In Russia’s state-approved church, anti-war priests speak out
As the head of the Russian Orthodox Church backs Putin’s invasion, some believers express dissent
Clad in ornate vestments, Patriarch Kirill stood before a crowd in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and proclaimed the war in Ukraine a metaphysical conflict between the faithful of God and a decadent West. It was Forgiveness Sunday, Mar. 6, the final day before the 40-day Lenten fast in the Orthodox church calendar. For Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the statements marked his most overt support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to date.
But in the week leading up to the start of Lent, others within Kirill’s church expressed opposition to the war. On March 1, a group of Russian Orthodox priests shared an open letter denouncing the war as “fratricidal” and demanding an immediate cease-fire. The letter was published with about 40 signatures, and that number has since grown to almost 300.
The letter marked a remarkable voice of dissent from within a church that enjoys close political ties to Putin’s regime. In another sign of the tensions, on Saturday the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam announced it would split from the Moscow church in response to Kirill’s support for the war.
The Rev. Andrey Kordochkin, a priest at a small Russian Orthodox parish in Madrid, Spain, was part of the team that drafted the open letter. Kordochkin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and educated in the United Kingdom. Ethnic Ukrainians primarily make up his church community.
“Many say the task of the priest is to stay silent and pray for peace,” Kordochkin said. “But this idea was not formed by the church but by the Soviets, when people were left voiceless and the government spoke on their behalf.”
Rather than use the state-sanctioned language of “special military operation,” the open letter called Russia’s invasion a war and warned of God’s judgment on those responsible.
“No earthly power, no doctors, no bodyguards can save a person from this judgment,” the priests said.
Three days after the letter’s publication, the Russian legislature, or Duma, passed a law banning the spread of “fake news” about the war and making it illegal to “discredit” the Russian military during the conflict. The new law could threaten the letter’s signatories—about 60 percent of whom live in Russia, according to Kordochkin.
“It is an act of bravery,” he said of the priests who decided to sign the letter.
At least one signer has already run afoul of the new law, the human rights tracking website Forum 18 reported. On Thursday, a Russian court fined the Rev. Ioann Burdin 35,000 rubles (about $261) after the priest delivered a Sunday sermon calling for an end to the war. The fine is about equal to an average month’s wage in his parish’s Kostroma region.
Some 71 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox. Frequently persecuted and sporadically tolerated under Soviet rule, the church experienced a sharp increase in membership after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin, the Kremlin has supported the church with laws restricting non-Orthodox worship. The Russian government also backs land seizures by the church and allows Orthodox religious teaching in public schools. Only about 7 percent of Russians, however, attend weekly services, according to a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center. Just over half of Orthodox Christians in Russia say their religion is primarily about family tradition or national culture.
The letter’s denunciation of the war echoes sentiments shared by many Orthodox communities outside Russia.
The Very Rev. Archpriest Alexander F.C. Webster is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and is a retired U.S. Army chaplain and a professor of moral theology at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, N.Y. While Webster supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, he told WORLD that the current invasion into the entirety of Ukraine is “a woefully disproportional, violent response” to a “refusal to assure Russia that Ukraine will not become a full member of NATO.”
Metropolitan Onufriy leads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate, which is under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Onufriy refrained from criticizing the eight-year conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region and once famously refused to stand during a reading of the names of Ukrainian soldiers who had died in the conflict.
With Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, the archbishop found his voice.
“The war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy,” Metropolitan Onufriy said in a statement Feb. 24. Some within his church have called on him to sever ties formally with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Though some Orthodox leaders have taken vocal stances against the war, others have remained lukewarm. Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), headquartered in New York City, called on believers to “close [their] hearts to the passions ignited by mass media” in a pastoral letter released on the day of the invasion. His letter also referred to “the Ukrainian land,” language that parallels Kremlin rhetoric undercutting the idea of Ukraine as a state.
On March 24, the bishops of ROCOR released a statement saying they were “united in prayer for the speedy conclusion of military actions and for the arrival of peace, while at the same time striving to provide needed support to Ukrainian refugees and migrants through the collection of material and humanitarian aid.”
The March 1 open letter from other Orthodox priests did not assign responsibility for the war, but the priests addressed it to “all those on whom ending the fratricidal war in Ukraine depends.” Kordochkin noted that although Putin bears personal responsibility for the war, the political elites help keep him in power.
“We hope that someone reads this who is capable of listening, hearing, and reacting to the letter,” he said.
Read an English translation of the open letter here.
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report to clarify the stance of Metropolitan Hilarion and to include information about the ROCOR bishops’ statement on March 24.
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