Russia’s strong aggression against Ukraine has had profound and irreversible political, economic and social consequences in the country led by Volodymyr Zelensky.
But while troops fight on Ukrainian soilan underground and less visible conflict is also brewing in the country.
It’s a religious rebellion which, according to experts, is unprecedented and directly affects the very popular Russian Orthodox Church, very influential in Kiev.
Since the beginning of the invasion, various bishops and priests loyal to that Church have expressed their rejection Kirillpatriarch of Moscow and highest representative of this religious institution.
Many Ukrainian believers have also stopped praying for him during services, which is the strongest sign of disobedience in the Orthodox world.
But why are these signs of contempt important? How relevant are they in the context of the war? And why is Ukraine so crucial for the Russian Orthodox Church?
Here we tell you.
Kirill, an ally of Putin
Currently, there are two large Orthodox communities in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) —Which is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) – and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).
The latter was established in 2018, after separating from its Russian counterpart after spending more than 300 years linked to it, which represented an important step in breaking away from religious subordination towards Russia.
But according to the latest official figures, the UOC-MP is still the largest in the country, with some 12,000 parishes. The UOC, on the other hand, has some 7,000.
Until before the invasion, this meant that Russia continued to exert substantial influence in the Ukrainian spiritual realm.
This is even more important considering Ukraine has the third largest Orthodox population in the world (behind Russia and Ethiopia), according to Pew Research.
In this country, 8 out of 10 adults (78%) identify themselves as Orthodox.
But the aggression led by Vladimir Putin —Which, incidentally, has destroyed hundreds of churches with its airstrikes — has come to shake the power of the UOC-MP.
The breaking point was unleashed after the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, did not condemn the military actions. On the contrary, he has blessed the Russian troops and, so far, has not called for a ceasefire.
And it is that the highest representative of the Russian Orthodox Church is a former ally of Putin. In 2012, in fact, he defined his government as a “miracle of God”.
“The Russian patriarch sees the war with Ukraine as a sort of cultural war between a Western conception of life and an Oriental conception of life,” he told BBC Mundo Thomas Bremerprofessor of ecumenical theology and researcher of the Russian Orthodox Church at the University of Münster, Germany.
According to various academics, Kirill, like Putin, shares the vision of a “Russkiy Mir” (or “Russian World”) where Ukrainians and Russians are the “same people”.
Its mission, therefore, is to bring them together to address threats from abroad.
“Kirill has provided Putin with ideas, ideology,” he tells BBC Mundo Cyril HovorunUkrainian Orthodox priest, professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at the University of Stockholm.
“Personally I think that without the contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church the war would have been impossible because in this way it is justified. Putin has this confidence in himself also because the Church has encouraged him to do so, ”he adds.
Kirill’s attitude – and that of other religious leaders who support him – has generated widespread rejection among Ukrainian believers.
Even the Metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky Kyiv – which represents the UOC-MP in Ukraine – strongly condemned the Russian actions and addressed Putin directly, demanding an immediate end to the “fratricidal war”.
He also asked Kirill himself to help resolve this conflict.
“It is an internal rebellion, a very singular fragmentation of the Church,” says Hovorun.
“Kirill seems completely oblivious to all the deaths, the destruction. He did not say a single word in support of the Ukrainian victims, “adds the academician.
This caused several dioceses in Ukraine stop praying for the patriarch, which is a great act of disobedience.
“Usually, in the liturgy, the highest hierarch is mentioned, for whom we pray. But many have stopped doing it. I have seen videos on the Internet where priests say: ‘he has disappointed us and he is no longer our patriarch, we cannot trust him’ ”, says Thomas Bremer.
“And this is a very bold step,” he adds.
This rebellion crossed Ukrainian borders and sparked unprecedented internal opposition to Kirill in the Russian Orthodox Church itself.
About 300 Russian priests and deacons recently signed an open letter entitled “Russian Priests for Peace”, calling for an “immediate ceasefire”.
“We think with bitterness of the abyss that our children and grandchildren in Russia and Ukraine will have to cross in order to become friends, respect and love each other again”, reads the letter.
“The whole Russian Church is a bit shocked. Although many support the war, there is growing dissidence towards their patriarch’s policies, ”explains Cyril Horovun.
“And in other places, in the structures of the Russian Church outside Russia, something similar is happening too. In the Baltic countries, for example, they are trying to distance themselves from Moscow, expressing their distrust of the patriarch, ”she adds.
Why is Ukraine so important?
Ukraine is not just another country in the world for Vladimir Putin or the Russian Orthodox Church.
The dominant view of Russian nationalism is that Ukraine is a sister nation and, furthermore, that it is heart of the “Russian nation”.
In particular, the capital Kievit has a spiritual significance of great relevance to the Orthodox.
In 2019, Kirill compared kyiv to the meaning of Jerusalem for global Christianityaccording to the Russian media TASS.
“So it is. What Jerusalem means to Christianity, kyiv means to Russian Orthodoxy,” says Thomas Bremer.
“Ukraine is a very important part of the Russian methodology. For them this country is part of the founding myth ”, explains Cyril Horovun.
Because of the above, Kirill justified what they call a “special military operation” on Ukraine as a way to do so. “save” this country from the Western world and its values.
In fact, in one of his sermons, the patriarch stressed that one of the reasons for the conflict is the alleged opposition of his people to “gay parades”.
“The Church of Kirill presents Russia as the defender of traditional and family values against the alleged decadent and corrupt West that supports the LGBT group and all kinds of ethical distortions,” explains Horovun.
“For them, The West is almost like an embodiment of the force of evil. And Putin also has this image in his mind, ”he adds.
Several dioceses within the UOC-MP have already expressed their intention of independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Some also want to evoke a council of bishops to make a decision that leads them to abandon their historic relationship with the institution led by Kirill.
However, according to the Ukrainian BBC report, there are others who ask to keep a “cool head”, pointing out that it is impossible to build a new cathedral during the war.
What is clear is that, after the invasion, there will be a before and an after in the relations between Russian Orthodox and Ukrainians.
“If the Russians take control of Ukraine, which is possible, they will have a church in Ukraine they don’t trust. You will have bishops who have said ‘I don’t trust you anymore’ ”, explains Thomas Bremer.
“Perhaps they will have to change the episcopate and many of the bishops. And I believe that many priests and faithful will no longer go to church because they no longer have faith in Russian orthodoxy ”.concludes.