In a small parish in northern Italy affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, the mostly Ukrainian worshipers — IT specialists, migrant factory laborers, nurses and cleaners — decided to repudiate the full-throated support for the war in Ukraine from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
The Moscow Patriarch had repeatedly bestowed blessings on the Russian military, giving a historical golden icon of the Virgin Mary to a senior commander, for example, and casting the war as a holy struggle to protect Russia from what he called Western scourges like gay pride parades. He has been a vocal supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin, with the church receiving vast financial resources in return.
“We saw that the Moscow Patriarchate was not engaged in theology, it was simply interested in supporting the ideology of the state,” said Archpriest Volodymyr Melnichuk of the Church of the Elevation of the Cross in Udine, Italy, “In essence the patriarch betrayed his Ukrainian flock.”
So on March 31, the Ukrainian cleric wrote a letter severing all ties to the Moscow Patriarchate.
With the Eastern Orthodox Easter approaching this Sunday, similar tensions are rippling through the church’s more than 200 million faithful, concentrated in eastern and southern Europe. Around the world, the war is dividing national churches, parishes and even families as they reassess relations with Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the United States, some believers are switching churches. In France, Orthodox seminary students petitioned their bishop to break with the Moscow Patriarchate. In the Netherlands, the police had to intervene at a Rotterdam church after parishioners came to blows over the war.
The Ukraine war has pitted combatants under the Moscow Patriarch against each other, and has placed Ukrainian worshipers in an especially untenable position. By tradition, Orthodox worshipers pray for their patriarch at all services.
“How can you accept prayers for the patriarch who is blessing the soldiers trying to kill your son?” said Andreas Loudaros, editor of Orthodoxia.info, an Athens-based website that covers church affairs.
Doctrinal disputes and intrigues within the Eastern Orthodox Church often spool out over decades, if not centuries. But with remarkable speed, the war has widened schisms long kept below the surface.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, with its single, uncontested leader, each of the 15 Orthodox branches enjoys significant sovereignty. Heated debates have erupted within the Eastern Orthodox Church in numerous countries whether to openly ostracize Patriarch Kirill and Russia.
The Moscow Patriarchate has sought to anoint itself the true seat of Orthodoxy ever since Constantinople, now Istanbul, fell to Islamic invaders in 1453. So Moscow has been at loggerheads for centuries with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, always the spiritual leader of the church. But, the testy relations between Kirill and the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew, burst into the open over the war.
“He should not have identified so much with President Putin and even called Russia’s war against Ukraine ‘sacred,’” the patriarch recently told a group of students.
“It is damaging to the prestige of the whole of Orthodoxy because Orthodoxy doesn’t support war, violence, terrorism,” Bartholomew said in an interview in Istanbul.
Ukraine has been a particular source of antagonism between the two hierarchs. In 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew granted independence, called “autocephaly,” to a previously unsanctioned church in Ukraine, which had been subordinate to Moscow since 1686.
Afterward, the Russian church severed contacts with Bartholomew. More than half Ukraine’s parishes rejected the decision and stayed under Moscow’s jurisdiction.
Of the 45 dioceses in Ukraine, encompassing nearly 20,000 parishes, about 22 have stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill during prayers, said Sergei Chapnin, a Russian religious scholar and frequent church critic.
That is the first step toward breaking with Moscow, though still far from a formal rupture. But the dispute makes it difficult for many Ukrainian bishops to switch allegiances now.
Some faithful in Ukraine question the silence of the bishops, wondering aloud whether they are fans of Mr. Putin, have been bribed or blackmailed to stay quiet or are hedging their bets lest Moscow prevails in the war.
Archpriest Andriy Pinchuk, 44, the former mayor of a small agricultural village just south of the central city of Dnipro, said the hesitancy dismays many parish priests. Russian troops have destroyed countless churches.
“We are ashamed to look into the eyes of regular Ukrainians, we are ashamed of the horrible aggressive words that Patriarch Kirill is saying constantly, we are ashamed of the Ukrainian bishops who put their heads in the sand and fear a rupture with the Moscow Patriarch,” said Father Pinchuk. Ukrainians constitute a significant part of the Moscow Patriarch’s flock, so losing them would be a blow.
Father Pinchuk is the author of a petition signed by some 400 Ukrainian clerics asking church hierarchs to declare as heresy Kirill’s support for the Kremlin’s Russkii Mir or “Russian World,” project, which among other things has tried to extend church influence outside Russia as a foreign policy tool.
“The future of any church in Ukraine will not be linked to Moscow unless it wins this war,” said Christophe D’Aloisio, a visiting professor of Eastern Christian and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium and an Orthodox parish priest, who signed a declaration in March against the “Russian World” project by more than 1,300 Orthodox scholars and theologians. “But it is the wrong moment to position yourself for or against.”
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has provoked widespread anger with a series of sermons and speeches, including saying that the country is battling the Antichrist, and urged Russians to rally around the government. Kirill has avoided condemning widely documented attacks on civilians, many of whom are his parishioners. Most national churches have not condemned Kirill.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
One possible reason emerges on the website of the Foundation for the Support of Christian Culture and Heritage, which is funded by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation. It lists church projects financed around the world in Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland, Serbia and the United States, among others.
Numerous recipients have not denounced the war. “When you get money from Moscow it is not easy to be critical,” said Mr. D’Aloisio.
About 300 priests, mostly inside Russia, signed a petition against the war. Three Lithuanian priests who were outspoken critics were just fired.
In the United States, some adherents expressed anger that although the two main American branches of Russian origin, the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, had condemned the fighting and worked to help refugees, they avoided criticizing Patriarch Kirill directly.
An influx of converts in recent years, drawn by President Putin portraying himself as a bulwark against the West’s moral collapse, has intensified the wrangling.
“It has torn the church apart in some ways,” said the Very Rev. Dr. John Jillions, a retired associate professor of religion and a former parish priest in Bridgeport, Conn. “I think that they are too hesitant, they need to come out much more forcefully that they are against Putin’s aggression and Patriarch Kirill’s apparent support.”
Many people are questioning why St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers accepted a $250,000 donation from the Russian state religious foundation to name a chair in biblical studies after Kirill, suggesting that the money be returned or spent on Ukrainian refugees.
The Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield, the president of the seminary, said that the donation was received before the invasion and was under review, and that the Orthodox Church of America had condemned the war.
Archpriest Victor Potapov in Washington, D.C., speaking for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, called it wrong to single out Russia for blame, and said the church was offering fervent prayers for the war to end.
Some parishioners are switching churches over the issue. “This is not my church, I cannot go to a church headed by a patriarch who is supporting war,” said Lena S. Zezulin. She left her church, St. Seraphim’s Russian Orthodox Church in Sea Cliff, Long Island, where she was baptized. She cannot convince her mother, aged 90, to quit.
By all accounts, a serious cleavage in the church appears inevitable, but the course of the war will determine its depth and the scar tissue left behind.
On Palm Sunday, sitting in the courtyard of an Orthodox church frequented by Ukrainians in Istanbul, Nadiia Kliuieva reeled off the terrible legacy from a conflict sanctified by Kirill, including children killed, women raped and the pain of Ukrainians everywhere.
“I don’t know what kind of Ukrainian you would have to be to keep an association with the Moscow Patriarchate,” she said. “I think many people have opened their eyes.”
Neil MacFarquhar reported from Istanbul and Sophia Kishkovsky from Long Island.