National Review

A Weaponized Church Is a Threat to Ukraine

The thoroughly politicized Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate has been instrumental in supporting Russia’s unjust war.

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
Russian Patriarch Kirill leads a Christmas service in Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on January 6, 2018. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Russian Patriarch Kirill leads a Christmas service in Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on January 6, 2018. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Just before Christmas, the Ukrainian government added Orthodox patriarch Kirill of Moscow to its “most wanted” list, its latest move against the Moscow Patriarchate and its affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Ignoring the larger church–state context, Tucker Carlson and other conservative opponents of military aid to Ukraine have been quick to accuse Kyiv of persecuting Christians. Yet, Ukraine has the right to defend itself from Russia’s aggression, and that should include defending itself from a weaponized church.

Kyiv’s security services had already arrested as “clerical spies” 68 priests and Metropolitan Pavel of the UOC. The government is moving to confiscate the UOC’s church within the millennium-old national-heritage site inside Kyiv, known as Pecherska Lavra, and to ban the UOC altogether. Though these measures are extreme, Patriarch Kirill is far from an innocent bystander of Putin’s war, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been long co-opted by the Russian state.

Patriarch Kirill is vigorously trying to reassert Russia’s political hegemony and religious authority over Ukraine. He gave his blessing to the invasion before it began and now frames it as a holy war, justified by Christian theology.

Religion was not Putin’s primary reason for invading Ukraine, but Kirill has been his stalwart partner in the fight. In 1927, after Stalin slaughtered or imprisoned over 50,000 Orthodox religious, and even greater numbers of laity, the Russian Orthodox leadership capitulated with a “Declaration of Loyalty to the Soviets.” Today, the Moscow Patriarchate continues as an active and loyal Putin ally.

At a meeting in October with Hudson Institute, a delegation of the Ukrainian National Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UNCC), representing various Christian churches (except the UOC), and including the chief rabbi and supreme mufti of Ukraine, strenuously defended Kyiv. They told of UOC clergy serving as Russian military collaborators, spotters for snipers, spies, conveyors of strategic information, and propagators of Moscow’s disinformation.

Moreover, the Kremlin heavily relies on the Moscow Patriarchate to provide ideological and moral justification for its aggression. Kirill works to persuade the 71 percent of the Russian population who are Orthodox that their government’s war is righteous. He describes it as a type of crusade — ironic, since Eastern Orthodox Christians have never forgotten that they were among the victims targeted by the Western crusaders. Before the invasion, Kirill falsely cast Russian troops as defenders of the fatherland and aimed to dispel moral misgivings. As he put it, the soldiers “cannot have any doubt that they have chosen a very correct path in their lives.” Later, he declared that the war has “metaphysical significance” as a fight against Western materialism and morality. “We are talking about human salvation,” he emphasized.

In spring 2022, the Moscow patriarch asserted that “unity” with the Ukrainian people was a noble casus belli, declaring, “Someone must defend God’s truth that we are really one people.” By unity, he means Ukraine’s subordination to Russia and even illegitimacy as a sovereign nation. In First Things, George Weigel writes that, to legitimate its invasion, Russia employs a false historical narrative that “Moscow is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the Eastern Slavs in 988 (an event that actually occurred outside Kyiv, at a time when Moscow was a forest inhabited by wolves and bears).” According to this narrative, Weigel states, “Ukrainians are at best ‘little brothers’ to the Great Russian hegemon, and at worst no nation at all.” He traces this attitude from Ivan the Great, known as the “gatherer of the Russian lands,” through Russian imperial expansion, to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the 1988 millennium celebrations “wrote Ukrainians entirely out of the story of Eastern Slavic Christianity that began in 988.”

By September 2022, as the Russian military faltered and was recruiting hardened criminals to bolster its thinning ranks, Kirill declared Russia’s fallen soldiers to be veritable holy Christian martyrs. In a sermon, he stated: 

If someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains true to his calling and dies in the line of military duty, then he undoubtedly commits an act that is tantamount to a sacrifice. . . . And therefore we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.

Kirill assured sainthood for Russian troops even as they reportedly committed mass atrocities, including raping Ukrainian women and children, torturing and murdering innocent civilians, deporting children by the thousands, and burning villages. The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also recorded up to 500 religious sites being damaged or destroyed in the war’s first year.

The Moscow Patriarchate stands to directly benefit from a Russian victory by regaining authority over Ukraine’s Orthodox churches. In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) — distinct from the UOC (whose break-away factions formed the OCU during the 1920s period of independence and revived it in the post-Soviet period) — became a self-governing or “autocephalous” Eastern Orthodox Church, disaffiliated from the Moscow Patriarchate. This decision was made by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. According to a new study by scholar of Eastern Orthodoxy Elizabeth Prodromou, the Ecumenical patriarch has the ecclesial authority to declare autocephaly and used it to free the OCU from a politicized Moscow Patriarchate. Of Ukraine’s Christians, 54 percent are now members of the OCU.

The UOC remained affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate until May 2022, when it denounced the Russian invasion and took measures to make itself “fully independent” of Moscow, though, as the State Department reports, many observers found those steps “insufficient.” Prodromou notes that “there has been no formal ecclesiastical unification of the UOC with the OCU” and that “some UOC hierarchs and priests . . . either tacitly or vocally, have supported Russian Patriarch Kirill’s sanctification of the Kremlin’s invasion as a holy war.”

The UNCC delegates told of their fears of religious repression under a Russian occupation. Russia’s treatment of its own religious minorities is so egregious that the State Department designates it as a “Country of Particular Concern,” among the world’s worst religious persecutors. By contrast, while Ukraine lacks America’s First Amendment protections, its people have been able to freely worship since the country gained sovereignty three decades ago, and there is a separation between church and state.

Kirill’s most dangerous contribution may be his help in maintaining the invasion’s popularity among Russians, despite the estimated 315,000 casualties Russia has suffered. A recent poll by the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and Lavada showed that the war has consistently had the support of 75 percent of the Russian people, though some indicated concerns about its effect on the Russian economy. Such polling, of course, requires healthy skepticism, since criticism of Russia’s military operation was criminalized by the Kremlin in 2022. Nevertheless, there is so far no groundswell of anti-war protest, apart from a small contingent of military moms and wives.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has a significant religious dimension that neither Ukraine nor the West can afford to overlook. The thoroughly politicized Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate has been instrumental in supporting this unjust war. Ukraine’s efforts to restrict it and its Ukrainian loyalists are not “persecution,” but a necessity for peace.

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