Vladimir Putin also splits the Orthodox church: Kirill between two fires


The tragedy of the Ukrainian war is causing a deep rift in the Orthodox Church. At the center of all the contradictions is Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias, who finds himself between two fires: on the one hand the Russian president, on the other the Orthodox brothers. If he stands still, the Russian religious leader risks seeing the Church halved and the very role of the Patriarchate downgraded. If he moves, he breaks down the ideology that he has patiently built for a lifetime. Yet the Metropolitan of his Church in Ukraine, Onufryj, asks him to stop Putin, the faithful have stopped commemorating his name during religious services, and, outside orthodoxy, many Christian leaders, starting with Pope Francis, are putting pressure on to openly take sides against war. But Kirill, explains in this interview to askanews Don Stefano Caprio, one of the leading experts on the Church and Russia, cannot.

‘Kirill is in a difficult position’, says the priest, a professor of Russian culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. ‘He On the one hand he is Putin’s inspirer, on the other he is personally opposed to the invasion of Ukraine, but he can’t tell him too much to his face.’ Don Caprio explains: ‘It is Kirill who suggested to Putin a conception of Russia as a country called to defend the true faith, orthodoxy, in the secularized world, the call to the common Russian land, to common baptism with the Ukrainians and with everything. the Russian world that lies outside the Russian borders, in particular that which was the Soviet Union. In 2000 – recalls the priest who was a missionary in Moscow in those crucial years – the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church approved a document on the social doctrine of the Church which was already the political program that Putin then implemented. The basic idea is that the Church supports the State because the State must be based on the principles indicated by the Church, following the ideology of an anti-Western sovereignty ‘.

‘Now, being Kirill the inspirer of Putin it is difficult to tell Putin what Putin believes he is putting into practice Kirill’s teachings’, explains Don Caprio.

Of course, ‘Putin carried out that program but then moved to more extreme, more radical positions’, continues the Oriental professor, yet’ for Kirill it is impossible to openly criticize Putin. In Russia they would not be able to understand an opposition between Kirill and Putin. If Kirill broke away from Putin, he would bring down the whole castle, the whole Russian Orthodox ideology would be in crisis. Furthermore, if he questioned the sanctity of Putin’s power it would make life difficult for the Russian Orthodox, he would create a huge internal tension in Russia by questioning ‘.

This dynamic had already taken place with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, to which Kirill was against. ‘The patriarch shares the idea that Russia must be able to bring together the whole Russian world, especially the sister countries linked by baptism, but he does not think that this should be done by force, by imposing itself’, explains Don Caprio. ‘So much so that Kirill did not participate in the annexation ceremony and at the ecclesiastical level he left the local Church to answer to the patriarchate of Kiev’.

Now the situation returns, for the worse, in Ukraine. ‘By losing Ukraine, Russia would lose a very substantial part of its own Church. In Russia too, the majority of Russian priests are Ukrainians, many of the faithful are Ukrainians. Ukraine is the faithful land par excellence, the Orthodox land. In the Orthodox world, out of 15 autocephalous churches the Russian Church has 60/70 percent of the faithful, if it lost Ukraine it would become much less than half of what it is now, and with this it would also lose universal primacy in orthodoxy. Before the Russian aggression in Ukraine Kirill used to go to Ukraine two or three times a year, now he doesn’t go there anymore. Today, with this aggression, the Ukrainian Orthodox of the patriarchate of Moscow no longer recognize themselves in the patriarch, many dioceses are ceasing to commemorate him in the liturgy. The faithful who go to mass are uncomfortable ‘.

In Ukraine there are two Orthodox Churches: one recognized by the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, appreciated by the Ukrainian government, and led by Metropolitan Epifanyj, the other, loyal to the Patriarchate of Moscow, is led by Metropolitan Onufryi. Which in a sense can afford to be quite free. He has never betrayed the patriarchate of Moscow, he has always been faithful, and even when the Ukrainian Orthodox threw themselves on autocephaly, recognized by the patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, he did not give in. But in the 1990s he had himself asked for autocephaly, and has always defended the idea of ​​independence. He has never been a puppet of the patriarch, he is a true bishop who has always tried not to exasperate the tones’. And, today, he addressed Vladimir Putin directly at the end of a religious service: ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, do everything to end the war on Ukrainian soil!’.

