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How the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches Handle the War


Last week, more than a dozen religious and political leaders sat on the dais of the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Volodymyr on the Upper West Side, listening to solemn prayers and fiery speeches denouncing Russia and praising Ukrainian resistance to the invasion begun two weeks earlier.

They gave speeches, one by one: the leaders of the Ukrainian, Greek and American Orthodox churches; a prominent rabbi; the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; even Governor Kathy Hochul of New York.

But one group was missing from this interreligious picture: the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Cyril of Moscow and All Russia, is an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. Organizers said Russian Orthodox leaders in New York were invited but did not respond.

“Here in America, they don’t take a stand against the Moscow Patriarchate or against the political leaders of the Russian Federation,” Bishop Daniel, a leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States, said of the religious leaders. Russians in New York. “They are trying to dance a political dance.”

The world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is complex, with more than a dozen autonomous branches whose leaders live primarily in cities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Because New York is home to hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians, many of their churches treat it like an American base of operations. These include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and a branch thereof, the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. All three have outposts within walking distance of each other; the headquarters of the Russian branches is practically next door to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, while the ornate Ukrainian cathedral is across from Central Park.

Patriarch Kirill is based in Moscow and is the highest authority of the Russian Church and its American branch based in New York, which merged into the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. He is also the highest religious authority of most Russian Orthodox parishes in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church became independent in 2019 by decree of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the religious authority for all Eastern Orthodox branches. This decision has outraged Russian political and religious leaders, and the future of the Ukrainian Church may depend on the outcome of the war.

Patriarch Kirill refused to condemn the Russian invasion. Instead, he has attacked western culture, especially gay rightsin recent weeks, and has given a religious tone to Mr. Putin’s rhetoric about the unity of Russia and Ukraine.

In a recent statementPatriarch Kirill asked God to “preserve Russian land” from “evil forces” and clarified that he was referring to “the land which now includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other tribes and peoples”.

This statement and others have drawn criticism from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the United States. In an interview, Bishop Daniel described Patriarch Kirill as “a product of a Soviet system” and a political tool of the Russian state.

The church is one of the propaganda or control departments of society, and has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union“, said the archbishop. “Obviously he will say what he needs to say.”

Across the park, an atmosphere of fear descended on the Ukrainian cathedral’s Russian counterpart, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which is the administrative and religious headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States.

The cathedral attracts worshipers from all over the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. In recent days, some parishioners and priests seemed hesitant to talk about the war. Some cited growing Russian government repression, saying they feared endangering loved ones in Russia and Ukraine.

A worshiper, her face contorted in anguish as she stood on the rain-covered steps of the cathedral, apologized for refusing an interview with a reporter, explaining that her family was in Kharkiv (the second largest city in Ukraine, which has been bombarded relentlessly since the war began).

A priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the cathedral had received hate mail since the start of the invasion and that a protester even entered the sanctuary and disrupted a religious class . She left after priests called the police, he said.

“Whether anyone believes us or not, we suffer from this,” the priest said. “We have relatives and friends in Ukraine. The parishioners have relatives and friends in Ukraine.

He said clergy don’t talk about politics in public partly because they don’t want to stir up division in the parish. But he said war anxiety seemed to be pervasive among parishioners.

“We try to explain to people that we are not politicians or that we do not talk about politics,” the priest said. “At least here, nobody asked us for our position on whether or not we should start fighting against Ukraine or not. Everyone here is against it. »

Father Sergey Trostyanskiy, rector of the Saint Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission at the Union Theological Seminary, said public debate about politics was a violation of canon law in the Russian Church, even though the Patriarch’s public statements Kirill are politically charged.

Father Trostyanskiy is also a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, founded in New York after the Russian Revolution and reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate 15 years ago. The church, a few blocks from St. Nicholas, also refused to send a representative to the interfaith event, where the Russian government was denounced, sometimes in deeply religious language.

In a speech at the interfaith prayer service, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, described his Russian counterpart, Vasily Nebenzya, as “the herald of Satan” and said that Ukraine would prevail over Russia “because we believe in God”. His remarks earned him a standing ovation.

Father Trostyanskiy said: “The Russian Church cannot participate in any event like this.”

He said Patriarch Kirill’s speeches should not be read as endorsements of war, but as an effort to protect the unity of the Church, which operates in Ukraine and Russia, by refusing to oppose the Kremlin.

“At the end of the day, people expect him to participate in political efforts, and that’s impossible,” Fr. Trostyanskiy said. “All of Kirill’s statements are constantly, ‘Let’s do things peacefully, pray and beg.’ It’s very clear, but he will never go against the Russian authorities.

This, he added, could be dangerous for any priest or parishioner.

“If people are involved in more public endeavors where they make more open statements – people currently try not to because it could affect their future or the future of those close to them,” Father Trostyanskiy said. “After this war, you never know what will happen.”

Other Orthodox leaders said Patriarch Kirill was morally obligated to publicly oppose the war, especially for his many supporters in Ukraine.

“It hurts because we are part of the same Church, the Orthodox Church,” Bishop Daniel said at the Ukrainian cathedral. “He is also a spiritual leader for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who follow the Moscow Patriarchate, and he does not defend them.”

But the fear of speaking out was palpable at St. Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox Church. Speaking after services there recently, some parishioners said the war had overwhelmed them emotionally. Others said they were afraid of what might happen to their families if they spoke out publicly, even in New York.

A woman, who gave only her first name, Olga, out of fear for her relatives in Russia, including a son and his mother, said she was still haunted by the 15 years her grandfather had spent in a Soviet prison.

“I think this kind of thing can happen again, definitely,” she said. “The situation is getting worse and worse and the newspapers are not telling people the truth.”

Coming to St. Nicholas brought her comfort, she said, with prayer and the elaborate rituals of the Orthodox faith providing respite from worry.

“Even normal people cannot say what they think because they are afraid,” she added, before entering the cathedral to pray. “Even I think of my family.”