Russian Orthodox priests face state and church persecution for their support of peace in Ukraine

ANTALYA, Turkey (AP) — Standing in an old Orthodox church in Antalya with a Bible in one hand and a candle in the other, Rev. Ioan Koval led one of his first services in Turkey after the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to unburden him. After his prayers for peace in Ukraine.

Last September, when President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists, Moscow Patriarch Kirill asked his clergy to pray for victory. Standing in front of the altar and several dozen of his parishioners in one of the Moscow churches, Koval decided to put peace above the orders of the patriarch.

“With the word” victory “, said Koval, the prayer acquired a propaganda meaning, as it formed the correct thinking among the parishioners, and among the clergy, about what they should think about and how they should view these hostile actions.” “It was against my conscience. I could not succumb to this political pressure from the hierarchy.”

In a prayer recited several times, the 45-year-old priest changed just one word, replacing “victory” with “peace” — but it was enough for a church court to remove his priestly rank.

Publicly praying or calling for peace also poses a risk of prosecution from the Russian state. Shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed thousands of people to be prosecuted for “defaming the Russian military,” a charge that actually applies to anything that contradicts the official narrative, whether it’s a comment on social media or a prayer in church.

Modeled on Putin’s authoritarian regime, Kirill has built a harsh church hierarchy that requires total compliance, Andrei Desnitsky, a professor of philology at Vilnius University in Lithuania, told the Associated Press. If the priest refuses to read the patriarch’s prayer, then his loyalty is in doubt.

And Desnitsky, an old connoisseur of the Russian Church, added: “If you are not faithful, then there is no place for you in the Church.”

When the war began, most of the priests kept silent, fearing pressure from the church and state authorities; Only a small part has been spoken. Of the more than 40,000 clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, only 300 priests have signed an encyclical calling for peace in Ukraine.

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But Natalia Vasilevich, coordinator of the human rights group Christians Against the War, said all the public voices against the war are crucial.

“It breaks what appears to be a unified position of the Russian Orthodox Church,” she told the Associated Press.

Since the beginning of the war, Vasilievich’s team counted at least 30 Orthodox priests who faced pressure from religious or state authorities. But she says there may be more cases, as some pastors are afraid to talk about oppression, fearing it will bring more.

The Russian Orthodox Church explains that the repression against priests who spoke out against the war is a punishment for their so-called involvement in politics.

“Clergymen who turn themselves from priests into political agitators and people involved in political struggle clearly stop fulfilling their pastoral duty and are subject to a legal ban,” said Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy head of the church’s press service. AP.

Meanwhile, Vasilievich said that priests who openly support the war in Ukraine do not face any repercussions, moreover, they are supported by the state.

“The Russian regime is interested in making these voices louder,” she added.

Priests who refuse to join this chorus or remain silent can be reassigned, temporarily relieved of their duties, or dismissed from their work—and lose their pay, housing, benefits, and most importantly, their services to their flock.

“I never questioned my choice,” Koval said. “I, my soul, my whole being opposed this war. It was impossible for me to support the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops with my prayers.

After a court of the Russian Orthodox Church determined that he should be deposed, Koval appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who asserted his right to receive petitions of appeal from the clergy of other Orthodox churches, over Russia’s objections.

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In June, the Patriarchate of Constantinople decided that Koval was punished for his stance on the war in Ukraine and ruled to restore his holy status. On the same day, Bartholomew allowed him to serve in his churches.

Priest Ioan Bourdain also wanted to leave the Russian Orthodox Church after he spoke out against the war in a chapel near Kostroma and was fined by the local court for defaming the Russian army. He asked the patriarch to agree to transfer him to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but instead, Kirill banned him from serving until the priest made a public apology.

“My position, which I first stated on the website, then in the church, and later during the trial, was an expression of my religious convictions,” the priest told the Associated Press. “Since all people are brothers, then any war, any military conflict, one way or another, becomes a fratricidal fight.”

Not allowed to serve in the church, Berdan relayed his sermons to a Telegram channel where he instructs Orthodox Christians in bewilderment over the patriarch’s support for the war.

During his more than two decades in power, Putin has greatly enhanced the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, increasing its prestige, wealth, and power in society after decades of repression or indifference under Soviet leaders.

In turn, its leaders, such as Patriarch Kirill, supported his initiatives. The Church threw its weight behind the war in Ukraine and it was common to see clergy bless troops and equipment as they headed into battle and invoke God’s blessings on campaign.

Priest Iakov Vorontsov, a priest in Kazakhstan, was shocked and despaired when he first heard the news of the war. He hoped the church would intervene to mediate the dispute. But neither his colleagues nor his superiors supported his calls to preach peace.

“I realized that no one hears the words about peace,” says the 37-year-old pastor. “It should have been transmitted to people, to our flock, but it wasn’t. Then I realized I had another tool: social networks.”

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While his anti-war Facebook posts received support online, the offline response was hostile. His superiors recommissioned him several times, forbade him to preach, and told the parishioners to stay away from him. In the end, the priest gave up hope and decided to temporarily stop serving in the Russian Orthodox Church.

“They wanted me to leave, and in the end they got it,” says the priest, sitting in his apartment without the black robe he’s worn for the past 13 years. “But I didn’t give up my rank, I just decided for the time being that I couldn’t be among those people in this situation.”

The Patriarch’s influence transcends the borders of his country and his orders apply even to priests serving abroad. In February, Kirill suspended for three months Rev. Andrei Kordushkin, the chaplain of an Orthodox church in Madrid, over his anti-war stance.

Kipshidze said Kordushkin was punished for “inciting hatred” among his parishioners. But the priest says it is a warning to discourage him from further criticism.

“I don’t think there was anything legally wrong with me,” Kurdushkin said. “If there is no canonical crime, it means that canon law is simply used as a mechanism of political repression.”

From the early days of the war, Kordushkin publicly condemned the Russian invasion and regularly advocated for peace in Ukraine. He believes that priests should not remain silent and should convey a Christian message to the people.

“It is our duty to speak out, whatever the cost.”

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Associated Press journalists Ian Sullivan in Madrid and Vladimir Tretyakov in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed.

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The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported by The Associated Press cooperation With The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. , AP is solely responsible for this content.

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