America has a rich tradition of the separation between church and state. Although at times this line can seem blurry in rhetoric, it is honored in law. