Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts have been scrupulously analyzing the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) reaction to the conflict. Its support for the Kremlin triggered comments about the Church being a state-controlled ideology entrepreneur which has confused Christian values with imperial geopolitics. Indeed, the inclination towards geopolitics and great power logic can be noticed in the position of many representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, this is not only the case with Ukraine or post-Soviet territory. The ROC’s entanglement in geopolitics goes beyond this and often contradicts Christian teaching. This is well seen in the Moscow Patriarchate’s approach towards China, which is discussed here. It is intriguing to observe how a Communist Party hostile towards religion has become a desirable ally against the liberal West with whom Russia shares its Christian tradition.
The fact that the US is unable to convince China to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirms the significance of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. Russia’s reorientation towards China accelerated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The cornerstone of the new opening between Moscow and Beijing was laid, though, in 2001, when the bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation was signed. The Plan of Actions foreseen by the treaty (2004) included a point which provided information about “initiating a dialogue and a cooperation between the ‘leading religions’” of both countries. This rather modest formulation has provided the Russian state and Church with the formal ground to address the situation of Orthodox believers living in China.
After the communications breakdown between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) over the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the issue of consensus in the Orthodox Church was of utmost importance. Moscow and Constantinople were questioned on whether they share the same ecclesiology, but the issue of resolving the schism of the Orthodox Church of North Macedonia (Macedonian church) has just arisen, giving new hope for the future.
Orthodox dioceses in North Macedonia were part of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) until 1967. After the Second World War, the SOC was under the communist regime in Yugoslavia, and it could not act freely due to tremendous repression. During that period, the Orthodox dioceses in the territory of today’s North Macedonia unilaterally declared autocephaly from the SOC and started a schism. Because of that schism, the Macedonian church was for decades isolated and outside unity with all Orthodox churches.
After Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, the question of the further existence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate became critical. Patriarch Kirill did not condemn the aggression and did not call the aggressor by name. He did not express any condolences to the families of the dead Ukrainians. Most of the Ukrainian episcopate condemned the invasion, but it was at a complete loss and failed to take an active anti-war stance. The initiative fell to the hands of parish clergy, a situation unprecedented for the post-Soviet space. First, at the initiative of priests in 22 dioceses, it was decided to stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill during the liturgy. The next step was an appeal to the Primate of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Onufry, calling for a Council of Bishops to withdraw from the jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill.
However, the most striking and bold initiative was an appeal by Archpriest Andrii Pinchuk to the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches, demanding a church trial against Patriarch Kirill. He admitted that he had intended to collect about 100 signatures, but in five days he collected 437, with priests from the vast majority of the dioceses in Ukraine responding. The letter was also supported by a significant number of priests who did not dare to put their signatures for fear of being subjected to repression by their bishops, but in private conversations with Fr. Andrii admitted to fully supporting him.
By today, an appeal was already sent to the heads of the churches, including Patriarch Kirill himself. But so far, there has been no response to the letter.
It is hard to guess what will be the reaction of the addressees, but there is certain dissatisfaction with the overcautious position of most of the primates of the Orthodox Churches.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has caught the attention of the public for multiple reasons. The humanitarian catastrophe, the sheer horror of ceaseless shelling, the shooting of protesters in the streets, the attacks on nuclear plants, the threats to assassinate President Zelensky and other leaders, and the war on democracy.
One of the underreported consequences of Russia’s attack is the betrayal, isolation, and devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). UOC-MP clergy, faithful, and property are also under attack. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many, including Metropolitan Onufry, the primate of the UOC-MP. The tone of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals to President Putin has been urgent, and his pleas continue to go unheeded. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) repeated his appeal for the unity of the Russian Church, anchored in the indivisibility of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as one people – a historical narrative he shares with Putin. In a rambling sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Patriarch Kirill justified the invasion of Ukraine by complaining about gay parades and repeating Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has slaughtered the people of Donbas for eight years.
The ROC’s abandonment of the UOC-MP has led it to a crossroads. Bishops and clergy in Ukraine, witnessing to devastation and brutality, called for an immediate stoppage of commemorating Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy. This act is essentially a form of protest, and not a break in communion, as long as Metropolitan Onufry continues to commemorate Kirill. The angry letter sent by Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy did not escape the ROC’s notice, however. The ROC warned Metropolitan Evlogy that failing to commemorate the patriarch at Liturgy was a violation of the canons.