Last weekend, at a special midnight service in a packed church in Udine, in northeast Italy, a priest led his flock of Ukrainian, Russian and Eastern European immigrants through their usual Orthodox Easter traditions. But recently, he’s also accompanying them on a much less familiar path, sparked by the war in Ukraine.
In March, this parish decided to split from its mother church in Moscow, joining instead the Istanbul-based Orthodox Church, whose leader has criticized the war – in stark contrast from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“By separating from Moscow,” Father Vladymir Melnichuk told “Sunday Morning,” “we are adhering to the Christian vision of the world.”
There are roughly 100 million Russian Orthodox – the largest church within Orthodox Christianity. Their leader is Patriarch Kirill, who has framed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in holy terms.
In a sermon in early March, Kirill railed against the influences of the Western world – its “excess consumption” and “gay pride parades.” He said of the Ukraine war: “We’re talking about human salvation.”
Andrey Sinitsyn, who is from Moscow, agrees with his parish’s split. “Patriarch Kirill is supporting the war, in fact,” he said. “Patriarch Kirill got too close to the government.”
Correspondent Seth Doane asked, “How is that as a churchgoer, someone who is a believer?”
“It’s unacceptable,” Sinitsyn replied. “The church should be independent.”
Father Cyrill Hovorun was ordained by Kirill, and was his theological advisor until 2012. He said, “I believe that the church is the main supplier of the ideology, Putin’s ideology. This war has a simple formula: War equals guns plus ideas, and the guns are, of course, supplied by the Kremlin and the ideas come from the church.”
And, Father Cyril believes, Putin sees this war as a “sacred operation”: “A mission from God to purge the world from, you know, impurity of the Western ideas and Western values.”
“You’re saying that the church has created the ideological underpinning for the war?” asked Doane.
“Well, actually, when I was working in the Moscow patriarchate, I was witnessing how this ideology was emerging, and I protested against that,” he said.
In Soviet times, priests were pushed to keep the spy service informed, and it’s widely believed that Kirill was in the KGB. But Father Cyril believes Kirill was never enthusiastic about it, which created friction with Putin. “And that’s why we are talking about the marriage of convenience and not marriage by love,” Cyril said. “They have to tolerate each other because they use their skills, their charisma and possibly these resources of each other – each for his own end.”
Those resources are vast, said another former insider, Sergei Chapnin, who also worked for Kirill: “There are rough estimations that he’s definitely a billionaire and, in fact, he’s one of Putin’s oligarchs – sorry to say that.”
“You’re calling the patriarch an oligarch?” asked Doane.
“Yeah,” Chapnin replied. “He has financial interest in his cooperation with the state, just like other oligarchs.”
Chapnin sees Russia’s church as a state propaganda machine, spreading Putin’s message as the defender of conservative values against a morally-corrupt West.
Chapnin also thinks the expansionist ambitions of Kirill even exceed those of Putin: “The main motivation for Patriarch Kirill is actually power and influence,” he said. “But because of the war, he actually loses it.”
Before the war, Ukraine had many Orthodox Churches loyal to Moscow. Now, hundreds of Ukrainian parishes have broken away in protest … something that’s not so easy to do in Russia.
Still, this priest from a parish outside Moscow said he felt compelled to speak out. Father Ioann Burdin told us, “The responsibly of what is happening now lays on all of us.” Burdin said that everyone approved it or stayed silent.
But when he spoke in a sermon of what he called this “fratricidal conflict,” he was questioned by Russian police, fined, and warned of a criminal proceeding.
Doane asked, “You are seeing people in Russia leave the church because of this?”
“It’s not a visible process; they do not leave in groups,” Burdin said. “But without a doubt it’s happening.”
And just as this church in Udine, Italy illustrates, as Putin tries to alter political borders, the region’s religious map is also changing.
Story produced by Anna Matranga. Editor: Emanuele Secci.