The Orthodox Church and the War in Ukraine

by Sebastian Rimestad

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian military assault, former Senior Research Fellow at the KFG Multiple Secularities and current Heisenberg Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religions at Leipzig University Sebastian Rimestad sheds light on Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine and its role in the conflict. He points out the role of the religious aspect for the perception of the conflict and in the run-up to it, and also hints at how the religious landscape might ultimately be affected by it, but he seriously doubts that religion can play a decisive role in resolving the conflict. In the second part he takes into account the latest developments in Russia, especially the utterances of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. His analysis also provides a glimpse into the future of the Russian Church, which he says is highly doubtful to continue to exist in its present form.

This article was first published in the KFG Multiple SecularitiesBulletin.

Contents

Part 1 –  How do Orthodox Christians Perceive the Russian Aggression in Ukraine?

Part 2 – The End of the Russian Orthodox Church as we Know it

– 1 – 

How do Orthodox Christians Perceive the Russian Aggression in Ukraine?

The dominant religion in both Russia and Ukraine is Orthodox Christianity, a branch of Christianity that has developed independently from Western Christianity for a Millennium. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which is united under the Pope in Rome, the Orthodox Church is territorially divided into more than a dozen organisationally independent church units, called autocephalous churches. These churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Greece, among others, theologically claim to embody the true Church of Christ, but they are constantly involved in more or less serious conflicts with each other. The Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory end of February exacerbated many of these conflicts and called new ones into existence.

First, it is important to keep in mind that all Orthodox parishes in Ukraine used to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era. However, because of the anti-religious communist ideology of the state on the one hand and the historical memory of other Christian allegiances in Ukraine on the other, this unity was fragile and fell apart during and immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The fact that no viable Ukrainian independent state had existed before the Soviet Union complicates matters further, as different regions cherish different historical memories. The Eastern parts of the country, as well as the port city of Odessa, for example, have a long connection to the Russian Empire, whereas the Western regions were part of Habsburg Austria and later Interwar Poland and consider Russia a distant neighbour. However, in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been able to surmount many dividing forces and has become a relatively unified country – not necessarily on the language question, but at least in terms of state loyalty and shared democratic values. There are obviously sections of the population who would not agree to this characterisation, but by and large, open conflicts are avoided.

Bartholomew hands over the tomos to Metropolitan Epiphany (The Presidential Administration of Ukraine; cc-by-4.0) 

Nevertheless, there are two arenas where this unity cannot be detected. That is, on the one hand, the break-away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the South-East. They are, however, strongly influenced from Russia, which has taken disguised steps to keep a military conflict raging there since 2014. On the other hand, it is the religious situation, for all attempts to unify the Orthodox parishes of Ukraine into one organisation have failed so far – not least because of the unwillingness of the Russian Orthodox Church to let go of what it sees as its rightful „canonical territory“. Christianity came to Russia through the medieval fiefdom of the Kievan Rus’, so Kyiv and the Ukrainian lands are seen as the birthlands of Russian Orthodoxy, similar to the Kosovo plains for the Serbian Orthodox Church. In addition, the Moscow Patriarchate, the central administration of the Russian Orthodox Church, has bought into the ideology of a Russian World (russkii mir) that unites all Russian speakers – including the Ukrainians – into a single civilisation with one, glorious Church organisation. It is therefore impossible for the Russian Church to simply let go of the Ukrainian part, all the more because nearly a third of its parishes are located there.

At the same time, there have been numerous attempts to establish church organisations in Ukraine that were independent from the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the early 1990s, two such churches existed: One of them was a revival of an interwar Ukrainian church structure that had survived in exile in North America throughout the Soviet era and the other was a self-proclaimed Patriarchate of Kyiv, a group that had split off from the mainstream church reporting to the Moscow Patriarchate. Neither of these two churches managed to achieve recognition by world Orthodoxy and therefore both remained illegitimate and pariah churches. This was the situation until 2018, when Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko appealed to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, the honorific head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, to end the chaos in Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

