Christian churches have from time immemorial colluded with political ambition and expansionism, be that imperialist, nationalist or economic, providing each with ideological justification, and benefiting in social leverage in return.
This phenomenon has reared its ugly head again in the person of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, leader of 110 million Russian Orthodox Christians and who has been an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin since he came to power in 2006.
Kirill refuses to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, despite repeated calls for him to do so from Pope Francis, other Orthodox Church leaders and more recently from the World Council of Churches.
Putin’s election as president of Russia for the third time in 2012 was described by Kirill as a “miracle of God”. Allegedly having worked for the KGB in his early career, as did Putin, Kirill shares his expansionist ambitions.
Russkiy Mir (Russian World), is a nationalist ideology, developed over the last 20 years, which views Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, in fact all Russian-speaking nations, as part of the Russian world.
In this schema, Ukraine is not viewed as a sovereign nation. The Russkiy Mir Foundation was set up by Putin to further the Russian language and culture at home and abroad.
For Kirill, its anti-West ideology suited his position that western consumerist society, with its concomitant moral depravity best epitomised in a “gay pride parade”, amounted to a spiritual threat.
Both he and Putin had a certain appeal for the Christian far right, especially in the United States. For Putin, Russian Orthodoxy served as a symbol and instrument of national identity, which extends far beyond national borders. Within this world view, the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine are presented as "liberation" from the threat of western influence.
Kirill’s most recent response to the World Council of Churches (of which he was an executive member) reflects a seamless link between religious and political propaganda.
Following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formed in January 2019. It severed allegiance to Moscow, allying itself with Constantinople which holds honorary primacy over 15 Orthodox churches worldwide. Kirill virulently opposed this move.
A total of 290 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons (mostly in Russia) wrote a joint statement against what they called the fratricidal war with Ukraine, exposing them to threats from religious and civil authorities for so doing.
Within Ukraine some Russian Orthodox dioceses are seeking to break with the Moscow Patriarchate as are the Orthodox Churches of Lithuania and Amsterdam.
Kirill has divided Orthodoxy globally. He annexed three Orthodox provinces in Africa that were traditionally under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. He has gained support from 160 parishes worldwide and effected serious divisions with the Patriarchates of Greece, Cyprus and Alexandria.
In a declaration, dated March 25th last, Orthodox theologians worldwide wrote: “Just as Russia has invaded Ukraine, so, too, the Moscow Patriarchate of Patriarch Kirill has invaded the Orthodox Church . . . causing division and strife, with untold casualties not just to the body but to the soul.”
Despite the considerable international backlash against his support for this war, Kirill remains intractable. Opposition to the war within Russia can result in lengthy prison sentences and opposition from elsewhere goes unheard.
Under Putin, he has an expanded base for his Russian World propaganda, as well as benefitting financially for his allegiance. The now well-publicised 2009 image of him sporting a Breguet watch valued at more than €22,000 (airbrushed out but reflected on a polished table) and recent photos of him displaying his liking for expensive bling indicate an income a tad above that of the average cleric.
When questioned, he says his river yacht and watches come from generous donors. There were also questions regarding his involvement in the importation of foreign cigarettes which accrued more than €1 billion, money he claims went to fund the church.
For anybody connected with Putin, their power and money is suspect, as we can see in the global sanctions against Russian oligarchs and businesses. But Kirill is different – he is and has been in a unique position to influence how 110 million people think.
His spurious blend of national and spiritual expansionism, absolute refusal to condemn the evil wreaked on the Ukrainian people and his description of this invasion as a holy war against the “forces of evil”, aka the West, are truly cynical and dangerous.
Putin's war has united Ukraine, the rest of Europe and all right-thinking people in opposition. Will Kirill's blessing of, and collusion with, this atrocity unite the Christian churches – Orthodox, Reformed and Catholic – to act together (as opposed to individually) in calling this man to account?
He has exercised his spiritual leadership in a most reprehensible manner. How religious leaders respond to his justification of the desecration of a people will test how authentic or otherwise they really are.
Very Rev Maria Jansson is retired Church of Ireland Dean of Waterford.