Russia's war in Ukraine is also something of a holy war. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has long been a key ideological ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and at least tacit supporter of his military adventures. But his public support for Putin's bloody war in Ukraine has proved too much for many Orthodox Christians, especially the Ukrainians who fall under the authority of Kirill's Moscow Patriarchate.
Ukraine's Orthodox Christians were under the episcopal authority of Moscow from 1686 until 2019, when Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople — the first among equals of the 15 Eastern Orthodox patriarchs — granted Kyiv's request for independence. "More than half Ukraine's parishes rejected the decision and stayed under Moscow's jurisdiction," The New York Times reports, but Putin's invasion — and Kirill's support for it — changed that.
About half of Ukraine's 45 Orthodox dioceses have stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill during prayers, a "de facto" cleaving from Moscow's authority, according to Russian religious scholar Sergei Chapnin at Fordham University. "How can you accept prayers for the patriarch who is blessing the soldiers trying to kill your son?" asked Andreas Loudaros, editor of Athens-based Orthodoxia.info.
Hundreds of Ukrainian Orthodox clergy have signed a petition from Archpriest Andriy Pinchuk accusing Kirill of committing "moral crimes by blessing the war against Ukraine" and asking global Orthodox leaders to sanction their Russian colleague for "heresy" in a rare church tribunal.
"By all accounts, a serious cleavage in the church appears inevitable, but the course of the war will determine its depth and the scar tissue left behind," the Times reports. And the rending isn't just in Ukraine.
Russian Orthodox–aligned churches in Northern Italy and Amsterdam have formally severed ties to the Moscow Patriarchate, many U.S. parishioners are switching churches, and Orthodox seminarians in France asked their bishop to break with Kirill. Orthodox priests in Russia have been fined or fired for criticizing the war.
The head of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania, Metropolitan Innokenty, "strongly" condemned "Russia's war against Ukraine," called for "greater church independence" from Moscow, and called Patriarch Kirill's "political statements about the war" his "personal opinion."
Kirill "should not have identified so much with President Putin and even called Russia's war against Ukraine 'sacred,'" Patriarch Bartholomew recently told a group of students. "It is damaging to the prestige of the whole of Orthodoxy because Orthodoxy doesn't support war, violence, terrorism," he told reporters.