The Russian Orthodox Church: How much longer will it exist in Ukraine?

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Russia uses religion as a powerful propaganda tool. The Russian Orthodox Church is under the full patronage of the aggressor state. It is an institution for the patriotic education of both civilians and military personnel. So the concepts of “great homeland” and “holy war” are even more deeply rooted in the consciousness of everyday Russians.

On March 29th, the Verkhovna Rada registered a bill banning the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Ukraine. If the bill is adopted, the church property will become nationalized. Organizations of the Moscow Patriarchate are given the opportunity to change their subordination within 14 days from the date of the entry into force of the law.

The Russian Church and Army

Russia’s secularism is a myth. The cooperation between the church and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation began in the 1990s and continues up to the present day. The alliance has been concluded officially, as seen in example 1, example 2, example 3).

Laicity, irreligion. A secular society has the following characteristics: the liberation of various spheres of public life from the control of religious organizations; and the separation of the church from public and state institutions.

Over the course of this time, the religiosity of the Russian military has become synonymous with patriotism. The Russian clergy publicly calls for performing military service in order to protect the “sacred borders of the state”. These appeals are classic pro-Kremlin propaganda, tailored for the religious sphere. During sermons, the ROC priests propagate the ideas of spiritual kinship of Ukrainians and Russians, common history, and the need for territorial reunification of both countries in the pursuit of historical justice.

The Russian Orthodox Church operates under a state protectorate. The construction of temples on the territory of military units and the holding of regular collective worship for the military is something that the Russian church systematically engages in. Still, everyone turns a blind eye to the fact that such actions are a direct violation of the laws of the Russian Federation “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” and “On the Status of Military Personnel.”

The ROC’s servants consecrate weapons (even nuclear ones), military facilities, and combat installations. They also influence the recruitment of troops and personnel selection. Faculties of Orthodox culture have been opened in some universities that train servicemen. Since 1994, the ROC has been seeking the creation of military clergy.

Due to this, the ROC is a Russian-legalized institution for the education of a patriotic society that systematically conveys messages about the “brotherly nations” and the need for Russian reunification around the world. Their religious monopoly oppresses other faiths and fosters intolerance towards them.

Moscow’s Patriarch of War

Patriarch Kirill is the Primate of the ROC and the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. It is significant to point out that in Russia he is titled “the Patriarch of all Rus'” (not all “Russia”).

The head of the ROC does not recognize Russia’s responsibility in this full-scale war. In his letter to the Reverend Ioan Sauca, the acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Kirill writes about “the dramatic events in Ukraine” and lays the blame on NATO. According to Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine was used by other states that had pumped up their weapons and military instructors in the country. He also claims that Ukrainians have been re-educated as enemies of Russia. In his public speeches, Patriarch Kirill supports pro-Kremlin narratives about the population of the LPR and DPR (Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics) who suffer from Nazis and Banderites.

After several dioceses of the UOC-MP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate) refused to mention Patriarch Kirill in their prayers, he said their decision was a sign of weakness, which, however, hadn’t offended him.

It’s worth mentioning that the ROC website has a separate “Church and Army” section with a series of videos with Patriarch Kirill. Even after a brief analysis, it is obvious that the Russian church and military apparatus are in sync, and that they spread the same chauvinistic narratives and level the rule of law in their own country.

The Temple of the Armed Forces

The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces is a church that breaks the usual perception of religious architecture. This is a museum and temple complex located on the territory of the Military-Patriotic Park of Culture and Recreation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. It was erected in a year and a half and was consecrated as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Yet, the mere sight of the temple is evidence of Russia’s imperial and occupational ambitions. The architectural particularities of the temple, its exterior and interior decorations are based on the historical past of the Great Patriotic War. Certain details quite literally contain the military trophies of that war. For instance, both the stairs and the iron slabs on the floor are made of melted tracks from German tanks.

The construction was initiated by Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defense Minister since 2012. The religious-and-military project was created at the expense of the government and charitable donations from Russians.

Angels, saints, tanks, planes, cannons, and soldiers—all these images are juxtaposed on the mosaics of the temple. Stained-glass windows depict the highest state and military awards in the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is still nostalgic for the USSR, so its symbols are omnipresent. According to Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, the museum complex even houses parts of Hitler’s uniform.