The Patriarch obliged and decided later that year, after a process of studying documents and speaking to people, to summon an All-Ukrainian episcopal council for the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. All Orthodox Bishops in Ukraine, regardless of their current affiliation, were invited to this council, which gathered at the end of October 2018 in Kyiv. However, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and his advisors categorically forbade the bishops of their church to take part in the synod, essentially making the event a unification of two unrecognised churches, with the resulting church being recognised as the legitimate Orthodox Church of Ukraine at least by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The new church (called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU), to distinguish it from the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” (UOC) of the Moscow Patriarchate) was officially established through a “tomos”, a legal act in January 2019 with the young Bishop Epiphany at its helm. As a result, the Patriarchate of Moscow categorised Constantinople as schismatic and broke off communion, initiating a worldwide split in the Orthodox world that continues to this day. So far, however, most Orthodox Churches have declined to follow either one of the two sides – staying in communion with both Moscow and Constantinople, while stalling an official recognition of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Only the churches of Greece, Cyprus and Alexandria (responsible for all of Africa) have taken the latter step, promptly followed by a Russian break in the communion. It is important to keep in mind that the break is one-sided – only the Russian Orthodox Church has drawn this consequence, whereas the other side (Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus, and Alexandria) does not denigrate the Russian Church.

All this is necessary to keep in mind when assessing the way the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine has affected Orthodox believers in Russia, Ukraine, and worldwide. There are at least three churches directly affected by the conflict – the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of the Moscow Patriarchate and the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Moreover, Russian Orthodox parishes all over the world are torn, as they usually comprise both Russian and Ukrainian members and have mostly been able to shy away from political and ideological discussions so far.

The ROC, headed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is the easiest one to describe, as Kirill is entirely following the line and argumentation of Vladimir Putin. Kirill’s statements during the war have been ambiguous and refrained from naming an aggressor. Instead, Kirill calls for appeasement “on both sides” and is otherwise silent as to Russia’s role in the conflict. Also his entourage, which is usually quick to follow up, has been remarkably silent over the first week of the conflict. There are radical voices, but the most influential commentators are quiet.

The UOC, on the other hand, has been very outspoken from the beginning. Its head, Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv, made a remarkable statement on the day of the first Russian attacks, harshly condemning them, naming Russia as the aggressor and urging the faithful to stand firm in the defence of the fatherland. Moreover, he likened the attack to the “sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” Hearing such a direct and open response from a Bishop, supposedly loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, has even had an impact within Russia, where reliable information about the conflict is rather scarce. In Ukraine, it has resulted in several of the bishops (12 out of 42 on 3 March) prescribing that priests under their authority stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during the liturgy. This is the very first step on the way towards a separation from the Russian Church, it is still a harmless step, but it is possible that other actions follow. So far, Metropolitan Onuphry himself has not taken this step, which means that in terms of canon law, there is no institutional separation between the UOC and the ROC up to now.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (Serge Serebro; cc-by-sa)

From the OCU, the response has been similar. Its head, Metropolitan Epiphany, sees himself as being on the moral high horse, since his church is not associated with the Russian aggressor. His statements echo those of President Zelensky and Western condemnations of the military conflict. At the same time, Epiphany has made a direct appeal to Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, deploring him to at least enable the priests in Russia to pray for the souls of those Russian soldiers that have fallen so far. Because, as Kirill follows the official line of the Putin regime, from the latter’s perspective there have been no casualties in this conflict, which is a peace-keeping mission and no war. This way, Metropolitan Epiphany is appealing to the Christian conscience of Patriarch Kirill, hoping that he reconsiders his influence in Russian politics.

In each of these cases, the first religious response is naturally a short-term one. It remains to be seen if anything lasting will emerge from this. For one, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow must at some point realise that it does not do the image of the Russian Church any good, both within Russia and in the wider world, to be associated with a fratricidal military aggression that does not follow the international rules of violent conflicts. Nobody knows how Kirill will be able to wind his way out of this compromising realisation, or whether he will still be able to wield the same kind of influence over the believing population in the aftermath of such a misjudgement. Within Ukraine, there are influential theological voices, such as the internationally respected Cyril Hovorun, that call for the bishops of UOC and OCU to seize the opportunity and finally find a way to join together in a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Hovorun’s solution is to convene a second “unification council”, this time excluding any attempts from Moscow to influence the outcome. If this happens, there might be a chance that Putin’s aggression not only destroys what is left of his own standing in the political world, but that even the Russian Orthodox Church loses its most strategic ecclesiological weapon, its parishes in Ukraine. If that happens, the main reason for the unilateral attempt of the Moscow Patriarchate to destabilise the Orthodox world in order to gain more influence would backfire, and the primacy of the Constantinople Patriarch would probably be reaffirmed. Until this can be assessed, however, there are much more urgent issues to be tackled, related to limiting the impact of further military conflict and alleviating the humanitarian consequences of the situation. The religious aspect has definitely been important for the perception of and in the runup to the conflict, and the religious landscape will be affected by it, but it is unlikely to play a decisive role in its resolution.


