Father Ioann Burdin, the priest of a small village in central Russia, began his first sermon since the outbreak of war with a promise to pray for the people of Ukraine, and for an end to their suffering.

One parishioner spoke up, objecting angrily to the priest’s words, delivered on a Sunday in March. Another, he noticed, did not repeat prayers after him during the mass. Then someone denounced him to the police. In early April, Fr Burdin celebrated his final mass.

The clergyman’s stance, condemning the bloodshed in Ukraine, was at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has thrown its ideological weight behind the Kremlin’s war. In doing so, the Moscow-led church has risked alienating not only independently-minded clergy at home, but also many Ukrainians.

Fr Burdin was accused of “publicly discrediting the armed forces”, under a new military censorship law that can carry a prison sentence for repeated offences. The courts handed him a fine, and though he will remain in the priesthood, he last week left his village church for good. He did so of his own accord, he added.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Moscow-led branch of global Orthodoxy, this month called on Russians to rally around their government so that the state could “repel its enemies, both external and internal”, a resounding message of support for the war.

The church, one of the pillars of Vladimir Putin’s rule, has given the war an air of legitimacy among the president’s supporters, bolstering his depiction of Russia’s invasion as a reunion of ancient Slavic-Orthodox lands.

Kirill has presented the conflict not as an invasion of Ukraine but as a global, historic battle over values, with Russia the last bastion against an immoral west that gives licence, for example, to “gay parades”. He said “God’s truth” was on Russia’s side.

Since the outbreak of war, the Patriarch has prayed for peace in Ukraine but also shared a pulpit with the head of Russia’s National Guard, a domestic military police force that has divisions fighting in Ukraine, gifting him an icon to support “young warriors”. This month, in a new military cathedral outside Moscow, Kirill read a special prayer for soldiers fighting for Russia’s “true independence”.

Vladimir Putin presents flowers to Patriarch Kirill at a ceremony last year
Vladimir Putin presents flowers to Patriarch Kirill at a ceremony last year. The Russian Orthdox Church is one of the pillars of Putin’s rule © Mikhail Metzel/Reuters

It was an “ecstatic symphony” of church and state, said Fr Burdin, speaking by phone from his tiny parish in Karabanovo, soon after his final sermon in the golden-domed church.

In Ukraine, it has caused outrage among many. Before the outbreak of war, thousands of parishes in Ukraine remained under Moscow’s control, with Kirill their spiritual leader, despite a historic split in 2018 that set up an independent, Kyiv-led church with its own religious leadership for the first time.

And yet the Moscow church has stayed silent about the fate of its parishioners in Ukraine, even as dozens of church buildings have come under fire and been destroyed, and priests have been forced to live in bomb shelters and organise emergency support for desperate communities.

“For Ukrainian priests and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill has betrayed them,” said Sergei Chapnin, senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University in the US.

“He has not said a word of support or of empathy to them. From their perspective, they simply do not exist for Patriarch Kirill,” Chapnin said.

A full 12,000 parishes in Ukraine were subject to Moscow and to Kirill before the war, according to Chapnin, representing about a third of all the parishes under Moscow’s control across both countries.

Fourteen per cent of Ukrainians identified with the Moscow-led church, out of a population of about 44mn, according to a poll by Ukraine’s Razumkov Centre.

Now, many are keen to see a break. Just two weeks into the war, a pollster found that more than half of Ukrainian Orthodox believers who attended Moscow-led churches wanted their church to break from Moscow and Kirill.

Many priests in the church have stopped mentioning Kirill’s name during prayers, meaning that thousands of Ukrainian parishes have now “de facto” left Moscow’s orbit, Chapnin said, though their formal allegiance to the spiritual leader will remain until Kyiv’s top bishop does the same.

Hundreds of Ukrainian priests, formally still members of the Moscow church, have called for Kirill to be tried in a rare church tribunal for “blessing the war against Ukraine”, signing their names to a petition launched by Andriy Pinchuk, a priest from a small town near Dnipro in eastern Ukraine.

“Over many years Patriarch Kirill in his public statements . . . asserted that he believes that the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine are his flock, for which he is responsible,” Pinchuk wrote. “And yet today he directly blesses the physical destruction of this community by the Russian forces.” 

“We declare that it is impossible for us to continue to be in any form of canonical allegiance to the Moscow Patriarch. This is the command of our Christian conscience,” he said.

Meanwhile in Russia, many priests are choosing to stay silent, “burying their heads in the sand”, said Father Georgi Sukhoboky, a priest who fled Russia in February, before the outbreak of war, after receiving a police summons over his criticism of a local archbishop’s spending habits.

Speaking from Poland, he said he balked at a recent synod, or meeting of Moscow bishops, where not a word was mentioned about the war, “as if they don’t see what is going on”. 

Fr Burdin said he was treated fairly by his superior, Metropolitan Ferapont, though the two disagreed about whom an Orthodox priest should serve.

“A priest cannot share and preach his personal views, because people expect from him the words of the Church,” the archbishop said.

When it comes to speaking out against war, Fr Burdin disagreed. “I serve God, after all,” he said.

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