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Opinion Russia’s assault on Ukraine is entwined with a religious war

Russian Patriarch Kirill at the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow on Jan. 6. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
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If Russia’s assault on Ukraine sometimes seems to have the intractable intensity of a religious war, that’s partly because it is entwined with one — a bitter battle for control within the Orthodox community that has been raging for years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked this religious rivalry in a now-famous July 2021 essay that laid the emotional foundation for Russia’s invasion. Asserting that Ukraine and Russia were “bound together” by their shared Russian Orthodox faith, he denounced independent-minded Ukrainians who he said had “blatantly interfered in church life and brought things to a split.”

Putin’s version is backed by Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. But it is bitterly disputed by the leaders of other Orthodox communities — and by the most senior Eastern Orthodox prelate, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who from his seat in what’s now Istanbul oversees the roughly 1,500-year legacy of Byzantium.

Pope Francis waded into this inter-communal battle Tuesday, tartly admonishing Kirill that he shouldn’t be “Putin’s altar boy.” Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had advised Kirill in a March 16 conversation over Zoom: “Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus.” The Roman and Orthodox churches trace their roots to two brother apostles, Peter and Andrew. In the Great Schism of 1054, Rome split from Byzantium.

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We think of Putin as a secular, autocratic leader. But he is also an Orthodox believer, who wears the cross his mother secretly gave him as a baby in Soviet times. Kirill has been his ally in rallying the Russian people to invade and conquer a neighboring Slavic country. But to Putin and his patriarch, it seems, this is about reestablishing order among the rebellious faithful.

This inter-communal battle has elements of a family feud. The Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Kyiv in 988, then moved to Moscow, which has asserted dominion ever since. When some of the Orthodox faithful in a restless, post-Maidan Kyiv in 2015 sought independent status from Moscow (in church terms known as “autocephaly,” or self-headedness), Kirill rejected the bid.

Tensions grew: Bartholomew attempted a reconciliation at what was intended as a global gathering of the faithful in a “Holy and Great Council” in Crete in 2016. But Kirill boycotted the meeting. In 2018, Bartholomew agreed to formally recognize the Ukrainian church’s independence from Moscow; Kirill broke off relations with him and, in effect, denied his primacy. For the Orthodox world, it was a schism.

“The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day,” Bartholomew said in a 2019 address at a ceremony in Istanbul creating an independent Ukrainian church. He said the Ukrainian church should enjoy “the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention.”

Moscow’s push for control in recent years has taken on aspects of a religious Cold War. The Russian and Eastern Orthodox prelates have battled for dominion over churches in Africa, Korea, Singapore and elsewhere. Kirill created an “exarchate” in Africa to replace the patriarch of Alexandria, who is loyal to the Eastern Church. An article in Religion News Service described it as an effort to “woo priests and parishioners … weakening the ancient institution and expanding the Russian Church’s sway.”

Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria in a January letter derided the Russian church’s intervention in Africa, calling its evangelists “savage wolves that come in among you and will not spare the flock,” according to Religion News Service. One activist in the Eastern church estimates that the Russian Orthodox organizers, with plentiful cash to distribute, have converted more than 200 churches in Africa.

“Instead of supporting the local faithful, the Moscow Patriarchate is dividing them,” protested the Rev. Perry Hamalis about Russian disruption of “God-pleasing unity” among the Orthodox in South Korea. His comments were published in a 2019 collection of essays by the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, which supports the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Anthony J. Limberakis, who heads the order in America, told me that the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to replace the ancient primacy of Constantinople, embodied now by Bartholomew. Russia’s goal is “to use the Orthodox Church as a political tool for Russian nationalism and expansion,” he said.

“When Kirill goes into other jurisdictions, like Africa or Korea, that’s a religious invasion,” Father Alexander Karloutsos, a spiritual adviser to the Order of St. Andrew, told me in an interview. “That’s why there is a schism.”

From Putin’s standpoint, Kirill is a patriarch for all seasons. He blessed the invasion before it happened and now he is ignoring the terrible human cost. “Russia has never attacked anyone,” Kirill said in a sermon on Tuesday, according to Orthodox Times. He spoke on a day when shells and rockets were bombarding the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy.

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