Digest of Russian media
Russian Priests Mount Small-Scale Resistance Against War – and Pay the Price
April 24, 2024
Since the beginning of the full-scale war against Ukraine, the political pressure on the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has increased. Priests who deviate from the Kremlin’s line now risk being defrocked or even imprisoned. An initiative called Christians Against War, which documents cases of Christians of different denominations facing political persecution for backing Ukraine and/or opposing the war, has put over 100 people on that list.

The ROC officially supported the war, but as early as March 2022 a group of priests published an open letter urging an end to it. The appeal was signed by around 300 clergy members.

“We, the priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, each in our own name, appeal to all who have the power to stop the fratricidal war in Ukraine, urging reconciliation and an immediate cessation of hostilities... Let us all enter the Great Lent in the spirit of faith, hope and love. Stop the war,” read the letter.

Among those who signed the appeal was Ioann Burdin, a priest from Kostroma Region. He was one of the first in Russia to be accused of “discrediting the Russian army” – for preaching and sharing a link on the parish website to a petition against military force.

“No political appeals were made in my sermon. There were exclusively evangelical words, which were spoken two thousand years ago, and some even earlier, for example, the Old Testament commandment ‘thou shalt not kill.’ I am not pursuing any personal goals, personal gain and so on; I just see my parishioners before me,” Burdin told Novaya Gazeta.

A year later, Burdin was banned from serving by a church court. The ROC stated that he was “trying to shield himself from the accusations” with pacifism, which is “not compatible with the true teaching of the Orthodox Church.”

Starting from September 2022, priests must include in their liturgies the “Prayer for Holy Rus’” – a prayer for Russia’s victory in the war. The Moscow Patriarchate has released a letter detailing the proper recitation of the prayer during Lent. According to the guidelines, priests are to recite the prayer daily, both in church services and at home. They are also to recommend reciting it to monks and laypeople.

“O God, God of our salvation, look with mercy upon your humble servants, hear us and have mercy on us: for behold, those who desire to fight have gathered against Holy Rus’, seeking to divide and destroy its unified people,” goes the prayer.

The prayer sparked a wave of discontent among priests, with many refusing to read it. Among them was Moscow cleric Alexei Uminsky, who faced accusations of perjury from a church court and was subsequently stripped of his rank. Over 12,000 people signed an open letter to the head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill, in defense of Uminsky, urging him to reconsider the decision.

Another Moscow cleric, Ioann Koval, faced similar accusations and consequences when he, while reading the prayer, replaced the word “victory” with “peace” in the phrase “Arise, o God, to help Your people and grant us victory through Your power.”

“The word ‘victory’ gave the prayer a propagandistic meaning,” euronews quoted Koval. “This went against my conscience.”

Some clergymen change other prayers during liturgies. The Russian service of the BBC interviewed a priest who was also banned from serving because he refused to pray for the war.

“At the very beginning of the liturgy, we have a whole series of prayers, including ‘For our God-protected country, its rulers and armed forces.’ Right there I inserted the words: ‘and for the Ukrainian country suffering because of it,’” the priest told the BBC.

The priest who declined to recite the “Prayer for Holy Rus’” was summoned to the church disciplinary commission, the meeting of which was secretly recorded by one of the attendees. The transcript was then republished by many Russian media outlets from the original source.

In a lengthy session, the defendant, who earlier wrote that he “does not use the prescribed Prayer for Holy Rus’, since asking for victory in the current war contradicts my Christian conscience,” insists that “I do not see my wrongdoing, I do not feel it.”

The Patriarchate of Constantinople can reinstate those who have been defrocked, allowing them to serve in churches abroad. This has already happened to Uminsky, Koval and Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, who left Russia in 2023 and now lives in Prague. Kuraev is the only clergyman in Russia who has been labeled a “foreign agent.” Despite the second chance, it is rather hard for priests to continue their career abroad, owing to bureaucratic complexities and language barriers.

Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, serves as the highest authority for appeals. Only those from courts of first and second instance are considered, which significantly complicates the process. Nevertheless, the ROC priests whose cases have been heard surprisingly quickly regained their positions. Besides Russians, Patriarch Bartholomew also reinstated five Orthodox priests in Lithuania who had lost their positions for criticizing Patriarch Kirill.

Antiwar priests who continue to serve in Russia are still trying to protest. A cleric from Leningrad Region anonymously told RFE/RL’s news website Sever.Realii that since 2014, when fighting in Ukraine had just begun, he has been discouraging people who sought blessings for going to war.

“I did not let anyone go. I literally saved one! I can be proud of this, he has five children, and he foolishly decided to volunteer. He submitted the documents, but then withdrew them. Finally, his brain switched on! We managed to save him,” the priest said.

The cleric also added that what he fears most is that someone from the parish might report him to the police for his antiwar views.

“Here everything is like in the ancient times of Christianity. On the same street a city prefect and some Christian would live, and nothing would happen to this Christian until an official paper about him being a Christian was reported to the prefect. And then the case would be blown up. It’s the same now: as long as nobody writes [to the authorities], you will not be touched, but if they do, they will look at your [social media] accounts, where you work. And it will turn out that you were discrediting the Russian authorities,” said the priest. “But people are generally sympathetic! When we discuss what’s happening in private conversations, we talk about [Putin] like in Harry Potter – ‘he who must not be named.’”
  • Sofia Sorochinskaia

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