Orthodox Church fractures over Ukraine

Pope Francis: In the name of God, I ask you: stop this massacre!

One of the largest Russian Orthodox congregations in the Netherlands says it will split from the Moscow patriarchate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a statement, the Amsterdam church’s clergy said, “it is no longer possible” for them “to function within the Moscow patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment” for congregants.

The parish clergy of Saint Nicolas of Myra voted unanimously to petition the Russian Orthodox archbishop of the Netherlands to grant the church “canonical dismissal”. The church has requested to join the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople based in Istanbul.

St Nicolas’ decision follows failed appeals to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church and a loyal ally of Russian President Vladamir Putin, to “break the silence on conflict and march before authorities for peace”.

Putin has “earned the hatred of the whole world” – Bartholomew I

On March 5, the church announced it would no longer include a commemoration of Patriarch Kirill – a regular part of their liturgy – in their services.

“Today, Patriarch Kirill broke the silence about the war. In a circular letter, he approved a prayer for a world that imposes full responsibility for the war on foreign countries (“In the same foreign language, defend at the same time and to the Holy Russia militia – ban and riddles against them”). The prayer also contains a request “the power of those withholding for all good teaching.”
We distance ourselves from the description of events, which Patriarch Kirill says.”

Last Thursday, Kirill again confirmed his support for the invasion in a letter to Archpriest Ioan Sauca. Sauca, acting General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, wrote to Kirill on March 2, urging him to mediate to stop the war.

But Kirill’s response reinforced Putin’s narrative, asserting that “political forces” – specifically, NATO – that “make it their aim to contain Russia” are to blame for the war.

“This tragic conflict has become a part of the large-scale geopolitical strategy aimed, first and foremost, at weakening Russia,” the Orthodox leader wrote.

“And now the Western leaders are imposing such economic sanctions on Russia that will be harmful to everyone. They make their intentions blatantly obvious – to bring sufferings not only to the Russian political or military leaders, but specifically to the Russian people. Russophobia is spreading across the Western world at an unprecedented pace.”

While disappointing, Kirrill’s response is not unexpected. For years, the Russian Orthodox Church has had a strained relationship with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and its leader Bartholomew I – regarded as the spiritual authority of Orthodox Christians. The Russian patriarchate cut ties with the Constantinople fraternity in 2018, angry that Bartholomew had granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thereby releasing it from the control of Moscow.

Now, some regard the two patriarchates as rivals, and St Nicolas’ decision would likely be considered as an insult.

Bartholomew Ihas openly condemned Putin’s invasion of Russia in strong language. In a Turkish television interview, he described the Russian leader’s decision to go to war against his “coreligionists” as “a great injustice” that has “earned the hatred of the whole world.”

Christian leaders across the world condemn Putin, urge Kirill to act

Whether or not Putin has indeed earned “the hatred of the whole world”, it is clear that Kirill is increasingly earning himself the disapproval of Orthodox Church leaders.

Among those who have called on the Russian leader to intervene are the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE); Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg; Metropolitan John of Dubna, Archbishop of the Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe; and more than 100 US Church leaders. In addition, 286 Russian Orthodox priests made headlines when they signed an open letter appealing “to everyone on whom the cessation of the fratricidal war in Ukraine depends, with a call for reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire.”

Pope Francis is the first catholic pope to have visited Moscow. The Pontiff has been working for years to build a stronger relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, signing a 30-point declaration of solidarity at a historic meeting in Havana in 2016.

The pair were due to meet this summer to build upon the 2016 declaration – a meeting now cancelled – and Francis was initially restrained in his condemnation of Russia. This may be because he was attempting to maintain a neutral position, having offered to assist in mediating a peace deal between the two countries.

“In the name of God, listen to the cry of those who suffer, and put an end to the bombings and the attacks!” – Pope Francis

But for the past two Sundays, Francis has been unequivocal in his condemnation.

“… rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery. The number of victims is increasing, as are the people fleeing, especially mothers and children. The need for humanitarian assistance in that troubled country is growing dramatically by the hour,” Francis said to those gathered in St Peter’s Square for his Sunday blessing on March 6.

“I implore that the armed attacks cease and that negotiation — and common sense — prevail. And that international law be respected once again!”

This past Sunday, Francis’s words were more potent still.

“… Mariupol, has become a city martyred by the ruinous war that is devastating Ukraine. Faced with the barbarism of the killing of children, and of innocent and defenceless citizens, there are no strategic reasons that hold up: the only thing to be done is to cease the unacceptable armed aggression before the city is reduced to a cemetery. With an aching heart I add my voice to that of the common people, who implore the end of the war. In the name of God, listen to the cry of those who suffer, and put an end to the bombings and the attacks! Let there be real and decisive focus on the negotiations, and let the humanitarian corridors be effective and safe. In the name of God, I ask you: stop this massacre!”

Overnight one of the Vatican’s top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, announced that Russia has “taken note” of Pope Francis’ willingness to mediate between the Kremlin and Ukraine to put an end to the war, but has made no sign of wanting to take up the offer.

“The Russian side has taken note,” Parolin said, “but so far there have been no signs that they intend to make use of this availability.”