ROME – In a new interview with a German newspaper, the Vatican’s point man on ecumenical affairs says Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s defense of the war in Ukraine amounts to “heresy,” and has fractured the unity of the Orthodox community.
Speaking to German newspaper Würzburg Die Tagespost in an interview that was published Wednesday, June 29, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that in his opinion, “it is heresy that the patriarch dares to legitimize the brutal and absurd war in Ukraine for pseudo-religious reasons.”
He noted that Kirill in the past has not only defended the war as a protection of Russian security and interests, but he has implied that Russians and Ukrainians share a national unity given the baptism of Grand Duke Vladimir of Kievan Rus’ in 988, after which he declared Christianity the state religion.
In Koch’s view, this vision of unity “is cruelly refuted today: if Russians and Ukrainians emerged from the same baptismal bath, but the Russians today attack the Ukrainians and wage war, then the unity is denied.”
The main problem, the cardinal said, “lies in the relationship between church and state, which in Orthodoxy is seen and shaped in the sense of a symphony between the two realities.”
Noting that tensions existed within Orthodoxy long before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Koch said the current war has made these tensions worse, with added strain being placed on relations between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, led by Patriarch Bartholomew I, which has been criticized by Moscow for being overly supportive of the West.
This friction was heightened in 2018 with Constantinople’s decision to grant autocephaly, or independence, to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which went against Kirill’s wishes.
Speaking of these tensions, Koch said, “it would be pathetic if they had led to the terrible war in Ukraine or were being used to legitimize it. Because church conflicts must never be ‘solved’ with violence.”
“Patriarch Kirill’s pseudo-religious justification of the war must shake every ecumenical heart,” Koch said, adding that from a Christian perspective, “one cannot justify aggressive war, but at most, under certain conditions, defense against an unjust attacker.”
“Playing down Putin’s brutal war of aggression as a ‘special operation,’” which is how Russia has described the war, “is a misuse of language,” Koch said, and condemned this description as “an absolutely impossible position.”
Koch said he had a Zoom conversation with Metropolitan Hilarion, the former president of the Patriarchate of Moscow’s Department for External Ecclesial Relations, in February, in which he proposed a joint condemnation of the war be made by Pope Francis and Kirill, but this proposal was rejected.
Shortly after this, he said, the Moscow Patriarchate requested its own Zoom call with Pope Francis. During that conversation, which took place in March, the pope said there was no such thing anymore as a “just war.”
Francis, in that conversation, also insisted that as religious leaders, he and the Russian Patriarch were not “state clergyman,” but rather “shepherds of the people,” and as such, must advocate for a rapid end to the war and must vocally condemn the violent killing and destruction.
According to Koch, immediately after that conversation the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate released the statement saying Kirill “was grateful that the pope and he had a common view of the conflict in Ukraine,” which prompted the Vatican to put out its own statement publicly relaying “what the pope really said.”
Recalling Francis and Kirill’s historic first meeting in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, which marked the first time a pope and Russian Orthodox patriarch had met, Koch said this meeting, while celebrated, has not changed the Catholic Church’s relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which have been strengthened.
“It is clear to us that the Ecumenical Patriarch is the honorary head of Orthodoxy,” Koch said, saying the Vatican has always respected Bartholomew’s position that theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches “should not be conducted bilaterally but only multilaterally.”
“There has therefore never been a theological dialogue between Rome and Moscow, even if Moscow wanted it,” he said, but insisted that “you must never close the doors.”
Koch said a gap must always be left open, “otherwise you can’t do anything at all,” but that this gap is currently difficult because “there is no telling how long the terrible war in Ukraine will last.”
Noting that a second meeting between Francis and Kirill was being planned but was called off due to the war in Ukraine, Koch said that if a second meeting between the two were to take place while the war is still raging “and Patriarch Kirill was clinging to his untenable justification of war, it would be subject to grave misunderstandings.”
Koch also noted that Kirill’s position on the war has caused division within the global Orthodox community, most notably with the decision of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP)’s decision to disassociate itself with the Moscow Patriarchate over Kirill’s vocal support of the conflict.
“It is not yet clear in which direction she wants to orientate herself in the future,” in terms of whether to now join the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Koch said, but noted that either way, with UOC-MP’s decision, “the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate lost a large part of its faithful.”
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