Russia’s religious war in Ukraine

Kremlin money for the Russian Orthodox Church in eastern Ukraine reflects a larger struggle over the role of religion in national identities.

In the newly liberated Kharkiv region of Ukraine, a view shows a church in the village of Kozacha Lopan, Oct. 3.

In its military struggle to hold eastern Ukraine – by force and illegal annexation – Russia has also launched a campaign to ensure support from the dominant faith of Russian-speaking people. It is throwing money into the region through various pro-Kremlin organizations – with the largest recipient being the Russian Orthodox Church and its charities.

Since the takeover of Crimea in 2014, President Vladimir Putin has relied heavily on the church’s hierarchy to support his efforts to expand the borders of Russia by force and, lately, in the conscription of young men to fight in Ukraine. At the same time, Russian forces have destroyed more than 200 facilities of other religions in Ukraine – churches, mosques, synagogues – since the war began in February, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Kremlin’s main target for destruction is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It gained independence from the Russian Orthodox Church in 2019. That split, said Mr. Putin, was a weapon of “mass destruction” against Russian identity. “Our spiritual unity has also been attacked,” he wrote. Ukraine is home to the world’s third-biggest Orthodox congregation, after Russia and Ethiopia.

In contrast, Ukraine’s multiple religions have discovered a new unity based on an appreciation for religious liberty and the rights of individual conscience. “Faith should unite, and not divide,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.

“Our churches are now hand in hand,” Father Vasily Vyrozub of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Odesa told the Irish Times. “We are closer now than ever, despite our theological differences.”

This contrast in how Russia and Ukraine are using religion is playing out in several other countries with Christian Orthodox churches. Latvia, for example, has passed a law demanding that the Latvian Orthodox Church separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. In Moldova, the Orthodox faithful feel pressure to side with either the Russian church or an alternative, such as the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Even within the Russian Orthodox Church, a statement from nearly 300 priests opposed the church’s official endorsement of the war. The priests stated that only “forgiveness and mutual reconciliation” could bring peace between Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukraine war will be won by more than bullets and bullion. In a speech on Sept. 30, Mr. Putin claimed “there is nothing stronger than the determination of millions of people who, by their culture, religion, traditions, and language, consider themselves part of Russia.” Others, including inside Russia, see religion playing a healing role. Peace may be won in places of faith as much as on the battlefield.

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