WASHINGTON — Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been a loyal ally of President Vladimir Putin for years. But his vociferous support of the invasion of Ukraine has drawn strong rebukes from religious leaders who say he has forsaken Christian teachings by supporting the Kremlin’s destructive campaign.
In his most recent Sunday sermon, delivered at the Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos in Moscow, Kirill told worshippers to respect official power — a message seemingly intended to bolster a military campaign that has gone badly for Russia. Once called “the politicking patriarch,” Kirill was enthroned in 2009 and is closely associated within Russia with the current political regime.
“May the Lord help us all in this difficult time for our Fatherland to unite, including around the authorities,” Kirill said in the sermon. He hoped that the Russian people would maintain “the ability to repel external and internal enemies.”
Kirill has been a vociferous and consistent supporter of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the fact that the vast majority of Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox. On Sunday, nearly 300 leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church signed a letter accusing Kirill of “moral crimes” for his endorsement of the unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which has killed thousands of civilians.
“Our position is fully consistent with the Gospel and the church tradition,” the Ukrainian clergymen wrote. “Defending the homeland from the enemy is one of the main Christian virtues.”
Many Christian leaders in the West have denounced the invasion, including Pope Francis and members of Kirill’s own church. Most Russian clergy, however, share Kirill’s views. Metropolitan Mitrofan of Murmansk said the invasion of Ukraine was a battle against “the Antichrist.”
Mitrofan also said the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is “not a real church,” in reference to the schism between the Ukrainian and Russian churches three years ago, angering both Putin and Kirill.
Long suspected of having once been an agent of the KGB — the Soviet era security service that frequently singled out religious dissidents — Kirill is a symbol of the resurgence of the Orthodox Church under Putin, who has used religion to bolster his nationalistic, anti-Western vision. In 2013, Kirill decried same-sex marriage as “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse.” Four years later, he criticized Western Europe for the “grave mistake” of straying from Christianity.
Although Russian society has become increasingly religious since the fall of the Soviet Union, which officially embraced atheism, Kirill has not wholly escaped scrutiny. In 2012, a photograph of him wearing a $40,000 watch was airbrushed to remove the timepiece, leading to widespread derision and mockery. Two years ago, he was seen wearing a watch costing $16,000, this time without apparent concern for public backlash.
When Putin decided to launch an invasion of Ukraine in late February — in what he described as an effort to “de-Nazify” the country’s government, which is led by a Jewish president — Kirill told members of the armed forces that they were on “the correct path.” He also alluded to threats mounting “on the borders of our Fatherland,” an obvious reference to Ukraine and its Western allies.
A sovereign nation since 1991, Ukraine has sought to chart a course distinct from its Soviet legacy. Kyiv’s desire for autonomy has always been viewed as an affront by Putin, who first invaded Ukraine in 2014. He invaded again eight years later, expecting an easy victory, only to face protests at home and condemnation abroad.
Kirill remains a key ally for an increasingly embattled Kremlin. “The Russian Orthodox Church's moral blessing of this war has been years in the making,” Russia expert Samuel Ramani of Oxford University said earlier this month. While few have been surprised by Kirill’s loyalty to Putin, his seeming lack of concern for the plight of ordinary Ukrainians has renewed criticism of his tenure.
Though he has made generic calls for peace, the 75-year-old bishop has also made no secret of his true sympathies. “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” Kirill said in early March.
In a widely condemned sermon earlier this month, Kirill struck out against the West while envisioning the same fictitious unity of Slavic peoples that Putin has invoked and Ukrainians have rejected.
“Today the word ‘independence’ is often applied to almost all countries of the world,” Kirill said on the same day that much of the world was encountering the images of slaughtered civilians in Bucha. “But this is wrong, because most of the countries of the world are now under the colossal influence of one force, which today, unfortunately, opposes the force of our people.”
The April 3 sermon was delivered at the main cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. Kirill did not name the malevolent force he had in mind, but Putin has blamed the United States for engineering Ukraine’s successful resistance to Russia.
“We are a peace-loving country and a very peace-loving, long-suffering people who suffered from wars like few other European nations,” Kirill went on to say.
“We have no desire for war or for doing something that could harm others. But we have been so educated by our entire history that we love our Fatherland and will be ready to defend it in the way that only Russians can defend their country.”
The April 3 sermon led to a rebuke from a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States. “From the words and actions of Patriarch Kirill, we can conclude he has made the same bargain with Putin and his cronies. This is, indeed, a sad moment for our church, and the whole world is watching,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said in a speech the following day.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, called for the World Council of Churches to eject Russia after the April 3 sermon.
“The riot act has to be read,” Williams said in an interview with the BBC.
“When a Church is actively supporting a war of aggression, failing to condemn nakedly obvious breaches in any kind of ethical conduct in wartime, then other churches have the right to raise the question and challenge it — to say, unless you can say something effective about this, something recognizably Christian, we have to look again at your membership.”
Present at the sermon Kirill delivered on Sunday were several representatives of Norilsk Nickel, the mining giant that helped construct the church where service took place. The corporation is helmed by Vladimir Potanin, an oligarch close to Putin.