This month in Russia, Kirill, a powerful bishop who has been the patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, came out once again in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s killing machine in Ukraine. Kirill’s view is that God is on Russia’s side, even as Putin’s forces bomb maternity hospitals and the bodies of mutilated men, women, and children are discovered in Ukrainian towns recently occupied by Russian troops, such as Bucha.
In many ways, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has become a holy war for Russia. His geopolitical ambitions are closely entwined with faith: Like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Putin has woven nationalism, faith, conservative values, and the restoration of the Russky mir (“Russian world”). And he has enlisted Kirill as his wingman, who shares his homophobic views. Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, calls Putin’s anti-LGBT rants “state-sponsored homophobia” used to control Russia and says, “Regulating gender and sexuality remains at the forefront of Russia’s domestic and international political agendas”.
Kirill’s latest warmongering comes at a holy time in the Julian calendar: Orthodox Easter. Indeed, this past Sunday was Ukrainian Easter, known as Velykden (“Great Day”) in Ukraine, an important holiday that celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection. For many, it is a day that commemorates rebirth. Around 70 percent of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christian.
But this year, it was far from the joyous celebration it usually is with pysanka—traditional painted eggs—and paska—Easter bread. Instead, the holiday was steeped in misery as Russia continues to wage its brutal offensive in Ukraine, and nearly 7.7 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes. Despite that, some made great efforts to come out and have their baskets of produce and eggs blessed by priests: a semblance of normality in the midst of terrible disorder and chaos.
Russia may be having a news blackout, but Kirill knows exactly what is happening in Mariupol and Kharkiv, Ukraine.
At the heart of Kirill’s support for the war is homophobia. On Forgiveness Sunday—March 6—he delivered a sermon, where he implied that the West had been engaging in “the suppression and extermination of people in the Donbas” for years because “in the Donbas, there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power”. Specifically, he said, the people of the Donbas had refused to hold gay pride parades; and thus, the West was trying to destroy them.
On a day of profound reverence when people are meant to pray for forgiveness, Kirill stoked the flames of hatred. He said there can’t be “forgiveness without justice”. Otherwise, it’s a capitulation and weakness. He also referred to divine justice, stating that “by our forgiveness, we commit our offenders into the hands of God, so that both judgment and God’s mercy may be performed on them. So that our Christian attitude towards human sins, delusions, and insults would not be the cause of their death, but that the just judgment of God would be carried out on everyone”.
But the current war in Ukraine is not the first time Kirill has condoned bloodshed. He also saw Putin’s destruction of Syrian cities such as Aleppo, when Russia entered the Syrian war, in Crusader terms: as a fight against infidels.
“The fight with terrorism is a holy battle, and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it”, one of his spokespeople said in 2015 as Aleppo writhed in agony from Russian bombs. Then, as now, photos of Orthodox priests blessing missiles and planes that would destroy people’s homes and crush lives circulated widely.
Not everyone in the church agrees with Kirill’s identification of Putin. Pope Francis canceled his June meeting with Kirill, which was meant to happen in Lebanon. European human rights activists Willy Fautre and Patricia Duval of Human Rights Without Frontiers have accused Kirill of “inciting aggression and crimes against humanity by his outspoken support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”. They are urging his indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The appeal from Human Rights Without Frontiers calls for actions “to hold personally accountable and prosecute Vladimir Mikailovitch Goundiaiev, known as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, for inspiring, inciting, justifying, aiding and abetting war crimes (Art. 8 of the Rome Statute) and crimes against humanity (Art. 7) perpetrated and being perpetrated by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine”. It is doubtful Kirill will ever see The Hague; Russia (like the United States) is not a member of the ICC. But the symbolism of it will sting a man who is meant to have a moral core.
