The Russian religious leader providing ‘spiritual cover’ for Vladimir Putin’s war

Patriarch Kirill I facing EU sanctions over support for Ukraine invasion

Patriarch Kirill I
(Image credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

The EU is threatening to add the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to the ranks of Kremlin-linked military officers and tycoons sanctioned for supporting the Ukraine invasion.

Patriarch Kirill I has previously worked with Pope Francis to “bridge a 1,000-year-old schism” between Christian churches in the East and West, said The New York Times (NYT). But the Russian religious leader to “​​about 100 million faithful” has now “staked the fortunes” of his sect of Orthodox Christianity on a “mutually beneficial alliance” with Vladimir Putin.

Kirill is offering the Russian president “spiritual cover” for the war, while “his church – and possibly he himself – receives vast resources in return from the Kremlin”, the paper reported.

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God’s representative

Kirill’s support for Putin predates the decision to invade the neighbouring eastern European country. The religious leader – born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev – has described Putin’s rule as “a miracle of God”.

The Russian president, in turn, has claimed that the patriarch’s father, who worked as priest in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), “baptised him in secret in 1952”, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Kirill also has a long track record of intervening in Russian foreign relations. In 2008, while on a tour of Latin America, he met with Fidel Castro in Cuba and accepted the then communist leader’s thanks for being an ally in combating “American imperialism”.

Kirill also “heartily congratulated” Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Putin – for winning the Belarusian presidency in 2010, despite widespread claims of vote manipulation.

But the patriarch has not seen eye-to-eye with the Kremlin on all issues. According to the Financial Times, Kirill was “keenly aware that Putin’s actions severely undermined his authority in Ukraine” following the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The Russian Orthodox Church “refused to absorb Crimea’s parishes” in protest at the move, said the paper, and Kirill “boycotted a ceremony in the Kremlin” organised to “celebrate” the hostile takeover of the peninsula.

However, the current conflict in Ukraine has triggered no such concerns from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Instead, Kirill has “characterised the war as a just defence against liberal conspiracies”, the NYT said.

“All of our people today must wake up, understand that a special time has come on which the historical fate of our people may depend,” he said in an April sermon. In another sermon, Kirill told soldiers that “we have been raised throughout our history to love our fatherland, and we will be ready to protect it, as only Russians can defend their country”.

To his critics, the religious leader has come to represent another “apparatchik” who helps enable “the nationalist ideology at the heart of the Kremlin’s expansionist designs”, the paper reported. And “his role is so important” that EU officials are planning to take direct action against him.

Sanctioning the church

According to Reuters, the patriarch has been added to a “draft blacklist” that includes “hundreds of military officers and businessmen close to the Kremlin whom the EU accuses of supporting the war in Ukraine”. A diplomat told the news agency that the sanctions against Kirill would probably “entail an asset freeze and a travel ban”.

That he appeared alongside Putin at this year’s Victory Day in Moscow, on 9 May, will have heightened the EU’s awareness of Kirill’s role in selling the war at home. At a wreath-laying ceremony the day before, he had said that “we must all work to ensure that our Fatherland becomes strong and invincible”, the Church Times reported.

“The prosperous, comfortable situation in which we live today often contributes to relaxing a person’s will and a dependence on certain life conditions,” Kirill continued. “At such a time, our Church and armed forces must work especially together to instil in the people a sense of patriotism, loyalty to ideals and readiness to defend the Fatherland.”

His comments came after the Russian Orthodox Church scolded Pope Francis for telling Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that the Church risked becoming “Putin’s alter boy”.

“Pope Francis chose an incorrect tone,” the Moscow Patriarchy said, warning that his intervention was “unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches”.

Clash of civilisations

If Russia’s invasion has sometimes seemed to have the “intractable intensity of a religious war”, said columnist David Ignatius in The Washington Post, “that’s partly because it is entwined with one”.

Many in the West consider Putin to be “a secular, autocratic leader”. But the Russian president “is also an Orthodox believer, who wears the cross his mother secretly gave him as a baby in Soviet times”.

And Kirill has “been his ally in rallying the Russian people to invade and conquer a neighbouring Slavic country”, Ignatius continued. “To Putin and his patriarch, it seems, this is about reestablishing order among the rebellious faithful.”

Foreign Policy columnist Janine di Giovanni agreed that Putin’s “geopolitical ambitions are closely entwined with faith”. The endorsement of his religious ally is vital, because the invasion has been framed as a “holy war for Russia”.

Sanctioning Kirill would be an “extraordinary measure against a religious leader”, the NYT said. The “closest antecedent” may be “the sanctions the United States levelled against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”.

Taking similar measures against Kirill is “​​likely to be seen within Russia and its church as merely further evidence of hostility from the Godless West”, the paper added.

But to Kirill’s critics, the sanctions would represent an explicit acknowledgement that he has turned Russia’s state religion into a “corrupted spiritual branch of an authoritarian state”.

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