‘Far from harmless’: Patriarch Kirill backs Putin’s war, but at what cost? | News of war between Russia and Ukraine

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The letter Z, a Kremlin-approved symbol of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, is on the shoulder of a masked, uniformed, gun-toting soldier.

Jesus Christ, weak and unattacked, is represented directly behind him.

Both are shown on the billboard that says “Christ conquered hell, and so will Russia”. This statue is part of an outdoor art exhibition in central Moscow that Russian men are invited to enter.

Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the world’s largest Orthodox Christian Church whose position extends beyond Russia’s borders to believers in former Soviet republics and diasporas, has “right ” to defend the Kremlin to start the war.

“Russia has the right to stand on the side of light, on the side of God’s truth”, he said days after the attack began in February 2022.

The 78-year-old white-bearded man known for his cheerfulness and business acumen promised eternal salvation to Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine against Western “corruption” values.

“[The West’s] The aim was to take us with bare hands, without any war, to deceive us, to make us part of their world, to inoculate us with their values,” Kirill said in April last year

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Russian Patriarch Kirill arrive to lay flowers at the Minin and Pozharsky monument on Red Square near the Kremlin, marking National Unity Day in Moscow Russia 4 November, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Russian Patriarch Kirill arrive to lay flowers at the Minin and Pozharsky monument on Red Square near the Kremlin, marking National Unity Day in Moscow, Russia , November 4, 2017 [Alexander Nemenov/Pool via Reuters]

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), supported by Kirill since 2009, has tens of thousands of parishes in Russia and elsewhere, from California to Kazakhstan to Kyiv in Ukraine.

Ukraine was the ROC’s second largest “canonical region” with around 12,000 church communities – and is still very important to one of the ideological pillars of Russian statehood.

A thousand years ago, Orthodox priests from Constantinople were baptizing Prince Vladimir, whose state, Kyivan Rus, was to become the dominant clan in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Once nicknamed “the Second Rome”, Constantinople fell to the Turks, and the Russian czars called Moscow “the Third Rome”.

The political and canonical defeat of Ukraine, the heart of Kyivan Rus, destroys the concept.

Today’s ROC is the largest of the 16 Orthodox in the world and claims 100 million Russians as its flock – although experts say the real figure is much lower.

It is also the richest Orthodox Church in the world which receives several million in state subsidies, and donations from businessmen and believers, and which runs hundreds of tax-free businesses such as publishing houses, hotels and jewelery stores.

Kirill is no stranger to luxury. Once seen wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch, he travels with a private jet and a custom-made bulletproof limousine protected by paid Kremlin security.

The Kremlin zealously persecutes any “rival” Christian denominations – making the ROC a sort of moral police that sanctifies the persecution of ideological and political enemies.

The Kremlin needs the ROC for ideological support, said the exiled opposition activist Sergey Biziyukin, and gives him benefits such as real estate, state money and “the opportunity to keep competitors on a short leash”.

But Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russian expert and member of the University of Bremen in Germany, told Al Jazeera that the ROC’s involvement in the war means it is “facing the ‘universal character’ and lose his position, and reduce his limits to limits [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s political empire”.

In a detailed report, Mitrokhin concluded that the support of Putin’s war “directly leads to an increase in the short-term position of Kirill and affects the majority of autonomous churches”.

Kirill ordered some 20,000 clerics from the Baltics to the Pacific to deliver a prayer “for peace” – and urged their parishioners to protest any sermon they deemed objectionable of Ukraine.

Father Andrey Kordochkin suffered one such complaint.

The Oxford-educated theologian spent two decades serving his parish in the capital of Spain, Madrid.

The white-walled, gold-roofed Church of St. Mary of Magdalene, which he oversaw, was sponsored by the dynasty of the Romanov czars who succeeded the dynasty of Kyivan Prince Vladimir.

But Kordochkin’s flock was mainly made up of Ukrainian labor migrants who prayed alongside believers from Georgia, Moldova and Bulgaria.

Few of his parishioners took part in an online campaign against him that culminated in a petition to Kirill in November that protested that Kordochkin had declared war and said that the symbol Z stands for “zombie”.

The 46-year-old priest left his parish and the jurisdiction of the ROC for the Istanbul-based Constantinople Patriarchate and moved to Germany to resume theological studies.

But he is still bitter about what happened to his parish – and Orthodoxy in Russia.

Kordochkin believes that Kirill and Putin have offended a “god of war” that has little to do with the message of Christianity.

“He is far from harmless, this god wants human sacrifices, and the problem is that he never gets enough,” Kordochkin told Al Jazeera.

He was one of almost 300 Russian clerics who signed an antiwar petition in March 2022. Almost all of them have been persecuted, and other antiwar priests are in a precarious situation due to large families and no jobs secular to fall back on.

“I would be out in the cold with my whole family without a job and a place to live,” said a dissident priest, who lives in Russia, but did not sign the petition. He withheld his last name and exact location, fearing for his safety.

‘Orthodox Taliban’

After the officially atheist USSR collapsed in 1991, tens of millions of Russians embraced the Orthodox faith of their ancestors.

“This was a time of great excitement, much anticipated. Many people were spiritually reborn at that time,” Kordochkin recalled.

But after Putin came to power in 2000, the ROC gradually shifted towards his party line and turned a blind eye to unpopular measures such as abolishing benefits for the elderly, the group most of believers.

Its clergy dedicated nuclear missiles saying they were Russia’s “guardian angels”, and blessed the persecution of dissidents.

They criticized same-sex marriage, abortion, sex education and HIV prevention programs that withheld Russian funding.

“They have devolved into the Orthodox Taliban,” Father Gleb Yakunin, who spent five years in Soviet prisons for documenting the persecution of believers, told this reporter in 2012 .

In 1991, Yakunin led a parliamentary commission that published documents listing the future Patriarch Kirill and other hierarchs as KGB informants.

The Church destroyed and excommunicated Yakunin, and unknown assailants beat him several times.

Putin “independently explains spiritual matters while the Church acts as a translator”, he said.

Falling out with the Pope

However, experts say that subsidy and bell are already demolishing the position of the ROC in former Soviet republics and among Russian diasporas around the world.

Kirill’s war was not accepted by the Holy Synod, the ROC’s designated governing body which is made up of the Russian hierarchy and leaders of autonomous but not independent churches in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Central Asia.

Only Belarusian Metropolitan Veniamin said in August 2022 that the West “supports today’s Nazi regime” in Ukraine.

The Holy Synod was not short of denying Kiriil’s misery – while other Orthodox saw, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople, lambasting him.

Back in 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, approved the establishment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Kirill.

The “elder” Ukrainian Church retained most of its parishes but severed ties with the ROC in May 2022.

The Latvian and Lithuanian Churches followed suit.

Kirill even fell out with Pope Francis after he tried to convince him that the war was “just”.

“I spoke with Kirill for 40 minutes on Zoom. For the first 20 minutes, he read from a piece of paper that he was holding in his hand all the reasons that justify the Russian attack,” Pope Francis told an Italian newspaper in March 2022.

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