Russia’s attack of February 24 was the latest test for the faithful of the churches and for church leaders. It was an even greater test for the leaders, because many of them had hitherto avoided recognizing the Russian aggression against Ukraine. In the following analysis, I will discuss the positions of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches regarding the Russian aggression.
Patriarch Kirill and “The Might of the Russian Warriors”
At the same time, on the eve of the attack on Ukraine, measures were being taken in Moscow to ideologically encourage the Russian soldiers before sending them to Ukraine. In particular, the Moscow Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev), placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall, declared:
Dear brothers, Russian soldiers! I greet you warmly on this day — the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland. This is first of all a remembrance of all those who gave their lives defending the sacred borders of our country. But this is also a tribute that we give to all those who also today are carrying out their military duty bravely and often at risk. The service of a soldier, the service of a defender of the Fatherland is always united with risks, especially those regarding what is most important for a person — health and life. We know that there cannot be war without sacrifices, and for that reason the people have and should always maintain special respect for those who voluntarily don a military uniform, take the oath, and swear loyalty to the Fatherland and readiness to defend its sacred borders. We live in peacetime, but we know that threats appear in peacetime too. Unfortunately, at the present moment, too, there exist threats — everyone knows what is happening on the borders of our Fatherland. Therefore I think that our military servicemen must have no doubts that they have chosen a very correct path in their lives. Because embarking on this path, you are protecting the people even without any military action. The strength of the armed forces, the might of Russian warriors — this is already a weapon that protects our people.
The next day, February 24, the Russian military, whom the Patriarch of Moscow had twice demonstratively wished peaceful skies in his brief appeal, set out to occupy Ukraine. As various observers report, according to Putin’s plans, the Russian forces were to occupy it within one to four days. The Ukrainians apparently were supposed to be frightened by “the might of the Russian warriors.” The fact that they were not frightened and mounted a spirited defense with heavy losses for the aggressor was a certain shock for the Russian leader. As is reported, he is now stating in a command bunker in the Urals.
Now Russia is trying to hush up not only its losses in Ukraine, but even the fact of its own attack. The website of the Moscow Patriarchate is likewise silent about these events, although the lion’s share of its structures remains precisely in Ukraine, and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate are also suffering in this war. But in the virtual world, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to try to construct a kind of “peaceful reality” of its own. There is nothing about the Russian aggression in Ukraine. There is nothing about the Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities, including Mariupol.
On the whole, its messages fit in with, and are a part of, the narrative of the Russian authorities about how Ukraine has been seized by nationalists who are oppressing the Ukrainian people and that this people, as it were, is only waiting for Russia to liberate them. The logic of all these assertions is constructed entirely on the base of the concept of the “Russian world,” which both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin confess. But events themselves correct the foundations of the reality of these ideas: in Ukraine, both soldiers and the civilian population, which does not desire a return of Russian rule, meet the aggressor not with bread and salt, but with lethal shots and Molotov cocktails.
Challenges for the UOC-MP
The new stage of the Russian war against Ukraine has become a true test for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) of its loyalty to its declared Christian ideals. For this confession, many of the leaders and representatives of which for decades stressed their loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate, and also to the “Russian World,” the time has come “to gather stones together.” With its opposition to the idea of the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), and also with the activity of persons and organizations closely affiliated with Russian chauvinist circles, the UOC-MP caused its own loss of a significant number of its faithful, the exodus of a part of its parishes and clergy, and a considerable decline of its authority in society.
On February 24, the day of the Russian attack, this UOC-MP’s official site publicized an appeal of its head, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry, to the faithful and citizens of Ukraine:
A misfortune has taken place. Most regrettably, Russia has undertaken military action against Ukraine, and in this fatal hour I appeal to you not to panic, to be courageous and exhibit love for your fatherland and to each other. First of all, I call for intensified repentant prayer for Ukraine, for our army and our people; I ask you to forget your mutual conflicts and misunderstandings and unite in love for God and for our Fatherland. At this tragic time we express especial love and support for our soldiers, who stand on guard and are shielding and protecting our land and our people. May God bless and protect them! Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we also appeal to the President of Russia and request that he immediately stop this fratricidal war. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples emerged from the baptismal fount of the Dnipro and war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war is justified by neither God nor man.
