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Anti-war Russian clergy face punishment

October 15, 2023

Clergy have been defrocked and fined in court for speaking out against the war in Ukraine as the Russian Orthodox Church brings members into line ideologically.

A procession of clergy and soldiers carry an icon of St. Fyodor Ushakov, said to have survived a September 22, 2023, Ukrainian attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet, through the streets of Sevastopol
Russia's Orthodox Church has long been an ally of President Putin and aligns itself closely with the war effort in UkraineImage: Sergei Malgavko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

DW spoke with clergy who left Russia and others who remained — all of them trying to navigate an increasingly repressive environment inside the Orthodox Church

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Andrey, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), faced a dilemma: Save the community he had been building in the church, or risk it all by speaking up? Stay, or leave?

Pastor Andrey was one of those who publicly condemned the war and decided to flee. He relocated his entire family to neighboring Georgia, where he cannot fulfill his pastoral mission without the ROC's approval. He chose to speak to DW from there on condition of anonymity in order to preserve his final "glimpse of hope" of again performing his priestly services in Russia someday. 

"I cannot condemn those who have to make compromises with themselves to retain their place" he said, speaking of clerics who have chosen to stay in Russia.

Praying for peace puts Russian clergy at risk

Among those compromises is one particular prayer that the Russian Orthodox Church recommended reading as the Kremlin intensified its war efforts in Ukraine — amassing troops at the border and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists. Priests would pray "for peace" during the first month of the conflict, but later they would be asked to pray "for victory" instead. 

"Both versions contained lies and propaganda… some foreigners took up arms against Holy Russia… my mouth couldn't form the words. Russia started the war, not the other way around," Andrey said.

Around 300 clergymen — less than 1% of the entire institution of the Russian Orthodox Church — signed a public letter calling for an end to the "fratricidal war" in Ukraine. 

After Moscow's February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, Russian legislators adopted a law making it a crime to "discredit" the Russian Army by voicing anti-war sentiments or information differing from official Russian state rhetoric.

Some of the priests who denounced the official stance were stripped of their priesthood and fined by the courts for discrediting the Russian military. 

While some clergymen confirmed in conversation with DW that they had gotten away with not reading the new version of the prayer, not everyone was fortunate enough to avoid punishment. 

Ioann Koval, a priest from Moscow, was defrocked after substituting the word "victory" with "peace." Church authorities, whose aim has been to ideologically unite parishioners and clergymen behind the conflict in Ukraine, saw this as an act of disobedience.

Russian Patriarch Kirill supports Putin's war

Public penance for the priests

Public penance is yet another tool church authorities use to crack down on dissent.

Priest Ilya Gavrishkiv of Pogorelov Gorodishche, a village located around 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Moscow, publicly apologized for not offering prayers for Russia's triumph.

In a video circulating on Russian Telegram channels, a bishop emerges from behind the altar, greeting parishioners with Gavrishkiv standing at his side.

"First, he will be banned from sacred service... then he will be stripped from the priesthood... You were Father Ilya, what will become of you now? Strange Ilushka... When we explained his mistake to him, he understood immediately," the bishop says. 

In response, Gavrishkiv accepts his wrongdoing: "Foolishly... and out of pride, I read the prayer for peace again, and did not read what was required of me," he says in a mild-mannered voice as he stares at the floor.

How does the Russian Orthodox Church view anti-war statements? 

The Russian Orthodox Church denies such persecution and claimed the priests were dismissed for making political statements. 

Vakhtang Kipshidze, the deputy head of the church's press office, told the Associated Press, "Clergy who turn themselves from priests into political agitators and persons participating in the political struggle obviously cease to fulfill their pastoral duty and are subject to canonical bans."

Despite claiming to be apolitical, the Russian Orthodox Church holds in high regard those priests who travel to boost Russian morale in Ukraine. Russian priests have been appearing on the frontlines, blessing Russian soldiers with holy water and icons before battle. 

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a show of his loyalty to the president, he backed the war campaign against Ukraine from the start, claiming that dying in combat would, "wash away all [a soldier's] sins." The Orthodox Church, which portrays Russians and Ukrainians as "one nation," has accused "foreign influences" of "inciting the conflict between them." 

As Natallia Vasilevich, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church and coordinator of the human rights group Christians Against War, told DW, "anti-war clergy see this war as imperialistic, with Russia wanting to choke Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, on the contrary, views it as Russia's anti-imperialist war against the collective West, which wants to enslave holy Russia."

The Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl River, Russia (file photo)
The Orthodox Church, which plays a central role in Russian society, strongly supports the war in Ukraine Image: Yulia Babkina/Zoobar/picture alliance

Clandestine anti-war church life

In an increasingly wary church climate, some with anti-war sentiments have been forced to move underground— away from prying eyes.

Pastor Nikolay, who is based in St. Petersburg, told DW he was attempting to gently express his pacifist stance and likened the atmosphere within the church to a time when, "Christians were persecuted and used secret symbols to identify one another."

While weighing his options, Nikolay said his spiritual father talked him out of going into exile.

"Who will take your place?" he asked me. "Will this person preach about peace as you do, or about the war?"

In his war resistance effort, Nikolay created a covert Telegram chat where participants gather secretly to pray for peace. "It works by word of mouth. You speak carefully and find out that someone doesn't support the war, and you become closer," he said, adding that it reminds him of a "partisan" movement.

He described the secret meetings as, "a breath of fresh air." 

"After praying for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, we talk to each other, and that communication saves us. It is an opportunity for us to say what is in our hearts and call things by their name," he said.

Nikolay admitted that the existence of such groups could become public knowledge and put him in danger. 

"In that case, the consequences are unpredictable. I will probably have to suffer for my truth. God is with us; I am not afraid."

The names and locations have been changed to protect the identity of the priests.


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Edited by: Jon Shelton