Russian Orthodox Church leader declares Ukraine invasion a ‘holy war'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on November 20, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on November 20, 2020. | ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Russian People's Council, led by Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, has labeled President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine as a "holy" endeavor, seemingly aiming to bring the region under Russian dominion.

The declaration frames the war as a key moment in Russia's battle against the "criminal Kiev regime" and Western "Satanism," calling it a "special mlitary operation."

The WRPC, while officially separate from the Russian Orthodox Church, comprises many church leaders and civil figures. 

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The decree, published by the Moscow Patriarchate, emerged from a synodal congress on March 27 at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, with Patriarch Kirill presiding.

Addressed to Russia's legislative and executive bodies, the document casts the war in Ukraine that began in 2022 as a spiritual crusade to preserve the unity of "Holy Rus," depicting Russia as a defender against Western encroachment.

The decree elaborates on the "Russian world" concept, stressing its spiritual and cultural importance beyond Russia's current borders. It suggests assimilating Belarusians and Ukrainians as Russian sub-ethnicities. It appears to compare the Trinity to the territories of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.  

Antoine Nivière, a professor of Russian civilization at the University of Lorraine in northeastern France, told La Croix International that the document is more than just a statement; it "outlines a sort of political program."

"Its content is in total contradiction with the social doctrine that the Russian Church adopted in 2000, which notably rejected the notion of holy war and stipulated that religious leaders should oppose the government if it issued orders contradictory to the ethical and theological principles of Christianity," Nivière stated. "With Kirill, none of this is respected."

The document further advocates for asylum in Russia for those upholding traditional values and calls for educational and humanitarian reforms to reflect Russian civilizational values.

Patriarch Kirill, initially hesitant about Russia's invasion, has progressively condemned Ukraine and the West, attributing spiritual significance to the conflict. He mandated churches to recite a prayer for Holy Rus, with non-compliant clergy facing sanctions.

The WRPC's document aligns closely with Putin's political stance, blending spiritual and temporal power. It advocates for Russia as a global protector against Western globalism.

The document promotes a nationalistic education reform purging Western ideologies and aligning with Putin's educational policies.

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a Northeastern University assistant professor of religion and anthropology, said that Kirill frames the war as a metaphysical struggle against Western modernity, positioning Ukraine as the battlefield for this conflict.

The professor told the university-owned publication Northeastern Global News that Kirill's rhetoric includes blessing Russian military efforts and promising spiritual rewards for those who die in the conflict, which diverges from traditional Russian Orthodox doctrine.

Riccardi-Swartz believes that the historical narrative within Russian Orthodoxy views Russia as a spiritual defender against the Antichrist, a belief linked to the canonization of Czar Nicholas II, who is seen as interceding for Russia in Heaven. This narrative supports the idea of Moscow as the third Rome, the ultimate stronghold of Christendom, she noted.

Konstantin Malofeev, a prominent businessman and pro-Russian separatist backer, plays a key role in the WRPC as Patriarch Kirill's deputy, according to EU Today. His views, mirroring late 19th and early 20th-century doctrines, advocate for an absolute monarchy and a state church, aligning with the "Moscow — Third Rome" ideology.

The declaration of a holy war justifies and moralizes Russia's imperialistic ambitions, Riccardi-Swartz said.

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