Russian priests risking fines, arrest for opposition to Ukraine invasion continue to speak out

Russian Orthodox Priest Father Ioann Burdin appears in a video published by AFP on April 30, 2022. | YouTube/AFP News Agency

Two Russian Orthodox priests remain publicly opposed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, even though one was fined and could face prison time if he continues to criticize the war openly. 

Father Georgy Edelshtein and Father Ioann Burdin are among the priests from the Russian Orthodox Church speaking out against Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine since it began on Feb. 24.

The church leader, Moscow Patriarch Kirill, has backed the war in a series of sermons, calling for Russians to “rally around” the authorities, accusing “enemies” of attempting to destroy the unity between Russia and Ukraine. 

By speaking out against the war, the pair of Orthodox priests are also speaking out against the church patriarch. In a video interview released Saturday by Agence France-Presse, Edelshtein maintained that Russia is the “aggressor” and Ukraine the “victim of aggression.”

“I’m afraid I am a bad priest. I’ve never been against all wars,” he said. “But I’ve always been against any land grabbing, aggressive war.” 

As AFP reported, the pair's protests began on Feb. 25, a day after the invasion, when Edelshtein signed a letter written by Burdin condemning the war. The letter was posted on the website of Burdin’s church in the village of Karabanovo in the Kostroma region before it was deleted. 

“The blood of Ukrainian residents will remain on the hands not only of the rulers of Russia and soldiers carrying out this order. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who approve this war or simply remain silent,” the post read. 

A highly placed monk, Metropolitan Ferapont of Kostroma, claimed the pair are only two priests out of 160 in the region that oppose the war, condemning the letter. Still, the two priests have maintained their position about Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

“The responsibility for what is happening is not borne only by the one who gave the order, by the one who kills and sheds blood, but by all of us who approve or keep the silence,” Burdin said in an interview with AFP.

The priest said that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is “unconditional” to him, just like the rest of God’s Ten Commandments.

“That’s to say, it has no other interpretations, no matter what one tries to put into it, no matter how one distorts or limit it,” he said. 

On March 6, Burdin, who heads the Christ’s Resurrection Church in Karabanovo, preached about the human cost of the ongoing fighting before police detained him on that same day for questioning.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, police arrested the priest based on a new code of administrative offenses implemented in early March. 

Police accused Burdin of “discrediting” the Russian armed forces by speaking about Russia’s military presence in Ukraine and its ongoing shelling of Ukrainian civilians.

On March 10, the Krasnoselsky District Court found Burdin guilty and imposed a fine of over $400, according to AFP. A repeat offense for the charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Burdin claims that police have photographed his house and car. In early April, he withdrew from active service and is considering whether to stay in the church.

Edelshtein remarked that Burdin is “braver than me, I am retired” because he does not face any sanctions for signing his friend’s letter. While still allowed to hold services, Edelshtein has mostly retired from the Church. 

Russian Orthodox Priest Father Georgy Edelshtein appears in a video posted online by AFP on April 30, 2022. | YouTube/AFP News Agency

On March 1, 280 priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church also called for an immediate end to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In a letter, they wrote that they “mourn the ordeal to which our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected.” 

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 3,153 civilians in Ukraine have been killed since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. About 3,000 others have been injured, while over 11 million people have fled their homes. 

The Orthodox Public Affairs Committee, which combats the persecution of Christians worldwide, released a March 21 statement condemning the Russian Orthodox leadership's response to the invasion. The group was launched in 2020 and led by George Gigicos, who served as the director of the White House Office of Presidential Advance under President Donald Trump.

“Patriarch Kirill, his possible successor, Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokomansk, who heads the Public Relations wing of the Moscow Patriarchate; the Department of External Church Relations (DECR), and the Rev. Nikolai Balashov, a priest of the DECR and long-time accomplice to Kirill, are all complicit in not only supporting the invasion of Ukraine, but also in perpetuating the lies of the government against their own people,” the statement reads. 

The group contends that Russian Orthodox leaders “have abandoned the Orthodox People of Ukraine, who make up 1/3 of their flock, and are as blameworthy for the deaths of innocent children and civilians as the soldiers acting on orders from the Kremlin.” 

OPAC also called for sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Church leadership, a stance shared by Archbishop Yevstratiy of Chernihiv and Nizhyn of the Autocephalous Church of Ukraine. 

Yevstratiy insisted that Kirill, Tikhon, Hilarion and Balashov be included in the international and Ukrainian sanctions list alongside Russian ministers, propagandists and Putin’s oligarchs. He characterized the four church leaders as “the main supporters of the idea of the ‘Russian World,’ a neo-imperialist plan that created the ideological background of Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

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