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How Putin’s invasion became a holy war for Russia

Kirill's response to the war was the culmination of a decade-long effort to wrap Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in faith

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill applaud during the unveiling ceremony of a monument to Vladimir the Great on the National Unity Day outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. President Vladimir Putin has led ceremonies launching a large statue outside the Kremlin to a 10th-century prince of Kiev who is credited with making Orthodox Christianity the official faith of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

This story is published in collaboration with Rolling Stone magazine.

(RNS) — Two days before he launched a bloody invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat alone in front of a camera and delivered a rambling, hour-long address. It outlined the ideological justification for what would ultimately become his “special military action” in Ukraine — an invasion that, as far as Putin was concerned, had more than a little to do with religion.

“Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said.

Two days later, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke to military leaders and published a statement in honor of Defender of the Fatherland Day. The cleric congratulated Putin for his “high and responsible service to the people of Russia,” declared the Russian Orthodox Church has “always striven to make a significant contribution to the patriotic education of compatriots,” and lauded military service as “an active manifestation of evangelical love for neighbors.”
Within hours, bombs began to rain down on Ukraine.

This religious ramp-up to war was the culmination of a decade-long effort to wrap Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in faith — specifically, the flowing vestments of the Russian Orthodox Church. Fusing religion, nationalism, a defense of conservative values that likens same-sex marriage to Nazism and a version of history that seeks to define Ukraine and other nearby nations as mere subsets of a greater “Russkiy mir” (Russian world), the partnership of Putin and Kirill laid the ideological and theological groundwork for the current invasion. 

RELATED: With war in Ukraine, Pope Francis’ yearslong outreach to Kirill appears to be in ruins

But as explosions continue to rock Ukraine, some in the church are beginning to resist the religious appeals of Putin and Kirill, pushing back on efforts to recast naked Russian aggression as something that sounds a whole lot like a holy war.

The partnership of Putin, 69, and Kirill, 75, began around 2012, when the politician was reelected for a third term. It was then that Putin began embracing the Russian Orthodox Church — not necessarily as a point of personal conversion so much as a mechanism for political gain, something foreign policy experts often call “soft power.”

The relationship between the president and the prelate escalated rapidly. Kirill, allegedly a former KGB staffer like Putin, hailed the Russian Federation president’s leadership as a “miracle of God.” Meanwhile, Putin worked to frame Russia as a defender of conservative Christian values, which usually meant opposing abortion, feminism and LGBTQ rights. The pitch proved popular among a broad swath of conservative Christian leaders, including prominent voices within the American religious right: In February 2014, evangelist Franklin Graham offered cautious praise for Putin in an editorial for Decision Magazine, celebrating the Russian president’s decision to back a law barring dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” — a statute which, activists argued, effectively banned children from accessing media that presents LGBTQ identities and relationships in a positive or normalizing light. Graham would travel to Russia the following year, where he met with both Kirill and Putin, and told local media that “millions of Americans would like (Putin) to come and run for president of the United States.”

By 2017, Politico was already describing Russia as “the leader of the global Christian Right.”

The impact of this religious diplomacy was even greater in eastern European nations that once belonged to the Soviet Union, where the Russian Orthodox Church and its allies still enjoy outsized influence. When Moldova sought stronger ties with Europe, Orthodox clerics operating underneath the Moscow patriarchate campaigned against it, with one bishop telling the New York Times in 2016, “For me, Russia is the guardian of Christian values.” Things were similar in Montenegro, where the Serbian Orthodox Church has a close relationship with the Russian Patriarchate; priests there advocated against the nation’s plans to join NATO, and last year Russian Orthodox leaders lambasted Montenegro’s leaders for supporting “eurointegration.”

Kirill has long perpetuated a version of history that insists many countries that made up the former Soviet Union are one people with a common religious origin: namely, the 10th century baptism of Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, known as St. Vladimir. It’s often paired with a geo-political (and geo-religious) vision hundreds of Orthodox theologians and scholars recently decried as a heresy: a “transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.”

It’s a Russian world with Moscow as its political center, Kyiv as the spiritual heart, and Kirill as its religious leader.

“May God grant that the Moscow Patriarchate, which unites us not on the political level, not on the economic, but the spiritual level, might be preserved to take pastoral care of all the ethnoses united in the great historical Rus,’” Kirill said in 2018.