– 2 –

The End of the Russian Orthodox Church as we Know it

This is a continuation of my previous bulletin entry, which can be found here. Whereas the  previous article provided a basic understanding of the Orthodox view of the conflict in Ukraine, this one analyses a number of new developments, especially the latest utterances of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. 

Sunday, 6 March 2022, was Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, the last day before the beginning of the Great Lent before Easter. It is  a day when every believer publicly asks everybody around for forgiveness. In the last few days before Sunday, there had been numerous pleas from all over the Orthodox world for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, to use Forgiveness Sunday to speak out against Putin’s war efforts, which pit Orthodox believers against their also Orthodox neighbours. This included an open letter from Russian Orthodox clergy, which had received almost 300 signatures by Saturday evening – even though many of the signatories serve outside the Russian Federation. Moreover, numerous Christian Churches of other denominations as well as ecumenical organisations tried to appeal to the Patriarch to openly condemn the military assault on Ukraine. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that the patriarchal sermon for this Sunday was eagerly awaited by many. However, the actual sermon shocked almost everybody. Instead of saying anything about forgiveness or the sinfulness of war, the Patriarch devoted almost a third of his sermon to speak about Gay Pride parades, which he blamed as the main reason for the Russian need to militarily intervene in Ukraine. According to the Patriarch, it was the refusal to hold a Gay Pride parade in the Ukrainian Donbas region that made the Ukrainian government, allegedly consisting of Nazis, oppose and subdue this region. In this narrative, the Russian military operation in Ukraine is no more than the justified consolidation of the moral integrity of the Orthodox brethren in Ukraine from the evil moral decay emanating from “the West”. 

Kyiv Pride 2018 (Arrideo Photography; cc-by-nd-2.0)

While this narrative is even more ridiculous than anybody I know could have imagined, it is not principally inconsistent with what has happened over the last decades within the Orthodox Church. There is a deepening chasm within this religious community – almost all across the globe to varying degrees – between those who see the unchanging church as the answer to all current questions and those who attempt to creatively adapt Orthodox theology to the challenges of the modern world. It is a split that appears in most religious communities at some point, when the question of the relationship between religious tradition and the modern world is raised. Should religious tradition conform to modern realities or the other way around? In principle, for the believers the question boils down to whether the challenges of the modern world are a chance or a threat. In the case of Orthodox Christianity, as in other „non-Western“ religious traditions, the issue is further exacerbated by the perceived need to prove the superiority of one’s own approach over and against that of “the (blasphemous) West”. 

In the Orthodox Church, the chasm is between those who accept “Western” notions, such as democracy, liberal market, separation between state and church, fluid gender theories, liberal sexual norms, etc. without questioning them, and those who claim that the Orthodox Church has established that the theologically correct attitude to each of these developments is outright rejection – a stance which ought to be defended to achieve the salvation of mankind. Now this characterisation is obviously overly simplistic, for there are many more differentiated and complex theological approaches available and the chasm is only one in the narrative of the most reactionary conservatives – or in the case of North America, the overzealous converts from evangelical Christianity. It is easy to argue that the chasm is only a perceived one that is much more easily overcome if one were creatively engaging with the opposing side, but there is often a tendency to reject any dialogue altogether. This aspect was eloquently elaborated by the American Orthodox theologian John Jillions in his Florovsky Lecture from January 2022 and it is evident in Patriarch Kirill’s refusal to engage with any narrative other than the rejection of the Gay Pride parade. 


It would therefore be a fallacy to dismiss the patriarchal sermon as one man’s delirious attempt to make sense of the situation. It runs much deeper, and is not just a regurgitation of Putin’s propaganda either. Rather, it is the discourse of a religious mindset that sees itself cornered by morally evil forces in a modern world where religion does not command the same kind of respect as it presumably once did. Not only the Patriarch buys into this kind of rhetoric, but also a growing section of the disillusioned evangelical community in USA, a portion of which has converted to the Orthodox Church precisely because they perceive it as a last bastion of moral integrity in a decaying world (see here).


