Inter-Orthodox Relations, Religion and Conflict

The Orthodox Church of Finland and the War in Ukraine

Published on: May 13, 2024
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Orthodox Church of Finland
Image Credit: Orthodox Parish of Helsinki

Orthodox Christians in Russia are sometimes surprised to learn that Patriarch Kirill is only representing the Russian Orthodox Church and that his views can in no way be taken as the views of the entire Orthodox Church. Orthodox in the West sometimes complain that their church leadership has remained silent about the war in Ukraine. I don’t know how true this is; it probably varies from one local Church to another. But I would like to share the experience of the Orthodox Church of Finland (OCF) in this regard, because I myself have been serving in Finland as a parish priest for the last two years.  

These are just some of the reactions of the Orthodox Church of Finland to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, at various levels, from statements by the Primate to addresses by church councils.

So, already on February 24, 2022—the first day of the Russia’s aggression—Archbishop Leo, the Primate of the OCF, visited the Ukrainian Embassy in Finland, expressing his support for the Ukrainian people. 

On February 26—the third day of the invasion—the Council of Bishops of the OCF took place and addressed all Orthodox faithful of its Church with a pastoral epistle entirely devoted to the situation in Ukraine:

“The Orthodox Church of Finland strongly condemns the military actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine. There is no justification for war. The people of Ukraine must be supported by all means… Our Church is also preparing to help and support potential refugees.

We also appeal to the bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate to facilitate peace efforts.

At this difficult occasion, our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine, who are now fleeing the horrors of war mostly to neighboring countries.

We hope that the Russian people will not be blamed for this situation and that no discord will be sown among our parishioners living in Finland. Every parishioner is equally dear to us, regardless of his or her ethnicity …

The probable expansion of the war also worries many people. According to our country’s leadership, there is no prospect of a military threat to our country at this time. As a Church, we certainly pray to the Triune God that we may continue to live a ‘peaceful and quiet’ life (1 Tim. 2:2).”

On March 5-7, 2022, the Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption in Helsinki was illuminated with the colors of the Ukrainian national flag, and a procession was organized from the cathedral and a prayer in front of the Ukrainian Embassy.

And already in early March 2022, the first refugees began to arrive in Finland, and the OCF began not only to raise funds to help Ukraine, but also to receive and nurture Ukrainian refugees in Finland itself. It is important that this was done not only at the level of individual parishes, but at the level of the whole Church. 

The OCF is an integral part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an autonomous Church within it. Last year, 2023, it celebrated the centenary of obtaining this status. At the same time, it is not “a part of the Greek Church” at all, but is truly the local Church of Finland. It is self-governing, and therefore its position on a variety of issues can be interesting. What is the reason for the OCF’s unambiguous position on condemning the war and supporting Ukrainians, both in Ukraine itself and Ukrainian refugees in Finland?

Historically, the OCF is a Church of Slavic tradition, although it has never resided in a Slavic society. Its liturgical, iconographic, and musical traditions are the same as in Russia and Ukraine. And this is not surprising: in the Middle Ages the Orthodox Finns and Karelians were part of the Novgorod Archbishopric, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries Finland was part of the Russian Empire, although it had its own special state status: the Grand Duchy of Finland. So everything that happens on the eastern side of the border has always been important and very relevant for it. After the 1917 7evolution and the civil war in Russia—which was won here by the Whites, not the Reds—Finland gained its independence. However, during the Winter War of 1939-1940. The Soviet Union tried to “correct the situation”; it was not for nothing that the Soviet propaganda of the time referred to the Finns resisting Soviet aggression as “White-Finns” who must finally be defeated—20 years after the end of that civil war.

For modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Finns, the war in Ukraine directly reminds them of the events of their own history. For them, Ukraine today finds itself in the same situation as Finland more than 80 years ago (by the way, the arguments of the attacking side both then and now are very similar). And this view is held today by the Finnish society, state, and Church, which distinguishes it from many other countries and peoples, for whom this is perhaps a rather distant and not very clear conflict. Hence the significant number of Ukrainian flags on the streets of Finnish cities—there are still far more of them than in large European countries.

Another important point is that as a result of the Winter War, Finland survived as an independent state, but lost about 10% of its territory. Tens of thousands of Finns from the eastern regions became refugees. Among them were very many Orthodox Karelians. Thus, most Orthodox Finns—including Archbishop Leo himself—had heard stories about refugees from their grandparents since childhood. And today’s Ukrainian refugees remind them of the stories of their own families in a similar war. 

