Opinion / Politics

The Religious War in Ukraine

AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis

churchIn a quiet Ukrainian suburb near the Mariupol port sits a Renaissance-style church with three semi-baroque towers. A bold expression of faith in God, the church is home to an icon of Mary Mother of God that the city was named after, with the Greek Μαριούπολη literally translating to “city of Mary.”

In the early morning hours of February 24, invading Russian forces repeatedly targeted this orthodox church in a blatant attempt to destroy this centuries-old symbol of Kyivan culture and spirituality. The attack on the church underscored that Putin’s invasion is not just economic or political, but an all-out assault on Ukrainian identity.

Since the onset of hostilities in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Putin’s rhetoric has had undeniable religious undertones and, like his predecessors in the Soviet Union, he has expected church leaders to fall in line behind his aggression.

For Christians living in the west, “Christianity” in the form it takes in Russia would be almost totally unrecognizable. The church hierarchy in Russia actively serves the ideological goals of the government, teaching that the corrupt West, led by the United States and Western Europe, seeks to destroy the “Russian world” and all it holds dear – including the Russian orthodox church.

According to this ideology, the West has capitulated to “liberalism,” “globalization,” and “Christianophobia” and thus poses an existential threat to the Russian way of life. In the current conflict, the view is that the West, not Russia, has invaded the sacred cultural center of Kyiv, and Russian troops must liberate it from the pervasions of Western culture.

It’s worth noting that this full return of the Russian church to its Soviet roots is not a recent phenomenon. Following the collapse of the USSR, Alexey Senin, a veteran of the Soviet Communist Party Propaganda Department, launched a homecoming of sorts to Russia’s imperial past by using the traditional institution of the church to keep Soviet ideology alive.

Senin transformed almost overnight from an ardent Leninist (who was determined to abolish all religion) to a fervent Russian Orthodox Church nationalist. He established a newspaper, the Russkiy Vestnik, which became a tribune for ultra-nationalists. Carrying the logically erroneous motto “who loves God also loves Russia,” Senin quickly gained a following of dispossessed Russians eager to return to the glory days of the Soviet power and influence on the world stage.

As a well-connected figure in domestic politics, Senin successfully lobbied members of the Duma and presidential administration for a ban on Western churches in Russia, laying down the foundation for his new ideology of Russian chauvinism mixed with obscurantism, crudity, and primitivism.

Within a few years, virulent anti-Western ideology had become the official line of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was in part through the church that the government leaders – including a freshly-installed Vladimir Putin – convinced the public that Western-style democratic reforms would only be harmful to Russian society.

The new church leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown on any dissent reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s attacks on the priesthood in the early years of the Cold War. Father Gleb Yakunin, who published secret KGB reports that incriminated several high-level figures in the Moscow Patriarchate, was one of many who were removed from the church and threatened with violence should they continue to speak out.

As Alexander Yakovlev, one of the architects of perestroika, observed, the post-Soviet Russian church’s rejection of humanism and humanness encouraged instead submission to the repressive, exploitative, and unjust authorities who completely denied the need for individual liberties.

In reaction to the complete submission of the Russian church to the Russian state, the church communities of Ukraine, Estonia, and Moldova decided to separate. Not surprisingly, in the minds of these churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is viewed as the twin of the Communist-Soviet totalitarianism that targeted the pre-Soviet church in the 20th century.

This fact was only confirmed when Putin sought the blessing of the Moscow Patriarch before sending tanks and missiles against Ukraine. Leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church have repeated false Russian propaganda pushed by the Russian government to justify the atrocities being perpetrated against the Ukrainian people.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also revealed that Putin’s grip over the church may not be as complete as he thought. Many lower-ranking clergy have protested the war in sermons and pleaded with Russian authorities to cease the invasion. Nearly 300 Russian orthodox priests have called for “the cessation of the fratricidal war,” saying that Russia and Ukraine must overcome the conflict and once again hold each other in mutual respect.

Russian prosecutors have also charged Father Ioann Burdin from a parish in Western Russia with “discrediting the use of the Armed Forces” because of a sermon he preached on “Forgiveness Sunday.” Other priests who have refused to bow to the Kremlin’s established narrative on the war have been transferred to small country parishes where their opposition to the war will go largely unnoticed.

In Ukraine, Russian Orthodox priests from eighteen dioceses – representing more than one third of the country – have stopped commemorating Supreme Patriarch Kirill during their worship services, arguing that his statements about the war, which seem to blame internal “evil forces” in Ukraine rather than Russian aggression, amount to a tacit endorsement of the attack.

