Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has actively endorsed the war. Its stance has put dissenting priests under intense pressure, with some being prohibited to serve and even incarcerated.
In January, Moscow senior priest Alexei Uminsky was defrocked
. The reason might have been a recent interview
in which he discussed what people can do if they do not want to go to a church that prays in support of the war.
"They [parishioners who disagree with the ROC's political stance] should then seek priests, likeminded people, people who pray for peace, who can understand them, comfort them during confession and simply embrace them in their hearts. Resolve this issue through personal communication with a priest," said Uminsky.
Uminsky also refused
to recite the “Prayer
for Holy Rus" written by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the ROC, where he is praying for military successes and the victory of Russia, as “Holy Rus,” over Ukraine. The prayer was first recited on September 22, 2022, the day after the announcement of partial mobilization in Russia.
"Arise, o God, to help Your people and grant us victory through Your power," goes the prayer.
Zoya Svetova, writing as a columnist for Novaya Gazeta
, has pointed out
that making a prayer obligatory requires approval from the ROC’s Holy Synod. Since this approval did not happen, priests – in theory – have the right to abstain from reciting the prayer.
“Simply put, this prayer is optional. Defrocking a priest because he chooses not to recite it is seen by many as illegal," says Svetova.
Uminsky was replaced
by Andrei Tkachev, a former Ukrainian Orthodox Church priest. He moved to Russia in 2014, spoke out
against Euromaidan protesters and supported the invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, Tkachev is known for scandalous statements. Speaking about women, he said
that they are "insolent and annoying," adding that until they are beaten, they do not understand anything. He also criticized women who "undress everywhere," including at the doctor’s office.
"Drink holy water more often and pray to God. And since you have to die – go on and die," advised Tkachev.
In May 2023, the Moscow Ecclesiastical Court stripped
Russian priest Ioann Koval of his ministry for unauthorized changes to the aforementioned "Prayer for Holy Rus” whereby Koval changed the word "victory" to "peace."
Russian religious scholar Sergei Chapnin wrote
that members of the Ecclesiastical Court asked Koval, "are you a pacifist? Are you a supporter of Ukraine?" Koval responded that he would not get into political issues.
The ROC has said
that pacifism does not conform to Orthodox teachings. Another ecclesiastical court, handling the case of an anti-war priest, declared that the Church has always supported warriors defending the homeland.
Priests also risk being arrested for merely talking about the war. In St Petersburg, Hieromonk Ioann Kurmoyarov was sentenced
to three years in prison for sharing "fake news" about the Russian army. Kurmoyarov had criticized the Russian government for its actions in Ukraine in his videos on YouTube.
“There is an interesting Putin fake: 'they will die, and we will become martyrs and go to heaven.' I want to disappoint everyone who believes this fake – from the viewpoint of Christian doctrine, we will not end up in any sort of heaven, because only keepers of peace enter heaven... In Christianity, only a just war is welcomed, a war for the defense of one's borders and interests. Ukraine did not attack Russia," said Kurmoyarov in one of his videos.
Dissenting priests cannot just leave the church. Since 2011, that is only possible
for documented medical reasons. In other cases, one must either be reinstated in the clergy after a certain period or face a prohibition on further service.
Sergei Chapnin, wrote
about the difficulties faced by Russian priests seeking positions in Orthodox parishes outside Russia. One of the biggest ones is that foreign churches are often reluctant to bring them on because of the complexities involved with obtaining work visas and residence permits.
“I have heard from priests in America that they are ready to accept clergymen from Russia and Ukraine only if they agree to illegally cross the Mexican border. And I know of at least two cases where priests with their wives and numerous children embarked on this adventure, successfully crossed the border, yet their canonical status is still unclear,” Chapnin claims.
The YouTube channel NO. Media iz Rossii posted
a sermon for Orthodox Christmas by Andrei Kordochkin, a dismissed ROC priest. Currently living in Germany, he supports other repressed priests through the Mir Vsem
("Peace for Everybody") project. In the sermon, he recounts a chapter from the Gospel of John, narrating Christ's healing of a blind man and drawing parallels with the expulsion of clergy members.
"And this person whom the Lord healed, as the Gospel says, was kicked out. Because when someone among the blind becomes sighted, they not only become superfluous, but also dangerous," said Kordochkin.
Those who remain in Russia and keep talking about the war inevitably face repression. One example is the 86-year-old Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov. In March 2023, he was fined for an anti-war sermon, while in December a criminal case was opened
against him for "repeatedly discrediting the Russian army." He now faces up to five years in prison.
In response to journalists asking whether he was afraid of going to prison, the archbishop replied
that he was waiting for it.
"I am waiting for it, either to be killed or imprisoned. Then the world will find out and be interested in who I was, how I knew [about things] before others," said Pivovarov.