Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill releases a dove, celebrating the Annunciation ahead of Orthodox Easter at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on Thursday. [AP]
Besides its humanitarian dimension, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios’ trip to Poland to meet and comfort war refugees from Ukraine was also strong in religious symbolism. The visit conveyed the message that Orthodox Christianity is united against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while disapproving of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who endorsed the military campaign.
Kirill’s full-throated blessing of the invasion shocked Christians around the world. With a few exceptions (Serbia and Antioch), the autocephalous churches and the Orthodox patriarchates condemned the incursion and froze their relations with the Moscow patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOK), which is an autonomous church within the Russian Orthodox Church, has suspended its ties with Moscow and more than 300 religious leaders, clerics and theologians have stopped praying for Kirill as a spiritual leader .
What the Russian Orthodox Church managed to build in its campaign for hegemony in the Orthodox world is now being demolished by the tanks and artillery of President Vladimir Putin. However, one way or another, this war will end. And a new ecclesiastical order will be established in the war-torn country that is sure to bear the seal of the victors. After all, one of the reasons for the Russian invasion was to overthrow an ecclesiastical status which was hated by the Russian side (both the patriarchy and the Kremlin) and which was blamed on Vartholomaios. The war will leave the status of the Russian Orthodox Church severely damaged in the eyes of Christians around the world. The idea of the “Third Rome” (the concept that Moscow succeeded the Roman Empire as the center of true Christianity) is crumbling. The World Council of Churches is already collecting signatures to expel the Russian Church from its ranks.
Kirill turned out to be a staunch servant of the Kremlin’s revisionist geopolitical plans instead of portraying himself as the potential spiritual leader of the world’s estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians, as the Russian side tried to portray him. But even if the Church of Russia succeeds in imposing an ecclesiastical protectorate by the use of force in Ukraine, it will not be able to do the same in the rest of the world. Could Kirill have resisted Putin’s imperial plans? The truth is that he has his own irredentist visions.
Perhaps it is time for the Ecumenical Patriarch to take a step forward. The Orthodox world is under severe strain. A few unifying gestures are needed.