MOSCOW (Reuters) - As troops loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin were seizing control of Crimea, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow deduced that an “internal political crisis” in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity.
Patriarch Kirill’s words echoed Putin’s argument - ridiculed in the West - that armed units in Ukraine’s southern region were not Russian soldiers but self-defense forces fearing for their safety under the new order in Kiev.
Putin’s close ties with the Church, an alliance he fostered in his third presidential term through Kirill, are now playing an increasing role abroad.
With the Russian Orthodox Church counting 165 million people in its flock, it may be Putin’s best tool to pursue his dream of reintegrating at least part of the former Soviet Union, the collapse of which he once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
A former spy for the Soviet Union, Putin has increasingly promoted the Russian Orthodox Church and leaned on its conservative appeal to offset support lost in 2011-12 protests staged by more liberally minded urbanites.
In what Kremlin critics said was emblematic of an overly tight union of the church and the state, three Pussy Riot bandmates were sentenced in 2012 to two-year jail terms for an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral.
“On Ukraine, as elsewhere, the Russian Orthodox Church these days unfortunately cannot have any stance different from the state’s one because it is becoming more and more an instrument of state policy,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
On February 26, the Foreign Ministry and the Patriarch issued twin statements on what they said were attacks on revered historic monasteries in Kiev and Pochayiv, western Ukraine, warning of the risk that a religious conflict could ensue.
“Following the destabilization in political situation, the fragile peace between churches and creeds, which used to exist in the country until recently, was targeted,” the ministry said, in a call to “stop the slide of the country towards a confrontation on religious grounds before it is too late”.
Russia has used the alleged threat to the worshippers of the Moscow-backed church in arguing it had the right to send in troops to Ukraine to protect its nationals and Russian speakers.
Moscow and Kirill have both repeatedly described Ukraine as Russia’s “brotherly” nation, such rhetoric standing in sharp contrast to the pro-Western aspirations voiced by many protesters in Kiev.
“We are now all deeply worried with what is happening in Ukraine. It’s the same as if it was happening in our country or in the family of each one of us,” Kirill said on February 26.
The Church and Moscow have stood shoulder-to-shoulder on other foreign issues, including Syria, another conflict pitting Russia against the West in a Cold War-style confrontation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry and Kirill repeatedly condemned what they said were cases of attacks and persecution of Christians and their temples in Syria.
The mix of religion and diplomacy was also applied in Georgia, with the Russian Orthodox Church being the only open communication channel between Moscow and Tbilisi for a time after the two severed ties following a 2008 war.
Russia later recognized Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.
But, during their first post-war meeting in Ukraine in 2011, Kirill and the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia said the Moscow Patriarchate would not claim authority over them.
Instead, Kirill said the two had a “brotherly” discussion on church life in Abkhazia and Ossetia - another echo of the language now applied to Ukraine.
And while Russia says the ousted Viktor Yanukovich remains Ukraine’s legitimate president, Kirill spoke on the phone with the acting head of state, Alexander Turchinov, on March 2.
A brief statement by the church said they exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine, that Kirill listened to Turchinov’s view on things and expressed deep concern over violence there. It did not mention the politics at all.
The Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church answers to Kirill, whose formal title is the “Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus” - a reference to a Medieval state with its capital in Kiev to which modern Russia traces its roots.
“The brotherhood of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian nations is a reality hard-won by the history and many generations of our ancestors,” Kirill said in his March 2 statement on Ukraine.
“This is the reality existing in our hearts that should decide our future and cannot be sacrificed for the sake of passing interests.”
The Russian Orthodox Church does not officially recognize a smaller rival Christian Orthodox church in Ukraine following a schism in which it refused to follow Moscow’s lead after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Some have warned that aligning itself too closely to the state on Ukraine may backfire on the Russian Orthodox Church as it could undercut its influence there by alienating those who do not want to strengthen Kiev’s ties to Moscow.
In a sign that he may be alert to that risk, Kirill also said he would do “everything possible” to convince the Russian authorities that “civilian deaths cannot be allowed on the Ukrainian soil”.
That came after a senior cleric of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onuphrius, appealed to him to use his influence to help safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity after Russia said it could dispatch troops to Crimea.
“If this happens, the Ukrainian and the Russian nations would be dragged into a confrontation that would have catastrophic consequences for our countries,” Onuphrius wrote.
With events in Ukraine changing by the hour, Alexei Malashenko, a religion expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Kirill was walking a thin line.
In a sharp escalation of the crisis, the regional parliament in Crimea on Thursday voted to join Russia, a move swiftly denounced as illegal by Kiev and the West.
“The Russian Orthodox Church risks gradually losing Ukraine if it just goes on repeating word for word the Kremlin line; it risks becoming only a national church of Russia,” Malashenko said. “If Kirill loses out in Ukraine, he also becomes less attractive for the Kremlin.”
Even at home, Kirill has not entirely carried all with him.
“What I see today is falsehood from all sides,” said Moscow cleric Andrei Kurayev, a rare churchman who at times openly criticizes the Church and Russia’s government. “Nobody has any inhibitions in an ongoing information war, neither Kremlin propagandists, nor those in Kiev and Western Ukraine.”
Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Will Waterman