But Russia’s religious and political arguments hit a wall in Ukraine, where protests — aided, in some instances, by Orthodox clerics — thrust off a pro-Russian government in 2013 and 2014, triggering Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Frustration with Russia boiled over into the religious realm, exacerbating an existing divide between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church based Constantinople: In 2018, many of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians declared independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. Kirill refused to acknowledge the new body, but the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, recognized it. So dangerous was this schism to Russia’s interests that Kremlin-linked hackers responded by reportedly infiltrating the email accounts of Bartholomew’s aides.

And then came 2022, where soft power morphed into support for outright war in Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion began, Kirill issued a statement making a vague call for peace and asking all parties to limit civilian casualties. But Archbishop Daniel, head of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, which is loyal to Kyiv, decried the statement as the words of a “religious politician” and rejected Kirill’s appeal to a “common centuries-old history” rooted in St. Vladimir’s baptism.

“To say that we share the same ethnic background and what have you — I think it’s a mistake,” Daniel said. “It’s an incorrect statement. And I wish the religious leaders would correct that terminology (when Kirill is) utilizing it.”

Kirill’s rhetoric has only escalated in the days since. He referred to Russia’s opponents in Ukraine as “evil forces,” and delivered a sermon on March 6 in which he suggested the invasion was part of a larger “metaphysical” struggle against immoral western (read: liberal) values.

“Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom,’” Kirill said. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is the Gay Pride parade.”

It’s a distillation of an argument Kirill has pushed for years, contrasting western values with those of the purported Russian world. For Kirill, this is often rooted in anti-LGBTQ sentiment: he has suggested acceptance of same-sex marraige is a “dangerous sign of the apocalypse,” and once blamed the rise of ISIS on efforts to escape “godless” western societies that embrace gay pride parades. 

As for his take on the ongoing conflict, earlier this week Kirill reportedly presented an image of the Virgin Mary to Russian National Guard leader Viktor Zolotov.

“Let this image inspire young soldiers who take the oath, who embark on the path of defending the Fatherland,” Kirill said.

But after years of wielding faith as a tool for accruing power, Kirill’s support for the war — tacit or otherwise — may end up costing him influence this go round. To be sure, some of the pushback has come from expected corners: Kirill’s rhetoric triggered an immediate response from Orthodox Christians whose leadership is based in Kyiv, with one cleric dismissing Kirill as “discredited” and likening Putin to the antichrist.

Yet calls for change are also coming from inside the manse. Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev, who oversees the Russian Orthodox faithful in Ukraine, immediately decried the invasion as “a disaster” and a “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” Many of his priests in the country have since stopped commemorating Kirill during worship, and some even asked Onuphry to entertain breaking away from the Russian Orthodox Church — much to the chagrin of the patriarchate.

Outside of Ukraine, more than 280 Russian Orthodox priests — most of whom operate within Russia — recently signed a petition condemning the “fratricidal” invasion and emphasizing Ukraine’s right to self-determination. One of the signers was later arrested in Russia after he preached a sermon criticizing the war. Authorities reportedly charged him with “discrediting the use of the Armed Forces.”

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe has publicly implored Kirill to raise his voice with Russian authorities against the “monstrous and senseless war.” He also rejected the characterization of the conflict as a “metaphysical” battle.

“With all the respect that is due to you, and from which I do not depart, but also with infinite pain, I must bring to your attention that I cannot subscribe to such a reading of the Gospel,” read the archbishop’s letter.

And at least one Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam has made moves to leave the church because of Kirill’s stance on Ukraine, hoping to affiliate with Ecumenical Patriarchate Bartholomew. This despite an intimidating visit from a Russian archbishop: The cleric, who arrived in a car from the Russian embassy, told priests that the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Foreign Ministry were keeping an eye on their church.

“We cannot go back on our decision to distance ourselves from Patriarch Kirill,” read a statement from the church’s priests. “Our consciences will not allow that.”

RELATED: Russian Orthodox parishes in Europe pressured from both sides as war rages in Ukraine

It remains to be seen whether these and other efforts will push Kirill to deviate from years of operating in lockstep with Putin. The Russian president’s drive to continue the war remains strong, as does his embrace of religious rhetoric: at a rally on Friday, Putin praised Russia’s troops in a way that echoed Kirill and paraphrased the Bible, saying, “There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends.”

But religious pressure on Kirill doesn’t appear to be letting up either. When Pope Francis held a meeting with Kirill this week to discuss the conflict, he made a point to warn against trying to justify armed invasion, expansion or empire with a Christian cross — something the Catholic Church knows something about.

“Once upon a time there was also talk in our churches of holy war or just war,” Francis told Kirill, according to the Vatican press office. “Today we cannot speak like this.”

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