Soon after, the UOC-MP announced a blood drive, peace prayers in all Eparch its (again without any mention in the text of Russia as the aggressor), and correction of suspicions about a priest hiding arms in the church in the village of Uhryniv of the Volhynia Region, about a priest of that confession in the town of Bucha near Kyiv was a Russian saboteur, that a priest in the village of Ryasnyky of the RIvne Region had refused to hold a memorial service for a perished Ukrainian soldier, that in the Vinnytsia Region arms for Russian saboteurs were being stored in churches. Against the background of the execution by the Russian aggressors of the pastor of an OCU church in the village of Rozvazhiv of the Kyiv Region and of the chaplain Fr. Maksym Kozachyna, and the fact that his body, mutilated by the Russians, could only be buried on March 1, all these declarations on the part of the UOC-MP were to a significant extent understood by society as a belated justification for its previous actions in supporting the “Russian World.” These justifications were heard against the background of the fact that on February 28, Russian saboteurs had sought to infiltrate St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv. They were caught and neutralized. Most likely they could have been targeting the head of the OCU, His Beatitude Epifanii.
At the same time, church sources announced that the UOC-MP was helping refugees and victims, offering all its facilities in church basements in Kyiv and other cities of Ukraine as shelters during bombardment and shelling. In terms of geography, the disposition of this confession’s structures is especially timely, for a great many of them, thanks to the adepts of the “Russian World,” have ended up right in the middle of the zone of combat operations. Faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate die en masse from Russian bullets, shells, and missiles, and the eyewitnesses of this are the priests of this confession, who for decades had relayed to Ukrainians the ideological theses of the “Russian World.” These faithful, priests, and bishops see how the Moscow Patriarch is silent about the deaths and the wounds. Patriarch Kirill’s ignoring of the war organized by Russia poses existential questions before the faithful, clergy, and bishops of the UOC-MP.
In fact, in view of the brutal Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure in Sumy, Okhtyrka, and other towns of the Sumy Region, a report appeared on the site of the Sumy eparchy of the UOC-MP titled “The Sumy Eparchy of the UOC is ceasing commemoration of the Patriarch of Moscow,” signed by thirty clerics. This document includes a sharp criticism of Patriarch Kirill because of his ignoring of the war, and his recent activity is analyzed, concluding that “the Patriarch supports compelling Ukraine to renounce state sovereignty and its forcible inclusion into Russia,” and that “today we see no efforts on his part to protecting the suffering people of Ukraine.” The signers give assurance that they support those who have suffered from the Russian aggression, and that the termination of commemoration of the Moscow Patriarch does not mean leaving the UOC-MP.
This creates a certain dissonance. On February 25, an announcement appeared on the Facebook page of the Lviv Eparchy of the UOC to the effect that in that eparchy, commemoration of the Patriarch of Moscow was being discontinued, and that instead, the liturgical petitions would be sung according to the formula “May God protect our suffering nation of Ukraine.” As proof, a photo of the pertinent directive of the Metropolitan of Lviv and Halych of the UOC-MP Filaret (Kucherov) was provided. But in reality, to terminate commemoration is merely to stop informing the faithful that they still remain in the jurisdiction of the ROC. On March 1, the theologian Archimandrite Fr. Cyril Hovorun provided a clear, laconic explanation of the true essence of these results:
There has been a wave of refusals to commemorate Patriarch Kirill. If among the clergy who sign such appeals there is a hope that the mere commemoration of only Metropolitan Onufrii will do something similar to their canonical ties with the patriarch, then this is a total illusion. There’s no point in deluding oneself and others: as long as Metropolitan Onufrii commemorates Patriarch Kirill, all those who commemorate Onufrii remain in canonical subordination to Kirill. This are the basics of canon law…. The only canonical path is to return to full-fledged communion with world Orthodoxy, together with the Constantinopolitan, Alexandrian, and all the other Churches, together with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The alternative is to continue being transformed into a sect which has now become dangerous for human life.
Obviously, many from the UOC-MP are aware of the problematic nature of such a step as “discontinuing commemoration,” but as of March 1 not all of them would go even that far. However, a vivid testimony to the effects of hostilities in the eparchy of Sumy and Okhtyrka was the declaration of the pastor of a UOC-MP church Dmytro Dolhy, who said, “I renounce Patriarch Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchate.” This was followed on March 1 with the appearance of a video with an appeal of priests of the UOC-MP to His Beatitude Onufrii to break with the Moscow Patriarchate. In this video, there are also appeals to Patriarch Kirill, in both Ukrainian and Russian. One of the priests states:
I am ceasing to commemorate your name in the divine services in our church. This is my answer to your silence during Russia’s war with Ukraine and your enabling of the president of Russia Putin in everything, which has led to this war. We considered you a father, but you have turned out to be worse than a stepfather. God is your judge.
What is characteristic of these appeals is the continued ignoring of the fact that an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) exists in that country. Thus, in appealing for a Council, the aforesaid portion of the clergy of the UOC-MP in effect is calling for the creation in Ukraine of another parallel autocephalous Orthodox confession. But a part of the faithful of the UOC-MP also understands the unrealistic nature of such a multiplication of autocephalies. For this reason, a new wave of direct transfers of its communities to the OCU has begun.
