Russian patriarch questioned by World Council of Churches over position on war

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent
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ROME – A delegation from the World Council of Churches traveled to Moscow this week to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and other members of the Russian Orthodox Church in a bid to clarify his position on the war in Ukraine.

In an Oct. 19 statement, the World Council of Churches (WCC) said a meeting was held in Moscow between Kirill and Father Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the WCC, on Monday, Oct. 17, at the patriarchal residence in St Daniel’s Monastery in Moscow.

Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, making him the second highest-ranking official in the Russian Orthodox Church, was present along with other officials of the Moscow patriarchate and the WCC.

According to the WCC, during the meeting the “serious concerns” of some WCC members and their request to have the Russian Orthodox Church expelled over Kirill’s statements on the Ukraine war were discussed, and Kirill himself was asked to explain his “theological position on the issue of holy war, the reasons that people might enter into hostilities, and the meaning of a ‘metaphysical war’” that he has at times spoke of in his sermons.

Kirill, according to the statement, opened the meeting by thanking the delegation for coming to Moscow, and pointed to the role that the WCC played in the 70s in navigating international conflicts and inter-church tensions.

“I remember the great political crises of that time that caused serious troubles for the inter-Christian relations in the WCC and that challenged even the WCC existence; yet, the WCC would always find a way out and help the Churches engage in the process of peace-making,” he said.

Kirill noted that the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has taken a toll on inter-church relations, and thanked the WCC for resisting “the pressure” to expel the Russian Orthodox Church during its assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany, from Aug. 31 – Sept. 8.

“We all are going through difficult, I would say, critical times because of the new geopolitical configuration and world conflicts, in particular the one concerning Ukraine,” he said, noting that the conflict in Ukraine dates back eight years, having begun in 2014 in the eastern Donbass region.

In his remarks, Kirill said Ukrainian shelling in the region caused enormous damage to infrastructure and heavy casualties.

He said that at the time, he wrote three letters to both political and religious authorities, including the WCC, asking for their intervention in solving the problem through “dialogue and mediation,” but that his letters never received a response and that his requests were met “with total silence.”

“Yet, my hope was and still is that as Churches we have to go beyond the logic and interest of the politicians and look for just peace” through negotiation and dialogue, rather than bloodshed and destruction, he said.

Sauca in his remarks, according to the WCC, thanked Kirill for responding to several letters sent by the WCC since the war in Ukraine began following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, and said the reason for his visit to Moscow was to “see what we can do together to build bridges of peace and reconciliation and stop the bloodshed and the danger of nuclear conflagration.”

Referring to the letters Kirill sent after the eruption of conflict in the Donbass in 2014, Sauca said it would be helpful if Kirill made a similar appeal for dialogue, an end to the bloodshed, and for peace and reconciliation.

This, Sauca said, “will help greatly the world and the Orthodox Church as well and will make it clear what is your personal position to the war.”

He said that while the WCC voted to keep the Russian Orthodox Church within the organization during their assembly, they do wish to “continue the dialogue in particular on the theological argumentation and support of the war” that have been made in Kirill’s sermons.

According to the WCC statement, Kirill seemed to be “unaware” of what Sauca meant when he referred to these remarks, so they recited back to him some statements made during a number of homilies while members of the Russian Orthodox delegation told Kirill that some people had taken the quotes out of context a bid to gin up resistance to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Sauca said it was important to clarify these remarks in order to put the concerns of WCC members at ease, which Kirill reportedly expressed surprise at, saying his theological position on the war is that “I do not think that any Church or Christian can have a supporting position to wars and killings.”

“As Churches, we are called to be peacemakers and to defend and protect life. War cannot be holy,” he said, but insisted that “when one has to defend himself and his life or to give his life for the lives of the others, things look different.”

“Yet, as peacemakers we have to make all efforts to bring peace through dialogue and avoid any conflict or violence. This is my view,” Kirill said.

In regards to his comments on a “metaphysical war,” Kirill said that this “has nothing to do with physical killings or with the conflict in Ukraine,” but is rather a reference to a passage from the chapter six of the biblical book of Ephesians, “which says that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the dark powers and authorities of the world which confront the values of the Gospel.”

“Such powers are everywhere present not only in the West,” he said, saying his view “is that our call and vocation is to witness and defend peacefully but boldly the values of the Gospel which model our lives.”

For his part, Sauca said the WCC values the Russian Orthodox Church and would like to see it continue its membership, insisting that said the WCC can be a good platform for dialogue among Orthodox Christians as well.

“The times we live in today are very difficult; yet these difficulties do not come from the churches, but from the political context, and this context constitutes an extreme danger today,” he said, insisting that because this, “the Churches today must not add fuel to the fire.”

“On the contrary, we must do everything within our power to put out the fire,” he said.

Kirill called the current international crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine “dangerous, but no more so than many other crises we went through in the past,” and said churches have a unique experience in “going through the crises together.”

“I believe that through dialogue, in brotherhood and cooperation we should exert positive influence on the political situation,” he said, asking that the various Christian churches cooperate in order to “bear their joint witness before the world, resisting the temptation to become a part of some political force.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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