A position that Kirill cannot follow also due to a problem within the Russian Orthodox Church. ‘He is personally a very enlightened Orthodox, even pro-Western. As patriarch he has taken a more radical position than that of his youth, also because in this way he is able to keep together a Church that has very radical sectors, for example among the monks, who otherwise would turn against him ‘.

Kirill’s stalemate also spreads over relations with Pope Francis, who, without openly lashing out against Russia, strongly criticizes the military intervention. The patriarch received the apostolic nuncio to the Russian Federation, Msgr. Giovanni D’Agnello. On the one hand, reads a statement from the patriarchate itself, Kirill praised the pope, who ‘makes an important contribution to the creation of peace and justice among peoples’. On the other hand, ‘it is very important – he said – that the Christian Churches, including our Churches, voluntarily or involuntarily, sometimes without any will, do not participate in those complex and contradictory trends that are present today on the world agenda. ‘. Maximum commitment, without even mentioning Ukraine: ‘We are trying to take a pacifying position, even in the face of existing conflicts’.

An ’embarrassment’, notes Don Caprio, also shared by the Catholic side. ‘The nuncio does everything to support Kirill, but he cannot fail to echo Pope Francis’ condemnation of the war’, explains Don Caprio. In reality, the pope himself ‘has never taken a clear stance on Ukraine. In 2016 when in Havana he met Kirill for the first time in history they talked about Ukraine. Some time later the pope scolded the Ukrainians who quarreled among themselves, said nothing about Russia, and the Greek Catholics took it out. Today the pope has great importance in terms of moral influence, but he too does not know how to do it ‘. Today, ‘by condemning Putin and Russia we end up being forced to condemn Kirill, with whom instead we try to have fraternal relations’. Yet another almost impossible puzzle to solve.

Leaving aside the destinies of both Kirill and Putin, which are very much at risk, Don Caprio tries to imagine a future for Ukraine. ‘The best solution would be neutrality on a political, military and even ecclesiastical level’, says the priest, who notes that ‘all the nuances of Orthodox jurisdiction are at stake in Ukraine’.

To understand this consideration, a little history is needed. ‘In 1589 after the death of Ivan the terrible, his successor decided to give the Church the status of a national patriarchate’, explains the professor of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. ‘It was a great ecclesiological novelty. The patriarch of Constantinople, expelled by the sultan, was traveling around Europe and arrived in Moscow, where they locked him up in the Kremlin and did not let him out before he signed the decree of elevation of the patriarchate. Once this decree was signed, which indicated Moscow as the third Rome that was to save world orthodoxy, the patriarch left via the Kingdom of Poland and told the local Russian Orthodox, who are now Ukrainians, to become the patriarchate of Kiev to balance the Moscow patriarchate. The Jesuits intervened, King Sigismund III and it eventually turned towards union with Rome, signed in 1596, seven years after the birth of the patriarchate of Moscow. The ‘Uniates’, as they are defined, are the other side of the Moscow patriarchate.’ For this reason, ‘the true vocation of the Ukrainian Orthodox is to be in union with everyone’. In the best of all possible worlds, according to Don Caprio, Onufryj (Berezovskij), Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Epifanyj (Dumenko), Metropolitan of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the Greek-Catholic Major Archbishop of Kiyv, Sviatoslav Shevchuck, ‘ they would get together. It is a bit utopian, but it would correspond to the spiritual expectations of the Ukrainian people: there is no Ukrainian who would not want this, because the liturgy is identical, the tradition is identical ‘. And ecclesial unity, all the more so if it were blessed by Kirill and the Pope, could be a viaticum for a peace that today seems almost impossible. (by Iacopo Scaramuzzi)


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