The temple was supposed to be decorated with mosaics depicting Putin, Stalin, and Shoigu, as well as segments about the occupation of Crimea.

This church was consecrated by Patriarch Kirill himself.

Russia’s network of church agents in Ukraine

The Russian church has spent years on the creation of its own network of agents in Ukraine. Part of the ROC in Ukraine is called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) or the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (ROCU). In the media, the name of the UOC-MP is most often used to distinguish it from other churches, in particular the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Although its primates still insist on the name “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” (UOC).

In 2019, the Supreme Court of Ukraine allowed the UOC-MP to retain this name.

The UOC-MP still has significant influence because, for a long time, the number of its parishes significantly outnumbered the UOC-KP and other churches. However, these two churches are intrinsically different. If the former preaches about the “common baptismal font” of Russians and Ukrainians and the need for final unification, the latter supports the sovereignty of Ukraine. Simply put, the ROC is an anti-European politicized institution that influences the UOC-MP. That is why the Russian church is so opposed to the autonomy of the Ukrainian church. In 2018, after the Orthodox Church of Ukraine received the Tomos, the Russian Orthodox Church broke off Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It was the most radical response one could expect.

The church structure or creed may be decreed by the synod and/or the head of the local Orthodox Church. Granting the Tomos most often means recognizing the autocephaly of the new local church; that is, independence from other Orthodox churches, but canonically united with them.

The ROC, by influencing the UOC-MP, uses the latent influence of “soft power”. It is hard to counter, because worshippers have an unshakeable trust in the clergy, who, in their understanding, represent the best of human traits.

The clergy of the UOC-MP are a perfect embodiment of Russia’s military attitudes. Even at the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbas, the ROC claimed that its mission was aimed at peacekeeping. But the truth is that its numerous representatives supported the war both ideologically (in their sermons) and financially (through the allocation of various resources). In Ukraine, priests of the UOC-MP also have a long track record of rather ungodly deeds.

For instance, Oleksandr Kanevskyi published the “Parents’ Committee” newspaper, where he promoted anti-Ukrainian propaganda intermingled with educational content. If separatism wasn’t enough, he was also caught in the debauchery. Apparently, the Russian sacral love of weapons was also passed on to the UOC-MP’s servants: Ukrainian law enforcement officers detained some of them both for the self-made production and for unauthorized trade.

Russia’s network of church agents was also active during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The saboteur priest, Onufriy, and the archpriest, Mykhail, are the most striking among the detained. During the apprehension, Mykhail had tried to bluff it out by claiming that he was “born and raised in Zhytomyr”. The poor grasp of Ukrainian had played a cruel joke on the archpriest, who inadvertently had called himself the “freak of Zhytomyr”. When asked by journalists who is responsible for this war, the clergy of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra remained silent, clearly avoiding any discussions on this topic.

It seems that the ROC’s motto is “There is nothing sacred, only Russia”. After all, how else can be explained the shooting of the OCU’s chaplain, Maxym Kozachyna, by the Russian military? Or the detention in the Kostroma region (territory of the Russian Federation) of Russian priest Ioan Burdin, who publicly expressed his anti-war sentiment and acknowledged the fact that Russia started the war in Ukraine? As this was happening, Russian troops were destroying Ukrainian Orthodox churches. They still do.

Built in 1862, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin is located in the village of Vyazivka in the Zhytomyr region (Polissia). It was cynically destroyed by Russian invaders.

The joint reaction of the Ukrainian church community to this is to lose all ties with the ROC completely. The Kyiv priests of the UOC-MP have already appealed to Metropolitan Onufriy with a request to convene a council of the UOC in order to withdraw from the Moscow Patriarchate. At this time, dozens of communities and monasteries across Ukraine have already left the Moscow Patriarchate and joined the Orthodox Church. Currently, 63% of Ukrainians support the idea of severing relations with the ROC.

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is not limited to Ukraine. The Moscow diocese is also present in countries like Romania, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, etc. However, even ten years ago, they showed a tendency to resist the influence of the ROC (in particular, through the reconciliation of Orthodox and Catholic churches).

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