Worshippers attend a prayer service at St. Michael’s Cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Kyiv, February 20, 2022 (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters).

The Orthodox Christian world is often confusing to those on the outside. Western Christians might be drawn to its liturgy, its icons, and its spiritual traditions. But they are just as often perplexed by its web of jurisdictions and the wide variety of cultural and political contexts in which it exists. If you only know of the American expressions of Orthodox Christianity, you will be unable to comprehend the full variation of the lived experience of an Orthodox Christian who resides in Africa, or the Balkans or the Middle East, or Russia. 

Because of this extraordinary diversity, there are very few events that bring a universal response from the Church’s institutional leaders. While Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine seems to be uniting the Orthodox Christian laity (including those inside Russia) in a sense of shared horror and concern, the crisis has not, as yet, led to any sort of consistent response from Orthodox bishops, apart from a general call for prayer and peace.

Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, leaders from at least eleven of the sixteen autocephalous (i.e., self-governing) Churches have issued formal statements regarding the war.  Sifting through these statements, we find considerable variation: the ridiculous, the generic, the strident, and the surprising.

Let’s begin with the ridiculous. On the evening of February 24, Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow offered an address that simply parroted Russian state propaganda, which forbids describing the conflict as a war, an invasion, or an attack. Kyrill referred to the crisis as “current events” before beseeching both parties to avoid civilian casualties. As Sergei Chapnin, a former Russian Church insider, observed, Kyrill has effectively abandoned his pastoral responsibility by refusing to challenge Putin. 

I can appreciate, of course, that it would be quite dangerous for Kyrill to cross Putin at this point. It would be far less dangerous for the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (who resides in New York City) to do so. In a pastoral letter issued on February 24, Metropolitan Hilarion addressed events in “the Ukrainian land” (a deliberate slight that denies Ukraine’s sovereignty) and advised his flock to “refrain from excess watching of television, following newspapers or the internet” so to that they might “close their hearts to the passions ignited by the mass media.” To be clear, Hilarion is not the leader of an autocephalous Orthodox church; he presides over a jurisdiction subordinate to Moscow. But the utter failure of his letter to even acknowledge the war indicates the extent to which many of the leaders of the Russian Church (whether inside or outside of Russia) have been infected by Putin’s nationalist propaganda.

Many of the leaders of the Russian Church (whether inside or outside of Russia) have been infected by Putin’s nationalist propaganda.

As for the statements from autocephalous Churches, the most tepid have come from the Church of Bulgaria, the Church of Serbia, and the Church of Jerusalem, which offered no sense that there was an aggressor in the current crisis. Refusing to take sides, they pray for a quick resolution and the restoration of peace “among brothers.” A letter from the Patriarch of Georgia issued early on February 24 notes that his church has itself suffered aggression against its territorial integrity and prays that there might still be a chance for peace.

Other Churches have been more explicit in their criticism of Putin and/or Russia. The Church of Romania stated clearly that Russia has launched a war against an independent, sovereign nation and asks that European leaders engage the crisis directly so that a peaceful resolution might occur quickly. Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church of America (a 1970s American offshoot of the Russian Church), directly criticized Putin for his role in the conflict and called on him to end the violence. 

On February 26, the Church of Finland not only criticized the Russian government but also prodded the Church of Russia as well: “The Orthodox Church of Finland strongly condemns the military actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine. There is no justification for war… We also appeal to the bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate to promote peace.”

Not surprisingly, the Church of Greece and Ecumenical Patriarch have been among the most direct in their condemnation of Putin’s war against Ukraine. Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens noted that he was “shocked as a person and a clergyman” by what had befallen the families of Ukraine. It was the Ecumenical Patriarch who issued the Tomos of Autocephaly to the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 (for centuries, it has been under administrative leadership of the Patriarch of Moscow). According to canonical tradition, only the Ecumenical Patriarch can grant autocephaly.  But every instance of autocephaly in the modern world was contested at the time of its granting—as is the case with the OCU now.

Most Orthodox Christians in Ukraine remain under the spiritual leadership of Metropolitan Onuphriy, who has been the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, since 2014. Metropolitan Onuphriy is an interesting figure. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was among a number of Ukrainian bishops who petitioned the Moscow Patriarchate for Ukrainian autocephaly. That request was summarily dismissed. But given this previous stance, it’s noteworthy that he was selected to lead the church in Ukraine in 2014. During the lead-up to the war, Onuphriy remained circumspect. Like many of us, he probably believed that Putin would not invade Ukraine in force. And then he did.

On February 24, Metropolitan Onuphriy issued a surprisingly bold defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, coupled with a stinging condemnation of Russian aggression. “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war,” he wrote. “The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper Baptismal font, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.”

It’s plausible that the number of Churches condemning Russian aggression will grow, especially if the violence continues for a prolonged period. It is also possible that a drawn-out war will hasten the move of Orthodox in Ukraine away from the Moscow Patriarchate and into the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. We are only a few days into this war, and the situation is evolving.

George E. Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff  & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. Follow him on Twitter @GDemacopoulos

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