Last week, forty theologians in Ukraine announced that Patriarch Kirill’s refusal to acknowledge the invasion of Ukraine is a threat to Orthodox Christian tradition since false teaching divides the Church.

The authors of the declaration rejected the concept of a new Russian realm, tsar, and divine authority in Moscow, and encouraged church leaders to condemn the “fratricidal war.”

Just like it did during the Soviet era, the church has a chance to be a crucial source of opposition to the evil Putin regime and occupation of Ukraine. It will undoubtedly take uncommon acts of bravery, grounded in faith and a belief in the church community. But as Christians have shown throughout history, it is these desperate moments which often produce the most powerful displays of courage.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, theologian, and researcher.


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jake the snake
6 months ago

I use to kind of like putin. now I want someone to take off his head.

Carol
6 months ago

As an Orthodox Christian in the US, I am saddened to see my brothers and sisters fighting each other! I have friends on both side of this conflict and they are praying for an end! This is all on Putin as far as I can see. He thinks he can rebuild the Soviet Union since he is one of those addicted to power and has no regard for who he has to roll over to get this addiction for power and control filled! God is watching and God will deal with those responsible. I just pray for the innocent who never wanted this!!! Lord have mercy on all us!

Mario Capparuccini
6 months ago
Reply to  Carol

May God indeed have mercy on our brothers and sisters on both sides of the conflict!

Elizabeth Cheever
6 months ago

Throughout history one of the greatest influences in conflict and war is religion. The Middle East is a case in point. I see the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as multi-layered. The focus is the political and military aspects of war and rightly so. However, in my opinion, there is a third player, functioning behind the scenes and it is the Russian Orthodox Religious Organization as it exists today, a religious organization that I believe Putin has close ties with and it has had and continues to have a powerful influence and impact on Putin’s belief system.

Bob L.
6 months ago

Another fact about who has joined the fight on Putin’s side is, I read a few days ago that a thousand Chechens have entered Ukraine. Are they there motivated by allegiance to Putin or an underlaying reason, to attack the religion of the Ukraine since Chechnya is a Muslim country. Historically, as many religious wars have been fought in that region of the world as there have been political wars.

Sharon Ormsby
6 months ago

There are many other Christian churches in Ukraine as well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is there, Baptists, and other Christian denominations are there, as well as many, many Jews. Our temple is in Kyiv, Ukraine and is still standing, unharmed as are all our meetinghouses throughout Ukraine as of last Friday evening. Prayers that all Christians and Jews and all innocent people of both countries of Ukraine and Russia will remain protected.

Richie
6 months ago

According to that about Russia, they and the democrats in America have a lot in common. I have heard the Ukraine government are as corrupt as the democrats as well. That explains why the democrats had so much investment there. The only ones I feel sorry for is the Ukraine citizens. They are in the same boat we are in.

Dee Scott
6 months ago

Putin has lost a large part of his Army, many tanks, is using almost every bullet, rocket, missile, plane, and I am guessing spies giving him targets to hit (such as the building with children that had children in rock). He needs China but we have warned China, if China gets involved we probably will see WWIII. I think Putin is dying and doing a last hurrah, it doesn’t matter though because his losses have left him in a very vulnerable state and even a minor power could spell out a big problem if they were attacked.

Jeff Noncent
6 months ago

Very interesting and I still believe the war between Russia and the Ukraine is Demonic in nature.

Charlene
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Noncent

Exactly…no human is as evil as he is.

Damian Keller
6 months ago

Both sides have evil pushing this war. There are many reports that the AZOV Battallion, Pravy Sektor and Banderavets are all fascist or flat out Nazis.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church has been leading relief efforts for those suffering under bombardment between these two powers seeking to destroy one another.
Eisenhower was right. Who is benefitting?

Caroline Woodis
6 months ago
Reply to  Damian Keller

Please explain who the two sides are. I am not familiar with the AZOV Battallion or Pravy Sektor and Bandderavets. Thank you.

Caroline
6 months ago

I am praying that God will give the Ukrainians the strength, endurance and support to be victorious. And prayers for all the soldiers and family members to receive enough water and food and baby formula and find shelter and protection from the weather and the weapons of destruction. Thank you to all those countries who are receiving those who have fled to safety; and to those who are supporting the Ukrainians in multiple ways.

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