Head of Russian Orthodox Church seems a ‘small copy of Putin,’ some say

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Recently, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, blessed the Russian soldiers who are invading Ukraine at a lavish service.   

Kirill said, “We need to be very strong. When I say ‘we,’ I mean the armed forces first and foremost.”

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Kirill’s support of Vladimir Putin’s violent and bloody campaign against Ukraine is angering the Christian Orthodox world.  

Insiders say this supposed man of God is more powerful politician than priest.

Patriarch Kirill restructured the church to be more autocratic, in line with Putin’s vision to recreate imperial Russia.

“He is a small copy of Putin,” said Sergei Chapnin, former deputy editor-in-chief of Moscow Patriarchate publishing house. “He is kind of Putin’s oligarch and lives the life like the oligarchs live,” he added. 

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Chapnin, a theologian and journalist, worked with Kirill for 15 years in the Moscow Orthodox Church. He said that once Kirill rose to the highest rank of patriarch 13 years ago, he changed.

“I would say that Metropolitan Kirill and Patriarch Kirill — actually [they] are two different persons. And that’s [a] really striking change with him after he was elected.”

Patriarch Kirill restructured the church to be more autocratic, in line with Putin’s vision to recreate imperial Russia.

Key to that vision is bringing back into the fold the birthplace of the Russian church: Kyiv, Ukraine,

In this image, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is shown delivering the Christmas Liturgy in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. 

In this image, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is shown delivering the Christmas Liturgy in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. 
(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Chapnin said Kirill uses “religious language for political reasons.”

Dr. George Demacopoulos agreed with that. Demacopoulos is co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. He said Kirill’s support of the war is about Russia’s spiritual roots.

Kirill justifies supporting the invasion of Ukraine by calling it a pushback against western decadence and liberalism, said. Demacopoulos

Demacopoulos said that Putin wants to “reunite Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, in large part because the origins of Russian identity begin with the baptism of Prince Vladimir in the 10th century — and that occurred in Kyiv.”

The centuries-old Russian Orthodox church survived Soviet-era communism and the country’s official atheist religion. It was heavily infiltrated by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s dreaded security agency. 

Candles burn during a Russian Orthodox service at Christ the Redeemer Parish on Feb. 27, 2022.

Candles burn during a Russian Orthodox service at Christ the Redeemer Parish on Feb. 27, 2022.
(Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Kirill’s connection, if any, is not clear. But his life as a priest was heavily influenced by Kremlin propaganda.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the church gained power by promoting conservative values such as traditional marriage and gender roles.

Demacopoulos said that Kirill justifies supporting the invasion of Ukraine by calling it a pushback against western decadence and liberalism. “The violence that Putin is unleashing in Ukraine is designed to protect Russian speakers from the godless West,” said Demacopoulos.

Oleg Mezhiritsky stands outside his house, recently damaged after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 

Oleg Mezhiritsky stands outside his house, recently damaged after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 
(AP/Felipe Dana)

Church observers say that Putin sees himself as defender Orthodox Christianity. But his faith is less about the gospel of Jesus Christ — and more about maintaining power over an institution that is larger in scope than even Russia itself.

Demacopoulos said, “Putin is not a genuine believer. Putin is an instrumentalizer of religion.”

The end result of Kirill’s support of Putin’s war is that it will likely lessen his power in the orthodox world. 

In this file image, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill on the 13th anniversary of his enthronement in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 1, 2022.

In this file image, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill on the 13th anniversary of his enthronement in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 1, 2022.
(Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Many parishes once aligned with Moscow before the war are now distancing themselves from Kirill and moving toward aligning with the Ukraine Orthodox Church.

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And many orthodox theologians are engaging in a spiritual battle against Kirill. 

“We entreat all whom this declaration concerns to return to ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3).”

Last month they created a “declaration” condemning the Russian church and Kirill’s complicity in the ideology called “Russian World” or “Russkii Mir,” which is the propaganda behind the justification for war. 

So far, more than 1300 clergy and theologians have signed it. 

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The declaration ends with a plea: “We entreat all whom this declaration concerns to return to ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3).”



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