Returning to Ukraine, there the indicated chasm has been portrayed as one between two kinds of Orthodoxy, respectively associated with the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC). The latter – with strong backing from the Russian Church and the Moscow Patriarchate – has repeatedly sought to paint its adversary – the OCU – as a pawn of Western moral decadence. In return, the OCU does not shy away from describing the UOC as an entity stuck in the past and unable to engage astutely with contemporary issues. These mutual epithets rarely fully reflect reality and are often no more than polemical rhetoric, but they help fuel the image of an unbridgeable chasm between “good” and “bad” Orthodox Christianity, which especially the Moscow Patriarchate is eager to propagate.


In the context of the ongoing conflict, this attempt to force the separation of the wheat from the chaff can be observed in the reactions to the war from other Orthodox Churches. There is a more or less clear divide between those churches that are traditionally counted in the same camp as the Moscow Patriarchate – i.e. the Churches of Serbia and Bulgaria as well as the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem, and the churches traditionally more allied to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the primate of honour in the Orthodox Church – the Churches of Greece and Finland. The latter clearly condemned Russia’s aggression whereas the former were rather general in their calls for a peaceful resolution. The Church of Romania, which usually sits between the camps, also condemned Russia, as did the leading bishop of the Orthodox Church in America. These responses, in Moscow’s eyes, illustrate whether a church feels the need to outright oppose modern developments or not.


At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that these are all reactions of church leaders. They are not necessarily an indication of the mindset of the mass of believers, who often have their own views on these issues. There is a tendency to assume that the more conservative churches also consist of a more conservative laity, but that is difficult to ascertain without large-scale statistical analysis. What is clear, though, is that there are believers of all persuasions in all churches. It is therefore very important to refrain from judging a person based solely on his or her religious affiliation. That Russia has introduced prison sentences of up to 15 years for calling the operations in Ukraine a war or publishing “knowingly false information” about what is happening is an obvious red flag, suggesting that there are people of dissenting opinions also within Russia. Not all of them might be pious believers, but such are certainly also among them. The only reason they are still being heard at all is because many of them have already fled to a safer country where freedom of opinion is more valued.


Finally, let me come to the future of the Russian Church and why I and many other analysts believe that this might be the end of it. First, if the Moscow Patriarchate survives the global headwinds it has received for its complacency in the war and will receive following this Sunday’s patriarchal sermon, it is unlikely to have any credibility left for ecumenical dialogue and inter-religious events. Patriarch Kirill can no longer hope to be seen as an authority figure among Western elites, except perhaps on the fringes. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Department of External Church Relations, has so far been surprisingly quiet. During his working visit to the Patriarch of Antioch, one of the ancient Orthodox Churches, on 4 March, he avoided to speak about Ukraine altogether. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where Hilarion occupies a honorary professorship, on 2 March publicly demanded of him to condemn the war, but he has failed to respond so far. Influential commentators are already quite unanimous in their rejection of him as a serious theological scholar as long as he does not comment in any sensible way on the war.  


So, even if the Moscow Patriarchate survives in the current form, it will have lost much of its influence and standing in the wider world – not to mention in Russia itself. In many Western capitals, there are large Russian Orthodox Cathedrals attached to the Embassies. The one in Paris – right across from the Eiffel Tower – published a statement about the war on 2 March, which repeats official Russian propaganda word for word, confirming that it is part of a parallel world. Calls for its confiscation emerged immediately and petitions to that end popped up. If this kind of isolation continues or is extended, voices have warned that Russia could become a second North Korea.


If the Patriarchate does not survive, on the other hand, the question arises how to rebuild it. It is important for the Russian Orthodox Church to have a functioning central administration and this administration is the Moscow Patriarchate, so it cannot be completely abolished. However, there are already public debates on Facebook and elsewhere underway to determine what a reconstruction could look like. There is near unanimity on the fact that a complete change of the leadership is necessary, but that it is simply too early to say much more. First, there is a war to be fought and an ideology to be disproven. Once this has been achieved, the next steps can be metered out. For now, it is important to recognise the leadership’s propaganda as such and not assume that this is the opinion of all ordinary Russian Orthodox believers.


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