In sum, as a result of the actions of its representatives and leaders during the past decades, the UOC-MP has become a hostage of the current situation and is again forced to justify itself. As one of the sources of the dissemination in Ukraine of the ideas of the “Russian World” during peacetime, and also after the beginning of the war in the Luhansk and Donetsk Regions, after the occupation of the Ukrainian Crimea, and after the Russian attack on February 24, 2022, this confession expectedly was subjected to various suspicions, the bases for which it had itself systematically created. All the same, a significant part of the declarations of the hierarchs and clergy of the UOC-MP remains ambivalent, and its measures — half-hearted.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the OCU
On the first day of the new phase of the war, February 24, Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew called the head of the OCU Metropolitan Epifanii (Dumenko) with words of support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s actions. The official announcement of the OCU in this regard states:
The Ecumenical Patriarch has condemned this unprovoked attack of Russia against Ukraine, an independent and sovereign European nation, as well as the violations of human rights and the brutal violence against our neighbors and chiefly against the peaceful population. The Patriarch asks the God of love and peace to enlighten the leadership of the Russian Federation that they might understand the tragic consequences of such decisions and actions, which could provoke even a world war. The Ecumenical Patriarch has also called upon the leaders of all nations, European institutions and international organizations to work on the peaceful resolution of this critical situation by way of honest dialogue, which is the only means to resolve any problem and settle any dispute. The Ecumenical Patriarch has called upon the Local Orthodox Churches in a fraternal spirit, as well as all Christians and every person of good will to unceasing prayer for the Ukrainian people and for the supremacy of peace and justice in Ukraine.
That same day, His Beatitude Epifanii issued an appeal on the occasion of the Russian aggression in which he called for prayers for Ukraine and asked the international community to support Ukraine. It was stated in the appeal that
Despite the extended, sincere, and persistent efforts of Ukraine and the entire international community, an unprovoked, underhanded, cynical attack of Russia and Belarus on Ukraine has taken place. It is our common task to repel the enemy, to defend our native land, our future and the future of new generations from tyranny, which the aggressor desires to bring upon its bayonets. Truth is on our side. Therefore with God’s help and the support of the entire civilized world, the enemy will be defeated. Our present task is to be united, to withstand the first shock, not to give in to panic. We believe in God’s providence and the victory of truth.
In the following days, the head of the OCU also turned to the faithful with words of support. And on February 27, he made an appeal to the Moscow Patriarch Kirill. Pointing out that it was already the fourth day of the war, and having analyzed the Patriarch’s activity, the metropolitan stated that:
Unfortunately, it is already clear from your previous statements that preserving the favor of Putin and the ROC leadership is much more important for you than care for the people in Ukraine, a part of whom considered you their pastor before the war. It therefore hardly makes sense to appeal to you to do something active to immediately stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. […] Therefore I appeal to you as head of the ROC: at least show some mercy for your fellow citizens and your flock. If you cannot raise your voice against aggression, at least help in gathering the bodies of the Russian soldiers whose lives are the price of your and your President’s idea of the “Russian world.”
There was no reply to this appeal.
On February 27, it was reported that the Russian occupants had executed the pastor of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine church in the village of Rozvazhiv, Kyiv Region, and the chaplain Fr. Maksym Kozachyna in their automobile (the latter’s body, mutilated by the Russians, could only be buried on March 1). And the next day, Russian saboteurs sought to infiltrate St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv; they were detained and neutralized. Their target may well have been the head of the OCU, His Beatitude Epifanii.
On February 28, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, reported his telephone conversation with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Twitter: “Your words are like hands that sustain us in this difficult time. Ukrainians feel the spiritual support and power of your prayers. We hope that peace will come soon.”
The Apostolic See and the Nunciature in Kyiv
The Apostolic See expresses its constant support to Ukraine, although in the vortex of turbulent and noisy military events, it has to be admitted, Ukrainians at first did not hear its voice, and then questions arose such as “Why is the pope silent?” At the very time before the beginning of the Russian aggression when many mass media were announcing it, Pope Francis persistently and frequently called for prayer for peace in Ukraine. On February 23, the pontiff announced March 2 as a day of fasting for peace in Ukraine, saying:
I feel a deep pain in my heart because of the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine. Despite the diplomatic efforts of the last few weeks, alarming scenarios continue to develop. Like me, many people in the world around the world experience alarm and concern. Private interests again threaten the peace of all. I wish to appeal to those who bear responsibility in the political sphere that they make a serious examination of conscience before God, Who is the God of peace, and not war, the Father of all, and not just of some, Who desires that we be brethren, and not enemies. I ask all the parties involved to abstain from any action that could cause even greater suffering of the population , destabilizing coexistence among peoples and discrediting international law. And now I wish to appeal to all, believers and unbelievers. Jesus taught us that we should respond to the diabolical insanity of violence with God’s weapons: prayer and fasting. I urge everyone to spend March 2, Ash Wednesday, as a day of fasting for peace. I especially urge the faithful to persistently dedicate themselves on this day to prayer and fasting. May the Queen of Peace safeguard the world from the madness of war.
