Any conflict, especially a military conflict, needs a clear rationale for why it occurs. Usually, this question should be answered by official representatives of the state. However, the situation in Russia after the beginning of the armed conflict with Ukraine is gradually beginning to be explained in religious terms. This language has moved beyond the confines of the church. Today it is already being used by Russian officials and the media. At the same time, their rhetoric is more radical than that of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church; that is, official church preaching has become part of state propaganda.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has made eschatological rhetoric and thinking key. Not only in a church sermon, but also in state propaganda, radical terms such as “desatanization of Ukraine” appear. Russian officials explicitly call the Ukrainian authorities “Satanists” and “open enemies of Christ,” and the cited goal is to “stop the supreme ruler of hell, whatever name he uses—Satan, Lucifer, or Iblis. For his goal is destruction,” according to Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev in his Telegram. According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, even the Canadian authorities who imposed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill are Satanists.
On 20 November 2022, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow celebrated his 76th birthday. At a reception to mark the occasion, held in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the Patriarch warned his guests in apocalyptic terms of the current dangers facing Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Without explicitly mentioning the war in Ukraine, Kirill called on the Church to play an active part in “the struggle of our Fatherland against global evil” and against “this movement of the Antichrist, which is capable of destroying both the entire world and Russia.” All the forces of the Antichrist, he claimed, would be directed against Russia, because the Russia of today was the “restraining force” (uderzhivuaiushchii) that was mentioned in Scripture in relation to the appearance of the Antichrist in the world.
Speaking to the audience at his birthday reception that mostly comprised hierarchs of the Orthodox Church, Kirill evidently did not feel the need to explain the Biblical concept of the “restraining force.” Several months earlier, however, in a sermon he preached in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 7 April, Kirill had called for prayers to be said for peace in Ukraine and for the preservation of the unity of the Orthodox Church. Why, he asked, had external forces attacked the “Russian land”? The Bible, he explained by way of an answer, contains a reference to a certain force that restrains the coming of the Antichrist into the world. It does not say what this force is: some think it was the Roman Empire; others believe it is the Church. The latter view is correct, Kirill claimed, but the restraining force is also “the entire pious people of all times and all countries, it is the Orthodox faith which lives and acts in the Orthodox Church.” This, he concluded, is why the enemies of the Church are now attacking its unity.
With over 400 participants, representing 45 countries, the second mega-conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) was the largest gathering of Orthodox scholars in modern times, surpassing the first mega-conference held in 2019 in Iaşi, Romania. The conference concluded on Sunday, January 15, 2023, in Volos, Greece with a hierarchical liturgy and a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Meteora. The conference was co-hosted by the Metropolis of Demetrias and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
Over three days, January 12-14, 350 academic presentations were delivered, dealing with many contemporary and contentious issues facing the world, the Orthodox Church, and Christianity in general. The overall theme of the conference, Mission and the Orthodox Church, was addressed in many sessions, reflecting the broad range of academic disciplines present at the conference.
Special plenary sessions were devoted to the ongoing war in Ukraine, the effects of the pandemic, and a significant document on the social ethos of the Orthodox Church, For the Life of the World. These interdisciplinary discussions were a space for dialogue and encounter in a war-torn world, highlighting the need to deepen Orthodox Christian research and thought on these issues. As one speaker noted, “The Orthodox Church would benefit from the development of a public theology that discusses peace and war within the framework of international law and human rights taking into consideration current challenges to peace.”
On January 11, 2023, the second Mega-Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) held its formal opening at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
His Eminence Metropolitan Ignatius (Georgakopoulos) of Demetrias presided over Vespers at the Saints Constantine and Helen Church. In his welcome to the conference participants he said he was grateful that each day would begin with prayer, a sign of the ecclesial significance of the conference. Following Vespers the approximately 400 participants traveled to the Academy and filled its Great Hall for the opening ceremony.
There, the audience received a welcome from host Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Director of the Academy. Dr. Kalaitzidis noted that holding the conference in Volos is a testament to the Academy and the Holy Metropolis of Demetrias’s vision of being an internationally recognized place for encounter and dialogue, and open to scholarly thought. He focused on the incarnational reality of the Gospel and the conference’s theme, “Mission and the Orthodox Church.” He stated that mission cannot be only a theoretical or historical concern, but must be a contemporary one, since “God’s revelation takes place in history.” Kalaitzidis said: “A fleshless mission theology which refuses to converse with the wider social and cultural realities of its time is inconceivable. A mission theology that does not assume the flesh of its time is equally as inconceivable, just as it is inconceivable for the church to be insular, refusing to be drawn out of itself to meet the world and history, to evangelize and transform.”