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War in Ukraine | Orthodox divided



The war in Ukraine is creating a stir in the Orthodox world. Patriarch Cyril of Moscow’s support for Vladimir Putin’s policy is not unanimous in the Russian Orthodox Churches in the West.

“The Russian Orthodox must situate themselves in relation to Patriarch Cyril, who adopted Putin’s discourse on Western aggression towards Russia,” explains theologian Lucian Turcescu, of Concordia University. “It puts them in a difficult position and many prefer silence. »

At the Signe-de-la-Théotokos Russian Orthodox Church on Saint-Joseph Boulevard in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, Archpriest Paul Kara explains that “everyone is very saddened by the war in Ukraine “. He does not hesitate to speak of a “Russian invasion”, but believes that Patriarch Cyril “is not in an easy situation because of the nature of the political regime in Russia”.


Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, January 6, 2022

There are 16 autonomous Orthodox Churches, or “autocephali”, which normally recognize the authority of Patriarch Bartholomew Ier of Constantinople (Istanbul). But two of these “autocephalous churches” are not universally recognized, according to George Demacopoulos, director of the Center for Orthodox Studies at Fordham University in New York. “Bartholomew recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine in 2018, but the Russian Church did not accept this designation,” Demacopoulos said. And the Russian Church recognizes the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) as autocephalous, but not Patriarch Bartholomew, who does not consider the OCA to be autocephalous. Most of these Autocephalous Churches have places of worship all over the world, including in Canada.

To complicate matters, the Russian Orthodox Church is represented in the United States in two other forms than the OCA: by parishes directly under the authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR, or ROCOR, in English), which is “semi-independent” of Cyril, according to Mr. Demacopoulos.


Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, and Patriarch Cyril during a meeting in Moscow, February 2020

The OCA and ROCOR originated from Russian colonization in Alaska and the Soviet period. In Montreal, the Russian Orthodox Churches are part of the OCA or ROCOR.


This Byzantine story complicates the reaction to the war in Ukraine. “The OCA patriarch strongly denounced Russian aggression at first, but many OCA priests have strong ties to Russia, so many remain silent on the issue,” Turcescu said. Father Kara is part of the OCA and his followers are of various nationalities – he himself is of Lebanese origin.

ROCOR is equally divided.

Patriarch Hilarion of the[ÉORHF] published a single statement at the beginning of the Russian invasion where he deplored the violence and invited the faithful not to watch the news on television so as not to suffer from these images of war. It was completely ridiculous. Many priests and faithful are outraged.

George Demacopoulos, director of the Center for Orthodox Studies at Fordham University, New York

A North American petition, signed by many Montrealers, calls on ROCOR to clearly name Russia as the aggressor in this war. But the Archbishop of Canada for ROCOR, Gabriel Chemodakov, believes that the Western media are “biased”. “I deplore this war, but it stems from eight years of bombardment of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbass, perpetrated by a Ukrainian government that includes neo-Nazis,” said Chemodakov.

A 2018 report by Freedom House, an American NGO, estimates that the popularity of far-right parties in Ukraine is minimal, with the main one, Svoboda, having received less than 5% of the vote in the elections. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is of Jewish origin.

ROCOR is currently organizing a fundraiser for the victims of the war in Ukraine, but does not send the funds to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, but rather to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Patriarch Onuphrius . The latter, who was considered very close to Patriarch Cyril, surprised many by urging Vladimir Putin to recall his soldiers and comparing the Russian president to Cain, who in the Bible killed his brother.

So far, only one Russian Orthodox Church in the West has broken with Patriarch Cyril, according to a tally by the Guardian. It is a church in the Netherlands which is part of the Russian Autocephalous Church.


Pope Francis jumped into the fray last week. After condemning the war numerous times but never naming Russia, he spoke to Patriarch Cyril this week and urged him to avoid “the language of politics”, the Vatican reported.


Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril in virtual meeting, Wednesday

This ambivalence reflects Francis’ desire to continue the rapprochement initiated by John Paul II between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, according to Demacopoulos.

“Cyrille was to meet François by the end of the year,” said Demacopoulos. They met for the first time in 2016. It was historic, never had a pope met a Russian patriarch. It may be that Francis spares Cyril to preserve the ecumenical goal of bringing the Christian churches closer together. »

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