The Russian Orthodox Church in turmoil

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, February 27, 2022.

Couldn’t be more elliptical: “Due to the international situation, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv and All Ukraine (…) not’[a] could not attend the meeting. » It is by this simple allusion to a “international situation” not specified that the website of external relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow explained, Thursday, March 24, the absence of the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine at a meeting, the same day, in the Russian capital, of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the governing body of which the metropolitans of the autonomous churches dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate are members. By its omissions, the formula is indicative of the profound repercussions that the invasion of Ukraine on the orders of Vladimir Putin entailed for the Russian Church.

In a few impassioned sermons delivered at the end of February and the beginning of March, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church, gave religious support to the military offensive, endowed, according to him, with a “metaphysics” and delivered against ” the forces of evil “ who oppose the unity of the Russian people and the Church.

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At the beginning of the war, some protests were expressed in his clergy against this enlistment. For the past two weeks, on the other hand, a certain wait-and-see attitude has accompanied the perceptible hesitation in the Russian advance on the ground.

But repercussions are inevitable for this Church which, “under the impetus in particular of the patriarch, had gained more and more influence in the Orthodox world, which was now also well established in Western Europe, within the Russian diaspora, and which risks losing this influence with this war supportexplains Kathy Jeanne Rousselet, director of research at Sciences Po and specialist in Russia.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is emancipated

This war comes as Kirill’s position, closely linked to the power of Vladimir Putin, had lost its luster with the Russian president. He suffered from the serious ecclesial setback that occurred after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass in 2014.

In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, competitor since the 1990s of the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, had obtained that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the primus inter pares of the fourteen heads of the canonical Orthodox Churches, granted him autocephaly (i.e. independence vis-à-vis Moscow).

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It was a blow all the harder for Kirill since Ukraine is historically the cradle of Slavic Christianity, it accounts for about a third of the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate and that “the number of practitioners there is much greater than in Russia”says Kathy Jeanne Rousselet. “Kirill was deeply against the annexation of Crimea, continues the university. He knew this would create tension within his church. Moreover, he was absent from the official ceremony of signing the act of annexation. » This was not enough to prevent this failure.

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