AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Amid Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church – now nothing more than a political puppet of Moscow – has become one of the primary supporters of the war. Meanwhile, Christians throughout Russia and in neighboring Belarus have been subject to harsh persecution for advocating for peace and opposing Russia’s bastardization of biblical teachings.
Much as was the case in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the only truly accepted form of religion today inside Russia is that which serves the interests of the state. Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has declared that any Russian soldiers who die fighting Ukraine will be absolved of all sins. The church has also set up “Orthodox private military companies” to send Orthodox followers into battle.
Encouraged by Kirill, at least 197 priests have joined the Russian military under the pretense of becoming chaplains, but have also been put to work delivering weapons and ammunition to Russian forces on the front lines.
This devotion to the war effort and to Putin specifically has trickled down throughout the church. Shortly after the start of the invasion last year, Archbishop Pitirim of Syktyvkar, a city in northern Russia, called on his parishioners to “rally even closer around our supreme military and political leadership and our valiant army, which, as in the years of the Great Patriotic War, is defending our earthly Fatherland from the insidious enemy of the human race.”
Meanwhile, at a Pentecostal church in Moscow, children are being taught to “thank God for Putin.” A pastor at another Christian church recently sang a worship song calling on Christians to “rise with God’s ballistic missiles” and “carry the good news that Russia is for Christ.”
These few examples encapsulate the scale of evil manipulation that Russian Christians confront every day. The moral confusion and despair among Christian leaders there is evident.
The price for resisting this perversion of Christian teachings, however, is steep. In recent months, Moscow has cracked down hard on dissenters within the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups, evoking memories of similar persecutions during the Soviet era.
In October, one Russian Orthodox parish priest in southern Russia answered the door early in the morning only to be physically assaulted by men with machine guns. Local police decided to search his apartment since prosecutors designated him a suspect after he opposed the church’s support for the war in Ukraine and “lowered Russian morale.”
“It was a display of force in front of a helpless, ill, and innocent priest who was also tortured,” observed a Telegram channel that reports on the persecution of Christians in Russia.
Russian Orthodox Church authorities can also expel priests from the ministry and label them as a “foreign agent,” as they did with Father Deacon Andrey Kurayev, who regularly criticized a warmonger church leader.
Ordinary churchgoers have also been prosecuted for expressing their faith. In September, a man who held a self-made sign urging passersby to pray for political prisoners and end the war in Ukraine was arrested, with police breaking his ribs in the process.
Two weeks later, a court sentenced a young Protestant believer, Vyacheslaw Reznichenko, to two and a half years in a penal colony for refusing to fight against Ukraine. “With this decision, the court legalized violation of the freedom of conscience in Russia,” his lawyer said, adding that his wife and five-month-old child were being left without financial support. At least four Christian men who refused to enlist in the army have also been jailed for up to three years.
The last three months have provided evidence that these persecutions are increasing. According to the monitoring by local activists, at least 55 Russian clergy members from Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches in November experienced threats, intimidation, or disciplinary action for refusing to show strong enough support for the war.
“Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Christian reputation of the Russian church dramatically deteriorated after it elevated the state’s policies over God’s commandments,” a priest from Russia’s Far East told me. “The Patriarch with senior clergy had fully committed to political and military subjugation of Russia’s neighbors.”
“Now, many of us who disagree and pray for peace face tribulation or catacombs,” he said, referring to the secret Christian church that existed during the Soviet period and which he attended as a young believer.
This persecution has spread to other nations within Russia’s orbit as well.
According to Christian Vision, a Lithuania-based rights group which monitors persecution, in November, the Belarussian government – a virtual puppet state of Moscow – arrested two Protestant pastors and two Catholic priests for exhorting Christians to pray for peace in the Russia-Ukraine war. A month earlier, a court in Belarus obliterated one of the largest evangelical churches in Minsk and ordered bulldozers to destroy the building. At least 100 believers have been imprisoned for anti-war statements, and more have been fined.
Since 2020 when Belarussian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko falsified elections, local Christians have suffered harsh oppression and harassment. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a Belarussian opposition leader, has said that she has direct knowledge of at least 16 Catholic, 12 Protestant, 11 Orthodox and 6 Greek-Catholic priests who have been tortured and imprisoned in Belarus since 2020.
In 1927, Patriarch Tikhon, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church whom the Soviet government did not recognize and subsequently murdered, warned in one of his last messages that only a God-established authority is a genuine authority. Any authority that deems itself higher than God is despotic.
Today, that is exactly what faithful Christians in Russia are enduring.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.