Some priests have stopped mentioning Kirill’s name. Seminary students in France petitioned their bishop to break with the Moscow Patriarchate. Others have questioned the legitimacy of a church that would bless soldiers who are trying to kill others. Orthodoxy doesn’t support war or violence, said Bartholomew I, archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch. And hundreds of Russian Orthodox clerics signed a letter calling for a halt to the war. “The life of every person is a priceless and unique gift of God, and therefore we wish the return of all soldiers—both Russian and Ukrainian—to their homes and families safe and sound”, the letter reads.
Such opposition from his co-religionists suggests Kirill’s support of Putin is less an ideology of the church and more an ideology of the state—specifically, Putin’s state.
We’ve seen this before: During the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbian Orthodox bishops would also conflate faith with war. One of the worst instances was their blessing of the troops of the late Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, a brutal paramilitary leader and mass executioner of Muslims during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. Arkan led his men, the Tigers, into bloodthirsty pillages, burning villages and murdering civilians who begged for their lives in eastern Bosnia and later in Kosovo.
In a recent white paper for the Robert Lansing Institute, analyst Arbesa Hoxha-Dobrunaj pointed out that the Serbian Orthodox Church “have never spoken about their role in the bloody wars in former Yugoslavia inciting hate and violence”.
Likewise, the Catholic Church in Rwanda has been accused by some theologians, including Boston University professor Timothy Longman, of having supported the genocide to secure its own power in Rwanda. His book, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, is widely considered to be the authoritative source for understanding the church’s involvement in the terrible dark days in the spring of 1994, when 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered.
Even Pope Francis, an Argentinian who came of age during that country’s brutal Dirty War, has been accused of having a “cloudy past” during Argentina’s anti-communist terror four decades ago and for his and the church’s complicit silence. Although, as the Guardian notes, evidence of his involvement is “sketchy and contested”. But since the Russian invasion, the pope has taken a stand and openly called for the bloodshed in Ukraine to end. He has not named Putin specifically, but he has used terms such as “unjustified aggression” and has lamented atrocities against civilians, saying “rivers of blood and tears are flowing” in Ukraine.
In researching my last book about Christian minorities in the Middle East, The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, I found an unsettling paradigm. The minorities I studied—Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriac Christians—preached and prayed the Gospels of love and compassion. Yet, they often backed murderous dictators in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Gaza—mostly in exchange for protection and security.
There were no clear empirical studies verifying this. But in the dozens of interviews I did with Christian leaders, I found their motive was fear. This was about good versus evil, I was told: the classic Manichean duality. Wasn’t it better to have former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on your side rather than face an unknown quantity, such as the Islamic State or al-Nusra? This was the argument that I encountered, told with authority by priests who placed their trust in men with blood on their hands.
Perhaps the lesson here is that faith-based leaders should not use their role of influence to condone murderous regimes. The Orthodox Church was a dominant force in Russian life until the 1917 Russian Revolution and regained influence in the late 1980s during glasnost. There was a new interest in spiritual and biblical matters. Today, ritual and faith still play important roles in daily life. The thousand-year history of the church is embedded in Russia and beyond: Membership is estimated at more than 90 million souls.
Although each of the Orthodox Church’s 15 branches are more or less sovereign—for instance, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church is separate from the Serbian or Greek Orthodox Church—most look to the Moscow Patriarchate in the way Roman Catholics look to the Vatican.
As such, Kirill could have used his influential position to call for a cease-fire over Easter, for instance. Indeed, Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, asked Kirill specifically to intervene and call “for a cease-fire for at least few hours during the Resurrection service”. A few hours after Sauca’s request, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for a “humanitarian pause” to coincide with Orthodox Easter.
In early March, Sauca had pleaded with Kirill to “raise up your voice” to speak on behalf of Ukraine’s suffering civilians. His pleas have been met with silence.
Janine di Giovanni is an FP global affairs columnist and director of a U.S. aid-sponsored project recording war crimes in Ukraine called Enabling Witnesses. Her latest book, The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, is about Christians in the Middle East.