The official statements of Archbishop Leo and the OCF on support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s aggression did not end with the spring of 2022. They are repeated regularly: for anniversaries, memorial services, and official occasions. On July 29, 2022, a joint message was published by Archbishop Leo together with the Lutheran Archbishop of Finland Tapio against justifying the war with religious arguments.

“Calling the brutal war asceticism, Patriarch [Kirill] is trying to use religion to wash away the stains of blood. The assumption that Russian soldiers have profound morals and represent good implies that the opposing side is immoral and represents evil. It is based on the deliberate dehumanization of the other group, which is the premise of the human willingness to kill other…

Defending Russia’s illegal war of aggression on religious grounds is an abuse of religion: it is unethical, breaks the link between East and West and, above all, harms people…”

This paragraph referred to Patriarch Kirill’s famous address to the Russian military: “Go bravely fulfill your military duty. And remember that if you lay down your life for your country, for your friends, you will be together with God in His kingdom of glory and eternal life.

It is noteworthy that the Finnish hierarchs speak here of “unethical” behavior rather than of theological categories. And this is accurate, because Patriarch Kirill—as well as the “school” of his mentor, Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad—have always been non-dogmatic. They were not very interested in theological questions, so all attempts to “condemn” Patriarch Kirill on the basis of false theological opinions in this very context do not seem convincing: one must be a theologian so that we can talk about his “heresies.” 

Archbishop Leo also tried to appeal directly to Patriarch Kirill: “Until now, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church supports the leadership of the country, blessing this war and justifying it as a ‘holy’ war. Before it is too late, the Church must realize that it is on the wrong path. I appeal to Patriarch Kirill personally: remember your episcopal and patriarchal vows, and that you will have to answer for them before the Almighty. For Christ’s sake: wake up and condemn this evil! Use your influence to bring about peace and do everything you can to bring this war to an end. I pray God to grant you the humility and wisdom to do so” (3.04.2022).

The work with Ukrainians in the Orthodox Church of Finland deserves special attention and a detailed story. Ukrainian believers easily come to the churches of the OCF. On the one hand, it has the same Slavic tradition (yet with a completely unknown language). On the other hand, there is no commemoration of Patriarch Kirill during the liturgy and, most importantly, no questions about which Church you were baptized in and where you went at home—the Orthodox Church of Finland accepts all Ukrainian Orthodox without distinction of jurisdiction. And a clear position on condemning the Russia’s invasion helps Ukrainian refugees feel at home in Finland and in the churches of the OCF.

And with all this—in the churches of the Orthodox Church of Finland nowadays nobody prays for victory: they pray only for peace.

* * *

As preparations were underway for the publication of this essay, significant developments emerged in Finland, altering the landscape of pastoral care for Ukrainian refugees.

At the close of 2023, the Church of Finland decided not to extend the contract of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) priest dedicated to assisting Ukrainian refugees, as the humanitarian organization “Philanthropy,” the sponsor for his work, is redirecting its focus solely to social projects and ceasing sponsorship of pastoral assignments. Consequently, parish priests in Finland are now tasked with independently tending to the needs of Ukrainian refugees. Yet, stark challenges emerge as quite a few deaneries in Finland lack Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking clergy despite the influx of Ukrainian refugees surpassing the Orthodox Church of Finland’s registered membership.

Responding to this complex situation, the leadership of the UOC opted to establish their own communities in Finland, overseen by two priests who were granted refugee status in the country. While these communities operated informally in the past, they were not officially listed by the UOC as “foreign” parishes in adherence to their policy of refraining from establishing parishes where a Local Church already exists. However, recent events indicate a shift in approach.

Archbishop Leo’s response to this decision was tense: “The establishment of representative bodies separate from our Local Church by other Orthodox Churches on the territory of our autonomy cannot be tolerated and is against the canons.” He further directed the parishes of his diocese to refrain from engaging with the newly established congregations.

Yet, the fundamental challenge persists: integrating foreign-speaking Orthodox individuals within smaller Local Churches remains exceedingly arduous, amplifying the complexities inherent in fostering inclusivity within religious communities.

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About author

  • Rev. Alexander Zanemonets

    Rev. Alexander Zanemonets

    Associate researcher at the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Radboud University, Netherlands)

    Rev. Alexander Zanemonets is an Orthodox priest and historian, having earned his PhD from Moscow State University in 2004. Originally from Moscow, he has resided in Israel since 2002, serving as a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa. Currently, he holds the position of associate researcher at...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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