Putin’s Ugly War Has Believers Turning on Their Holy Men

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KYIV—Vladimir Putin’s onslaught has pushed Tatiana Bondarenko, a 53-year-old Ukrainian Orthodox Christian, to her breaking point. First, she was forced to flee her home town in Donetsk in the 2014 war. Then, in March, she had to leave Mariupol after her husband died in crossfire shelling and the city was all but wiped out by Putin’s army. Her life, she says, is ruined, and her heart broken.

On Thursday, Bondarenko was weeping on the steps of Kyiv’s Pokrovsky Monastery, one of 12,000 Ukrainian Orthodox parishes still serving under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) led by Russian Patriarch Kirill. She told The Daily Beast she still finds comfort being near the monastery, but her feelings about the institution and the leaders of the church have changed drastically since the start of the war.

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Bondarenko says she doesn’t want her church to have anything to do with Russian Orthodox leader Kirill any longer. “Please, my God, Patriarch Kirill has blessed this war, he is not the one who has a moral right to tell us that ‘God is love,’” she said. “He has blessed Putin’s friend, commander Zolotov and the Russian soldiers to kill us, Orthodox believers of Ukraine,” Bondarenko added with tears welling in her eyes.

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

She was referring to a recent ceremony in which the Russian Patriarch prayed with President Vladimir Putin’s ex-bodyguard, Victor Zolotov, who is now the commander of the Russian National Guard fighting in Ukraine. “Let it inspire the young warriors who take the oath, embark on the path of defending the Fatherland,” the patriarch said in the Moscow ceremony last month. Zolotov, in turn, complained to the Russian Orthodox Church leader that “not everything is going as fast as we would like.” The commander then expressed his wishes that the prayer would protect the Russian Army “and accelerate our victory.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Ukrainian worshippers gather to attend a mass at Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Lviv, Ukraine on April 17, 2022.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images</div>

Ukrainian worshippers gather to attend a mass at Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Lviv, Ukraine on April 17, 2022.

Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Russian Orthodox Church and its leader have played a huge role in garnering public support for Putin’s war in Ukraine, where about 10 million Orthodox believers still pray in Moscow Patriarchate-affiliated churches. Ukrainian Orthodox Christians whose lives have been upended by the war are left to grapple with the fact that the leader has all but condoned the murder of thousands of innocent civilians.

Now, the cracks are starting to show: More than 400 Ukrainian priests have spoken out against Patriarch Kirill for his support of the war, demanding he be put on trial by the Council of Eastern Patriarchs. Adding to that, scores of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine that have long been loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have begun to withdraw from the UOC-MP, changing their jurisdictional affiliations to join the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church instead.

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“Kirill has committed a crime: he blessed murders of innocent people,” Metropolitan Oleksandr, one of the most senior clerics of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kyiv, told The Daily Beast. He was on his way to a parish that recently declared its independence from the UOC-MP.

“I understand their decision, the criminal Russian army killed thousands of innocent women, children, men in Ukrainian, my own relatives are in the occupied Mariupol, I don’t know if my godfather is alive. Last I heard he and his family were making food on fire outside their ruined house.” His voice cracked when he spoke about his family members.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>An aerial view taken on April 12, 2022, shows the city of Mariupol, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images</div>

An aerial view taken on April 12, 2022, shows the city of Mariupol, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine.

Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

One Ukrainian priest and his wife, who belonged to a church in the separatist region of Luhansk that follows the Moscow Patriarchate, told The Daily Beast that the church’s guidelines were so jarring that they made the decision to leave it altogether.

“We were allowed to pray for Ukraine for eight years, while Luhansk was a breakaway republic but in February, when the war began, we were told we could not pray for Ukraine any longer, which was just against our beliefs,” the priest’s wife told The Daily Beast while on a bus to Lviv. “The Russian Orthodox Church made us make the decision to run away with our three children. There are more and more priests who disagree with the Moscow Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”

So far at least 16 dioceses out of 53 parishes loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have stopped praying for Patriarch Kirill. Many are unhappy that the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, continues to pray for the Russian holy leader at Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra, the most ancient monastery on the territory of Ukraine built in 1051.

“It is hard to imagine how Father Onufriy or any other priests are still praying for Patriarch Kirill… My 91-year-old grandmother, who has lived under German occupation during World War II and now under Russian occupation, tells me Russian soldiers looted homes, shops and killed three of her neighbors,” Metropolitan Oleksandr told The Daily Beast. “Moscow accuses us and other Orthodox believers of hate but we do not feel hate, we feel righteous anger… every priest who rejects the subordination of the Moscow Patriarchate gets condemned by them and banned from serving, soon they will ban us from breathing.”

By the evening on Thursday, four parishes from Chernihiv and Cherkasy regions requested Metropolitan Oleksandr to allow them to join the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“Just in one day today four parishes made a decision to quit the church of the Moscow patriarchate,” Metropolitan Oleksandr told The Daily Beast. “It is time for all parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become independent from Moscow.”

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