How Putin’s invasion became a holy war for Russia
“Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said.
Two days later, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, addressed military leaders and issued a statement in honor of Defender of the Fatherland Day. The cleric praised Putin for his “high and responsible service to the Russian people”, said that the Russian Orthodox Church has “always strived to make a significant contribution to the patriotic education of compatriots”, and hailed military service as “an active manifestation”. of evangelical love for neighbour. Within hours, bombs began raining down on Ukraine.
This religious escalation towards war was the culmination of a decade of efforts to wrap Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in faith – in particular, the flowing vestments of the Russian Orthodox Church. Fusing religion, nationalism, a defense of conservative values that equates same-sex marriage with Nazism, and a version of history that seeks to define Ukraine and other neighboring nations as mere subsets of a larger “Russkiy mir”, or Russian world, Putin and Kirill’s partnership laid the ideological and theological foundations for the invasion.
But as blasts continue to rock Ukraine, some church members are beginning to resist religious calls from Putin and Kirill, pushing back against efforts to redefine naked Russian aggression as something akin to war holy.
The partnership between Putin, 69, and Kirill, 75, began around 2012, when the politician was re-elected for a third presidential term. It was then that Putin began to embrace the Russian Orthodox Church – not necessarily as a point of personal conversion, but rather as a mechanism for political gain, what foreign policy pundits often call “soft power”.
The relationship between the president and the prelate quickly intensified. Kirill, allegedly a former KGB staffer like Putin, hailed the president’s leadership of the Russian Federation as a “miracle of God”. Meanwhile, Putin has worked to make Russia a champion of conservative Christian values, which generally meant opposing abortion, feminism and LGBTQ rights. The speech proved popular among a wide range of conservative Christian leaders, including prominent voices on the American religious right: In February 2014, evangelist Franklin Graham cautiously praised Putin in an op-ed in the Decision magazine, celebrating the Russian president’s support for a law banning the spread of “non-traditional sex propaganda” – a law that activists say effectively barred children from media that portrays LGBTQ identities and relationships in a positive or normalizing light. Graham would travel the following year to Russia, where he met Kirill and Putin, and told local media that “millions of Americans would love [Putin] come and run for President of the United States.
In 2017, Politico already described Russia as “the leader of the global Christian right”.
The impact of this religious diplomacy was even greater in Eastern European countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union, where the Russian Orthodox Church and its allies still enjoy outsized influence. When Moldova sought to strengthen its ties with Europe, Orthodox clerics operating under the Moscow Patriarchate campaigned against the move, a bishop telling the New York Times in 2016, “For me, Russia is the guardian of Christian values”. Things were similar in Montenegro, where the Serbian Orthodox Church maintains close relations with the Russian Patriarchate; priests there have argued against the nation’s plans to join NATO, and last year Russian Orthodox leaders lambasted leaders in Montenegro for their support of “eurointegration”.
Kirill has long perpetuated a version of history that insists that many of the countries that made up the former Soviet Union are a people with a common religious origin: namely, the 10th-century baptism of Prince Vladimir I of kyiv , known as Saint Vladimir. It is often associated with a geopolitical (and georeligious) vision that hundreds of Orthodox theologians and scholars have recently decried as heresy: a “transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers around the world”.
It’s a Russian world with Moscow as the political center, kyiv as the spiritual heart, and Kirill as the religious leader.
“May God grant that the Patriarchate of Moscow, which unites us not politically, nor economically, but spiritually, be preserved to care for all united ethnicities in the great historic Rus,” he said. Kirill said. in 2018.
But Russia’s religious and political arguments have hit a wall in Ukraine, where protests – aided, in some cases, by Orthodox clerics – toppled a pro-Russian government in 2013 and 2014, triggering the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Putin. Frustration with Russia has spilled over into the religious realm, exacerbating an existing rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople: in 2018, many Orthodox Christians in Ukraine declared independence from the Patriarchate from Moscow. Kirill refused to recognize the new body, but the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, recognized it. This schism for Russian interests was so dangerous that Kremlin-linked hackers responded by infiltrating the email accounts of Bartholomew’s aides.
