight divisions between Russia and the ‘immoral’ West, thus bringing together the Russian speaking former Soviet States, uniting them under an umbrella of spiritual dominion. The breakaway of the Ukrainian church in 2018 is only one of many events that have weakened this connection, upon which Putin depends.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, Patriarch Kirill’s position has come under increasing scrutiny and is being increasingly challenged. On March 1st over 200 Orthodox clerics called for an end to the violence. In the remarkable document, they state that they “respect the freedom of any person given to him or her by God….the people of Ukraine must make their own choice by themselves not at the point of assault rifles.” The loyalty of the Ukrainian bishops has been thrown into chaos by Kirill’s statement, leaving many facing a choice between their secular and spiritual loyalty. To date at least 2 Ukrainian Orthodox bishops have instructed their priests to no longer carry out prayers of communion with Kirill in the Divine Liturgy, suggesting a religious schism is developing, as they refuse to submit to the religious authority of Kirill.

One of these men, Bishop Evlogy, has made  a statement that some feel is no less than a repudiation of Kirill’s leadership, although he denies that it is an act of religious schism and reiterates that he remains in Communion with the Kyiv Metropolitan leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Onufriy. Bishop Evogny though has not acted in isolation; Bishop Halych Filaet Kucheriv of Kyiv has also commanded his congregation to stop acknowledging the Moscow Patriarch in its prayers. The people are, he said, to pray for peace, not for Kirill, and on the 5th March the Ukrainian bishops went even further and Onuifry faced a full scale internal revolt as 5 eparchies refused to mention the name of Patriarch Kirill, an act Kirill has now stated is schismatic. With this declaration Metropolitan Onufriy, who has long been considered to be pro-Russian, faces an uphill battle if he wishes to hold his church together. So far he has refrained from criticising Patriarch Kirill or making large numbers of statements but on the first day of the war he called for peace stating that “it is a repeat of the sin of Cain, who out of evil killed his brother” and has offered Ukraines church’s as shelters for all.

It is clear that damage to churches, the transfer of parishes between the two forms of Orthodox churches as well as fresh calls from within Ukraine regarding new religious status (and international protection) for sites such as Saint Michael the Golden Domed Monastery, Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra only serve to emphasise the role religion has and will play in this conflict.

Kirill meanwhile insists that for Orthodox believers their faith means that they must accept Moscow’s authority over the Ukrainian church and its bishops. He argues that historically and spiritually Ukraine is part of Russia as is Belarus and that for this reason Putin is justified in any actions he takes.

The inflexibility of Moscow has come as a blow to many in the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Church bishops (under Kirills authority) which has asked the Patriarch to publicly call for an end to the invasion and help Onufriy preserve unity. However a follow up to his first statement on “Forgiveness Sunday” Patriarch Kirill elaborated on his position and stated that Ukraines’ pro LGBTI laws and parades have presented the perfect “loyalty test” for the faithful and that “Pride parades are designed to demonstrate that sin is once variation of human behaviour. Pllaying into the Russia versus the West rhetoric, that “ the West essentially organises genocide comapaigns against countres that refues to stage gay parades.” He argues that this lack of moral fibre is at the heart of the conflict with Ukraine and that Russia’s actions are in effect a religious Crusade. To this end he describes the war as about things “far more important than politics.” This is far from the first time that Patriarch Kirill has made his views on such matters clear; he has previously compared campaigns for marital equality within the church as “Nazism”

As the violence escalates, the stance within the Ukrainian church affiliated to Moscow is becoming more troubled day after day, as on the ground churches, under the Moscow patriarchy, are being destroyed – such as that in the village of Bobrik. It has noticeably been increasingly distancing itself from Russia over the past few days as public opinion swings against them, with some online going as far as to accuse them of collaborating with the enemy. Increasingly it is becoming clear that  the Ukrainian church under Russia feels betrayed and many are speaking out – Father Danilevich, of a the Kyiv Monastary of Caves, for example, told France 24 last week that “Lying is a sin and Russian power lied…Russian officials said there would be no war, that they were not planning anything….the invasion is (therefore) an act of treachery that has broken every form of trust.” With many of his priests now requesting that he break with Moscow publicly, Ukranians are now questioning how long Metropolitan Onufirycan hold together his fractured church.

The same day as Patriarch Kirill made his address, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarch Metropolitan Epiphanius made his and his church’s stance perfectly clear, in a television broadcast,  calling upon the people of Ukraine to both pray and act – “Our heroic people defending themselves from the attack of Russia, which is throwing its soldiers and weapons at our villages and cities….every hour our resistance inspires more and more people around the world to support Ukraine.” Effectively declaring that it is now a religious duty to oppose Putin.

As opposition to the Russian church has strengthened, in response numerous cartoons have been appearing online lambasting Kirill for his unilateral support of his president and people like Sergei Chapnin, former editor in chief of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate are adding their voices to those condemning Kirill, stating that “it is abundantly clear that Patriarch Kirill is not ready to defend his flock – neither the people of Ukraine nor he people of Russia – against Putin’s aggressive regime. Human suffering is not one of his priorities:” It is a damning indictment.

Support for the Ukrainian church is also emerging from many other religious quarters. The Patriarch of Constaninople Batholomew I has said that many Ukrainian bishops should now “regard Kirill as the religious leader of an enemy country,” giving many the ‘permission’ they need to rebel. This International Orthodox fragmentation  is being reflected in countries such as Finland whose own Orthodox church has reminded its followers that “in his own messages Patriarch Kirill does not admit that Russia attacked Ukraine,” and urges caution when considering his commitment to his people.  The CEC Head Rev Christian has also urged him to make a statement calling for  an end to the violence. “We call upon you” he says, addressing the Patriarch directly “to affirm the values of all human lives, including the lives of Ukrainian citizens,” but Patriarch Kirill so far remains steadfast in his support for Putin’s ‘Holy War.’

The role of the Church and of religion cannot and must not be underestimated. Propaganda is rife and on March 8th it was reported that drops of red blood had appeared on the icon of the Virgin Mary at the church of the Russian army, the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Moscow. something that many have taken as a sign of God’s blessing upon the army. A statement on this miracle is expected from Patriarch Kirill any day. To a society in which many remain deeply devout, the impact of such occurrences cannot be overestimated and it remains to be seen what effect it may have on Russians who believe that loyalty to their God and to their country is manifest in the words of Patriarch Kirill.

What cannot be doubted is that the future of two churches as well as two countries hangs in the balance. What is happening in Ukraine right now is inviting a church schism, one that is running hand in hand with a political one. To what ultimate end is unclear.


Cover Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow – 20 November 2021 (Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik via AFP).

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