MOSCOW: On March 16, Pope Francis held a video meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the 75-year-old leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin.
The head of the Catholic Church warned the Russian patriarch against hiding behind religion to justify armed aggression and conquest.
Ten days earlier, in a sermon, Patriarch Kirill appeared to endorse Moscow’s so-called “special peacekeeping operation,” as the war on Ukraine is officially called in Russia.
“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” the patriarch said.
He referred to gay pride marches as an example of what outsiders were trying to force on the people of Donbas in eastern Ukraine, on whose behalf Moscow was ostensibly intervening.
“He expressed his view that behind the war in Ukraine there is a spiritual difference between the West and the Orthodox world, and it is obvious that for him, the latter is the better,” Thomas Bremer, who teaches Eastern Churches Studies at the University of Münster in Germany, told Al Jazeera.
“So according to him, the war is not about political aims or influence, but about spiritual, or, as he put it, ‘metaphysical’ aims. Thus, he gives the official Russian point of view a theological underpinning.”
Putin and the patriarch enjoy close ties, with Patriarch Kirill describing Putin’s 2012 election victory as a “miracle of God”.
And as Putin sees Ukraine as part of the “Russian world”, so Patriarch Kirill claims dominion over the churches in Ukraine and Belarus but despite their shared origins in 10th century Kievan Rus’, when Byzantine missionaries converted the pagan Prince Vladimir, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018.
Disappointed, Moscow then cut its ties with the Istanbul-based Eastern Orthodox Church, which backed the independence of the Ukrainian clergy.
“Today, the real schism seems to be between the Russian Orthodox Church and its (remaining) branch in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” said Bremer.
And as the war continues, more figures of the Russian Orthodox Church are becoming frustrated with Patriarch Kirill, signaling a deepening split.
Nearly 300 priests and deacons, including military veterans, recently signed an open letter titled Russian Priests for Peace.
“We respect the God-given freedom of man, and we believe that the people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” the letter reads. (Int’l News Desk)