The Orthodox Primate of Moscow and All Russians offered prayers on Sunday for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, invoking the concept of a Russian “fatherland” inclusive of Ukraine, while insisting on the ecclesiastical authority of Moscow over Kyiv’s Church leaders.
The patriarch’s remarks have been widely seen as part of an ongoing Russian Orthodox theological justification for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
“We must not let dark and hostile external forces laugh at us, we must do everything to maintain peace between our peoples and at the same time protect our common historical Fatherland from all outside actions that can destroy this unity,” Patriarch Kirill said in an address, after a Feb. 27 Divine Liturgy at Moscow’s Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, launching assaults on several cities, including the capital of Kyiv. Fighting has continued continuously over the past five days, as religious leaders both in Ukraine and around the world expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and governments pledged aid to Ukraine and imposed economic sanctions on Russia.
Ukraine is home to three major Christian Churches. In addition to the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the country’s Orthodox Christians are divided between members of the self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukrainian, recognized in 2018 by the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which falls under the authority of Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill.
Constantinople’s 2018 recognition of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has caused a schism in the worldwide Orthodox communion, with Moscow breaking communion with Constantinople over the recognition. The Moscow patriarchate claims Ukraine as an inseparable part of its own territory and insists that it is a dependent ecclesiastical province of the Russian Church.
The Orthodox Moscow patriarchate’s ecclesiastical understanding of “all Russians” includes Ukraine, as well as the people of other countries which have historically fallen under Russian influence.
In his address on Sunday, Kirill claimed there is an essential unity between Russia and Ukraine, and the Orthodox Christians in those countries.
“God forbid that the current political situation in fraternal Ukraine, which is close to us, should be aimed at ensuring that the evil forces that have always fought against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church gain the upper hand,” Kirill said.
“God forbid that between Russia and Ukraine lies a terrible line, stained with the blood of brothers. We must pray for the restoration of peace, for the restoration of good fraternal relations between our peoples.”
The patriarch went on express solidarity with the Christians of Ukraine, while insisting that solidarity means accepting Moscow’s authority over the Ukrainian Church:
“The pledge of this [Christian] brotherhood is our united Orthodox Church, which in Ukraine is represented by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [loyal to Moscow], headed by His Beatitude Onufry. We have been praying for them today,” Kirill said.
The Moscow patriarch went on to pray for protection of “the people who are part of the single space of the Russian Orthodox Church from internecine warfare.”
“May the Lord protect the Russian land,” Kirill prayed. “When I say ‘Russian,’ I use an ancient expression from the ‘Tale of Bygone Years’ - ‘Where did the Russian land come from?’ The land, which now includes Russia, and Ukraine, and Belarus, and other tribes and peoples. So that the Lord preserves the Russian land from external enemies, from internal discord, so that the unity of our Church is strengthened.”
Kirill’s intervention will likely be interpreted by many Ukrainian Christians and Church-watchers as a tacit endorsement of Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine.
Shortly before the invasion began last week, Putin gave several speeches in which he claimed Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia as “our historical land.” The Russian president claimed that “modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia” and that Ukrainian territory and people are inseparable from the concept of Rus — the historical people and culture of Russia.
Putin said the existence of an independent Ukraine is an “anti-Russian project,” propped up by outside Western forces.
Representatives of Ukraine and Russia met Monday for brief cease-fire talks on Ukraine’s border with Belarus, the Russian client-state which has pledged to send its own armed forces into Ukraine to assist the Russian invasion.
The Holy See has offered to help facilitate further peace talks. While the Vatican always remains publicly neutral in international conflicts, and calls on both sides for peace, Pope Francis has dedicated Ash Wednesday this week as a day of prayer and fasting for the people of Ukraine.
The pope has also visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See, to make pleas for peace. On Saturday the pontiff spoke directly with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In a statement released on Monday, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, offered his own prayer that “dialogue and diplomacy [will] conquer war,” while condemning Russia’s “crooked, inhumane, and vicious war.”
Shevchuk praised the “courage” of the Ukrainian people and military, and claimed that Russian forces were now using women and children as human shields to cover their advance in the country.
“I am thankful that the Holy Father supports us, prays for us, and desires to do everything to stop this war,” Shevchuk said.