Scottish Catholic International Correspondent Daniel Harkins explores whether the Russian Orthodox Church belongs to God or Putin.
Within hours of Fr John Burdin’s homily, the police were questioning his parishioners. Shortly after, he was being threatened with prosecution. His alleged crime was calling for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Fr Burdin, rector of Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Church in the Russian village of Nikolskoye, is just one of many priests in the Orthodox Church condemning the war.
“The duty of all Christians is not to support the power in this … aggressive war,” Fr Burdin told Religion News Service (RNS) earlier this month.
The praise he has received for his bravery stands in contrast to the widespread condemnation meted out to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
A long-time ally of Vladimir Putin, Kirill has repeatedly defend- ed the Russian invasion, called it a holy war against the evils of Western imperialism and whole-heartedly backed the government, dividing his Church in the process.
In the secular Western narrative, he is a hard-line, nationalistic, former KGB agent who is in cahoots with Putin. The truth – though still ugly – is more complex.
That complexity matters.
Because the close, often mutually beneficial relationship Kirill has maintained with the Kremlin makes him well placed to push Putin towards peace, should he be convinced of such a course.
To that end, the Bishops of Scotland wrote to Kirill last week, asking him to ‘intervene with the President of Russia’ to bring the ‘tragedy’ of the war to an end.
Allegations of Kirill’s history as an agent of the Russian security services date back to at least 2009 when he was elected as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
There is a large list of Soviet-era documents on a ‘Mikhailov’, the codename for a priest agent run by the KGB who is allegedly Kirill, but the evidence that the two are one and the same is not concrete.
The bishop may well have been a spy – his predecessor as patriarch almost certainly was – but the disconnect between the murky allegations and the definitive assertions in the West is an illustration of the lack of nuance in the recent secular reporting.
Similarly, the view of the patriarch as an inflexible ultra-conservative belies the history. On his election as leader of the church, The Times described Kirill as a ‘moderniser willing to foster better relations with the Vatican’.
Indeed, his 2016 meeting with Pope Francis in Cuba was an historic moment, the first between a pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch, and was made amid criticism from within his own church.
Equally as complex is Kirill’s relationship with Putin. The Financial Times reported that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a rift opened between the leaders. Kirill refused to absorb Crimea’s parishes and boycotted a ceremony in the Kremlin to celebrate Russia’s annexation.
Seasoned Russia watchers have suggested that the fact Kirill took 10 days to endorse the invasion after it began suggest that he may also be facing grave pres- sure from his own government.
Last week, Vatican sources told Reuters that a meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis in Jerusalem was being considered for June.
The summit could result in a new entry to the long list of conflicts in which the Catholic Church has played peacemaker.
That list includes brokering talks between anti-Hitler German generals and the Allies during the Second World War, mediating between US president John F Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, in the 21st century, bringing warring factions in Colombia to the same table.
In our secular age, it’s fashion- able to state that religion and poli- tics should never intertwine.
Those espousing this view would point to Kirill’s relationship with Putin as an example to support their argument.
But there is a difference between wielding the power of the state, and advocating political change from a perspective informed by a moral philosophy, religious or otherwise.
Bishop John Keenan of Paisley Diocese once said that the bishops must be involved in politics, but not in political power.
It’s an argument that Kirill could hopefully be convinced of in any meeting with the Pope; to move away from the allure of state power and towards using Christian teaching and his closeness to Putin for peaceful ends.
Such peace would be a blessing for the Ukrainians of course, but also for those Russians living ordinary lives away from the war-mongering in Moscow. In the village of Nikolskoye, Fr Burdin continues to preach to his congregation, amid threatening phone calls and police intimidation.
“I don’t consider it possible to remain silent on this situation,” he told RNS of his vocal opposition to the war.
“It wasn’t about politics … It was about the Bible … If I remain silent, I’m not a priest.”
Daniel Harkins is a journalist from Coatbridge, now based in Panama.