Ukraine struck military targets inside Russian territory in recent days, and in early Kyiv Dec. 2 attacked the enemy within by announcing it will ban and sanction Ukrainian-based Orthodox churches and clergy with links to Moscow’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
Police raids have discovered suspicious persons, unregistered weapons, and Russian propaganda at churches and monasteries. So far, 33 priests have been arrested. This collaboration is no surprise.
Kirill is a confidante of Putin’s and has publicly weaponized his Russian Orthodox Church, and placed his moral authority, behind the Kremlin’s vicious genocide.
In April, he issued a directive to Russian soldiers that “your task is to wipe the Ukrainian nation off the face of the Earth”. His support for mass murder has rattled the Orthodox world of 260 million across Europe. The World Council of Churches, representing more than 580 million
Christians, condemned Russia’s war as well as Kirill’s "misuse of religious language and authority to justify" it. And Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.35 billion Roman Catholics, compared Russia’s slaughter to Germany’s Holocaust and told Patriarch Kirill to stop being “Putin's altar boy".
Patriarch Kirill is also an exceedingly wealthy oligarch and has been sanctioned by several countries for blessing war crimes.
He has been Moscow’s Patriarch since 2009 and controlled Ukrainian as well as Russian Orthodox Churches until 2019 when thousands of Ukrainian churches broke away, a move allowed by the over-arching Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople (Istanbul).
For 300 years, Ukrainians have paid obeisance to a Moscow Patriarch, but in recent years have realized that many of their churches were “Trojan horses” aimed at enhancing Kremlin influence in their country. The schism enraged Kirill and Putin.
Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB operative like most of Putin’s cronies, has been rewarded handsomely for his services.
Forbes Magazine estimated a few years ago that his net worth was $4 billion, but this remains unverified. However, he wears $30,000 watches and owns a private jet, a palatial estate, a yacht, and valuable real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Suspicions are that his fortune was accumulated by skimming profits made by the church in the mid-1990s after it was granted a monopoly to import cigarettes duty-free. He’s also a celebrity with great influence, appears on television regularly, is an oil trader, and a “playboy” who plays the stock markets, races cars, downhill skis, and has a villa in Switzerland.
Britain, Canada and others have sanctioned him for his war-mongering and the European Union attempted to do the same but Putin-friendly Hungary vetoed its attempt. The U.S. has not imposed sanctions on him as yet.
Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul openly condemned the invasion as “unholy and diabolical” and Ukraine’s new Orthodox leader, titled Metropolitan Epiphanius, compared Putin to the Antichrist and Adolf Hitler.
“The spirit of the Antichrist operates in the leader of Russia, the signs of which the Scriptures reveal to us: pride, devotion to evil, ruthlessness, false religiosity. This was Hitler during World War II. This is what Putin has become today.”
Currently, about 8,000 Orthodox parishes in Western Ukraine now adhere to a Kyiv-based Patriarch, but another 12,000, in the Eastern part of the country where fighting is widespread, remain officially attached to Kirill’s Patriarchate.
However, many parishioners have taken the law into their own hands by evicting suspicious or pro-Putin priests. This has placed the Ukrainian government in an awkward position as churches or priests that haven’t distanced themselves from Moscow now demand police protection from angry Ukrainians.
They also ask Kyiv to protect their constitutional right to continue their allegiance to the church of their choice. In several regions, the religious divisions are so perilous that some churches have been closed temporarily. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Dec. 2 edict extends the bans and sanctions to any religious organization with links to Moscow.
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” he said.
Putin’s politicization of religion has also spread to America where, according to a recent NPR report in Appalachia of all places, there’s been an uptick in membership at Russian Orthodox Churches by far-right Americans. “They're drawn to what they believe to be conservative views on things like LGBTQ rights, gender equality. Abortion is a really big issue for these folks, the culture wars issues, really," said an analyst.
"And so they leave other faith traditions that they don't believe to be as stringent about those issues anymore. For many of them, Putin becomes this sort of king-like figure in their narratives. They see themselves as oppressed by democracy because democracy is really diversity. And they look to Putin because democracy isn't really, as we see right now, an option [in Russia].”
But Kirill is reviled by many Orthodox believers even across the Moscow-affiliated church. Hundreds of priests accuse him of preaching “heresy” and have asked global church leaders to bring him before a tribunal to decide whether he should be deposed.
Said one: “Kirill committed moral crimes by blessing the war against Ukraine and fully supporting the aggressive actions of Russian troops on the Ukrainian territory. It is impossible for us to remain in any form of canonical submission to the Patriarch of Moscow.”
Clearly, Kirill’s rhetoric has stoked Putin’s “Holy war” tirades. He has called Ukraine an “inalienable part” of Russia’s “spiritual space.” He denies the legitimacy of the Patriarch in Istanbul as well as the one in Kyiv.
Not surprisingly, he wants to conquer the entire faith and make Moscow the spiritual center of global Orthodoxy.
This month, Pope Francis escalated his condemnation of Russia’s war by aptly comparing his war to the Holodomor tragedy, when Stalin starved to death millions of Ukrainians in its eastern regions in 1932 and 1933 in order to, as is now the case, suppress their aspirations for independence.
And Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the World Council of Churches recently and stated that the Russian Church is encouraging war crimes and no longer represents Christianity’s best values.
“No Christian who still possesses his faith, his mind and feelings will be able to see the will of God in this,” he said.
Reprinted with author’s permission.
Diane Francis Newsletter on America and the World 30-day free trial at https://dianefrancis.substack.com/about
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not those of Kyiv Post.