Religion and the war in Ukraine

Sameh Fawzy
Sunday 3 Apr 2022

The Russian Orthodox Church cannot remain aloof from the war that is raging in Ukraine, since for many it is part of a spiritual and moral confrontation between Russia and the West.

When Communism was at its high in the former Soviet Union, the churches were shuttered or destroyed and their property confiscated by the state. 

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mother had him secretly baptised and gave him a cross to wear. After the fall of Communism, and when Putin became president of the Russian Federation, his country once again embraced the Christian faith. The “pious” president saw in the Russian Orthodox Church a vehicle of the national spirit. 

He restored confiscated property to the Church and built thousands more churches. Russian churches abroad returned to the Moscow Patriarchate. At a press conference in 2007, Putin said that the Orthodox Church protected society’s morals just as nuclear weapons protected national security.

It is little wonder that in 2012 Patriarch of Moscow Kirill I hailed the Putin era as a “miracle of God.” The bishop was born in 1946, just after the Soviet Union emerged victorious from World War II, asserted its hegemony over Eastern Europe, and began to spread its anti-religious influence across the Third World. Six years older than Putin, he is also a native of St Petersburg like the Russian president.

For both men, the Orthodox faith is more than just a religious creed, but it is the foundation of Russian national history. The Russian people feel closely linked to the church. According to a 2015 survey, 71 per cent of respondents said that the Orthodox faith was an essential component of national identity and 57 per cent said that religion played a crucial part in their lives.

The Russian Orthodox Church cannot remain aloof from the war that is raging in Ukraine. It is in something of the same position as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched his genocidal war against the country’s Tigray Region. Fighters on both sides shared the same religious affiliation. 

However, there is a difference. In Ethiopia, the government tried to prevent Ethiopian Patriarch Abune Mathias, who was born in Tigray, from speaking out. Nevertheless, he managed to smuggle out a video in which he harshly condemned the war. Even so, the church in Tigray is still determined to break with the patriarchate in Addis Ababa. 

In Russia, after a period of silence Kirill I addressed the situation in Ukraine. He did not call it a war, instead talking about the “events” or “military operations” his country was involved in. The purpose was not material, but for spiritual ends, he said. It was about “salvation.” He argued that Russia and Ukraine were bound together by shared history and faith and that Ukraine was falling under the influence of Western values that went against Eastern Orthodox ones.

Accordingly, the confrontation was both a military and political one between Russia and the West, as well as a spiritual and moral one.

Kirill’s words met with opposition in some ecclesiastical quarters. The independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is accelerating the schism from Moscow that it began in 2019. A third of Orthodox parishes in the country are now aligned with the independent church, which has been officially recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, a position that holds a place of honour in Eastern Orthodoxy. 

For some years, Bartholomew and Kirill have been at odds over this recognition, as if history were once again playing one of its tricks. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in the 15th century, the Russian Orthodox Church cast itself as the successor to the Constantinople Patriarchate and the Mother Church of all the Eastern Orthodox. 

Today, history has once again turned its spotlight on Constantinople, which has officially recognised churches that have broken away from the Russian Patriarchate. Another example is the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, which broke away from Moscow following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Other Eastern Churches outside of Russia are likely to follow.

In Ukraine, there are still parishes affiliated with Moscow, but they have nevertheless voiced their opposition to the Russian intervention in their country. Some Orthodox priests in north-eastern Ukraine where Russian influence is strong share this view as do some church officials in Russia.

It appears that the controversies on religion and the war in Ukraine will continue. Just as a reminder to the reader, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, affiliated to the See of St Mark, has its own doctrinal and institutional order and its own distinct identity and character. It is therefore not a party to the developments mentioned above.

* The writer is head of the Media and Communication Sector at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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