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May 25, 2022
Russia’s war drives a wedge between Orthodox Ukrainians and the Moscow Patriarchate

Russia’s war drives a wedge between Orthodox Ukrainians and the Moscow Patriarchate

As Russian troops step up their assault, clergy and worshippers at the Ukrainian Orthodox churches that are attached to the Moscow Patriarchate are distancing themselves from Russia, placing into question one of the Kremlin’s main channels of influence in their country. FRANCE 24 reports from a church south of Kyiv. 

Kneeling on the ground with their heads bowed, the choir and congregation at the Orthodox Church of Obukhiv fell silent as they prayed for loved ones facing Russia’s firepower.

The priest called for this prayer for peace during Sunday services at this church, located around 40 kilometres south of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. But it did not succeed in alleviating the anguish. Sombre faces remained frozen in silent prayer with only the babbling of a few children breaking the leaden atmosphere in the church.

Nadejda, a pensioner, wiped a tear before slowly standing up. “Of course this invasion is terrible … We have to protect the country, but we also have to think about how to end the war,” she told FRANCE 24.

Nadejda (centre, with white cap) and Volodymyr, just behind her, during the prayer for peace at the Orthodox Church of Obukhiv. © Mehdi Chebil

Volodymyr, on the other hand, maintained that it was necessary to continue to defend the country against Russian invaders. A former employee at Antonov, a Ukrainian state-owned aeronautical company, the 50-year-old worshipper said he knows people involved in the fighting. 

“I did my military service in the Soviet Army in Moscow in the 1980s, and I would never have imagined this. Our army is inflicting casualties the likes of which the Russian army has never experienced … I am sure we will win,” he said. 

His declarations ran counter to the stance of Patriarch Kirill, the patriarch of Moscow and the ultimate spiritual leader of this church and many others in Ukraine. Three days after Russia invaded, Patriarch Kirill denounced the “evil forces” that were undermining the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine. 

There are two rival Orthodox churches in Ukraine: an independent Ukrainian clergy and another that operates under the Moscow Patriarchate. The latter has been in existence for 300 years and oversees the majority of parishes in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, its ultimate spiritual leader, is close to the Kremlin.

The faithful receive the Holy Eucharist at the Sunday service. © Mehdi Chebil

But the war and its horrors are now driving a wedge between the two churches. A spokesman for the Ukrainian branch on Friday denounced the Kremlin’s “lies” justifying the Russian invasion.

“Yes, lying is a sin and the Russian power lied. Many believed it. Russian officials said there would be no war, that they were not planning anything,” said Father Nikolai Danilevich, in an interview with FRANCE 24 and Radio France Internationale (RFI).

“That’s why this invasion is an act of treachery that has broken every form of trust,” he stressed from his office in Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, also known as Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, a pre-eminent centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church that includes an impressive collection of religious buildings on the banks of the River Dnieper.

Father Nikolaï Danilevitch at the Lyiv Monastery of the Caves on March 4, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil

At the modest church in Obukhiv, the Sunday sermon was more moderate. The priest, Serguei Stolyartchouk, restricted his message to religious generalities, calling for prayer and peace, without taking sides in the ongoing conflict.

The question of the formal authority of the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is still a taboo subject. The clergyman has adopted an “apolitical” position to avoid commenting on Patriarch Kirill’s statements.

Father Serguei Stolyartchouk keeps his sermons apolitical, but he refutes the Kremlin’s position that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation. © Mehdi Chebil

But like all Ukrainians, Father Serguei is upset by the Russian invasion. He learned about it in the first few hours of the attack when his daughter, who lives near the Boryspil airport east of Kyiv, called him in a panic to tell him that she was hearing explosions.

“This is our country, this is our land, this is our people … How can we remain indifferent?” asked the priest, in an interview after Mass.

“We pray for our army, we pray for our nation, because we are a nation,” added the cleric, repudiating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation.

“I can’t carry a weapon, my only weapon is prayer.”

© Studio graphique France Médias Monde

This report has been translated from the original in French.

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