And then came 2022, when soft power turned into support for outright war in Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion began, Kirill issued a statement calling vaguely for peace and asking all parties to limit civilian casualties. But Archbishop Daniel, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States, which is loyal to Kyiv, decried the statement as the words of a “religious politician” and rejected Kirill’s call for a “centuries-old common history” rooted in the baptism of St. Vladimir. .
“To say that we share the same ethnic origin and so on, I think is a mistake,” Daniel said. “That is an incorrect statement. And I wish the religious leaders would correct this terminology [when Kirill is] by using it.
Kirill’s rhetoric has only intensified these days. He called Russia’s opponents in Ukraine “forces of evil” and delivered a sermon on March 6 in which he suggested the invasion was part of a larger “metaphysical” struggle against immoral Western values ( read: liberal).
“Today there is a test of loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to this ‘happy’ world, the world of excessive consumption, the world of false ‘freedom’,” said Kirill. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible – it’s the Gay Pride Parade.
It’s a distillation of an argument Kirill has been making for years, pitting Western values against those of the so-called Russian world. For Kirill, this is often rooted in anti-LGBTQ sentiment: he has suggested that accepting same-sex marriage is a “dangerous sign of the apocalypse” and once blamed the rise of the Islamic State terror group on efforts to escape the “impious”. “Western Societies Embracing Gay Pride Parades.
As for his take on the ongoing conflict, Kirill reportedly presented an image of the Virgin Mary to Viktor Zolotov, head of the Russian National Guard.
“May this image inspire young soldiers who take the oath, who embark on the path of defending the fatherland,” Kirill said.
But after years of using faith as a tool to gain power, Kirill’s support for war — tacit or otherwise — may end up costing him influence on this round. Admittedly, some of the backlash came from expected corners: Kirill’s rhetoric sparked an immediate response from Orthodox Christians whose leadership is based in Kyiv, with one cleric dismissing Kirill as “discredited” and comparing Putin to the Antichrist.
Yet calls for change also come from within the rectory. Metropolitan Onuphrius of Kyiv, who oversees the Russian Orthodox faithful in Ukraine, immediately called the invasion a “disaster” and a “repeat of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy”. Many of his priests in the country have since stopped commemorating Kirill during worship, and some have even called on Onuphry to secede from the Russian Orthodox Church – much to the chagrin of the patriarchy.
Outside Ukraine, more than 280 Russian Orthodox priests – most of whom operate in Russia – recently signed a petition condemning the “fratricidal” invasion and stressing Ukraine’s right to self-determination. One of the signatories was later arrested in Russia after preaching a sermon criticizing the war. Authorities reportedly accused him of “discrediting the use of the armed forces”.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe has publicly implored Kirill to speak out with the Russian authorities against the “monstrous and senseless war”. He also rejected the characterization of the conflict as a “metaphysical” battle.
“With all due respect, which I do not depart from, but also with infinite pain, I must bring to your attention that I cannot subscribe to such a reading of the Gospel,” it reads. in the Archbishop’s letter.
And at least one Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam has taken steps to leave the church over Kirill’s stance on Ukraine, hoping to affiliate with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. This despite the intimidating visit of a Russian archbishop: the cleric, who had arrived by car from the Russian Embassy, told the priests that the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Foreign Ministry were watching their church.
“We cannot reverse our decision to distance ourselves from Patriarch Kirill,” read a statement from the priests of the church. “Our consciences won’t allow it.”
It remains to be seen whether these and other efforts will push Kirill away from years of working closely with Putin. The Russian president’s will to continue the war remains strong, as does his adherence to religious rhetoric: At a rally on Friday, Putin praised Russian troops in a way that echoed Kirill and paraphrased the Bible, saying, “There is no greater love than to lay down your soul for your friends.
But the religious pressure on Kirill doesn’t seem to let up either. When Pope Francis held a meeting with Kirill last week to discuss the conflict, he warned against trying to justify armed invasion, expansion or empire with a Christian cross – something the Catholic Church knows Something.
“Once upon a time, in our churches, we also spoke of a holy war or a just war,” Francis told Kirill, according to the Vatican press office. “Today we can’t talk like that.”
— Religious News Service
This story is published in collaboration with rolling stone magazine.