On the morning of February 25, Pope Francis went in person to the embassy of Russia to the Holy See, in fact for the first time in history, because up to then, the popes had received ambassadors only at their own offices. As the Ukrainian Service of Radio Vatican reported, “During the visit, which lasted over two hours, as the director of the Vatican press office Matteo Bruni confirmed, the pope wished to express his concern about the war in Ukraine.”
On February 26, amidst reports of military action and street fighting in Kyiv, the pope had a telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky. According to a tweet of the Embassy of Ukraine to the Holy See, “The Holy Father expressed his deep pain on the occasion of the tragic events in our country.” In a tweet of the President of Ukraine we read: “I thanked Pope Francis for his prayers for peace in Ukraine and for a ceasefire. The Ukrainian people feel His Holiness’ spiritual support.”
On the same day, the Pontiff tweeted again in the Ukrainian language with an appeal to pray for peace in Ukraine and to fast for peace. Also on February 26, the pope made a warning tweet in the Russian language, and thus obviously addressed to the Russians: “Every war makes our world worse than it was before. War is the failure of politics, a failure of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a crushing defeat before the forces of evil.”
Against the background of all these events, the Apostolic Nuncio in Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, remains in Kyiv together with the officials of the nunciature. On February 27 an interview with His Excellency was posted on the website of the nunciature, where it was stated in the introduction: “He is sharing the fate of millions of civilian residents who are seeking protection from the fighting that has erupted in the city.”
The Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine
Roman Catholic Archbishop and Metropolitan of Lviv Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki appealed on February 24 to his clergy and faithful with these words:
At this time, when the most horrible scenarios are being realized, when a state of war has been announced in Ukraine, I turn to you with a word of encouragement and solidarity. All of us feel endangered; nevertheless, we must not lose hope, not to speak of falling into panic. Now, as never before, we need unity and mutual support. I therefore ask all priests and those in consecrated life to remain with their faithful and not to leave their parishes.
On the same day, Bishop Edward Kawa called for prayer for Ukraine and stated that the right to defend one’s land and one’s family is a God-given right. The bishop also warned against spreading unverified information, called for assistance for those in need, and assured the faithful that the clergy remained with them and was ready to help with everything necessary and possible. In brief, the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine is organizing a whole series of humanitarian initiatives aimed at helping the victims: from psychological and therapeutic assistance to mobilizing the structures of Caritas International.
Every time Russia has occupied Ukrainian lands, it has destroyed the Uniate Church, known today in Ukraine as the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. Being deeply rooted in Ukrainian reality and culture, it remains unhesitatingly with its people during the Russian war against Ukraine. In his appeal to the Ukrainian people issued on February 24 at the patriarchal cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Kyiv, the head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said:
The treacherous enemy, disregarding his own obligations and assurances, breaking the fundamental norms of international law, has entered the Ukrainian land as an unjust aggressor, bringing death and ruin. Our Ukraine, which the world has justly termed a “bloodland,” which so many times has been stained with the blood of martyrs and fighters for the freedom and independence of their people, is calling us today to stand up in its defense, in defense of its dignity before God and humanity, its right to exist and its right to choose its future. It is our natural right and our sacred duty to defend our land and our people, our nation and everything that we hold dearest: our families, our language and culture, our history and our spiritual world!
On the day before the attack, though not for the first time, His Beatitude Sviatoslav had stressed to the participants of an international forum in Italy that Ukraine was defending European values at the cost of its children’s blood. Like other confessions, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church is carrying out a whole series of emergency humanitarian projects in support of war victims.
Thus, the Russian and Belarusian attack on Ukraine of February 24, 2022 marked the beginning of a new and more extensive stage of the Russian war against Ukraine. None of the so-called “traditional” confessions remained untouched by these events. So far, the ROC headed by the Moscow Patriarch Kirill is systematically trying to ignore the realities and justify some kind of parallel reality in accord with the needs of justifying Russian aggression and even to conceal it in order to preserve its ideas of the “Russian World.” Other voices are beginning to be heard from the head of the UOC-MP, which so far has cleaved closely to these ideas. This period is unusually difficult for this confession, for the realities have fundamentally contradicted the theses it has hitherto maintained, especially about Ukraine’s “fraternal” nations of Russia and Belarus. There is no basis, however, for thinking that the change in position, and the rhetoric accompanying it, is irreversible. The OCU, Roman Catholics and Greco-Catholics, in their turn, are acting in support of Ukraine.
Volodymyr Moroz, PhD
Research Fellow, Institute of the History of the Church, Ukrainian Catholic University
Editor in Chief, “Patriyarkhat”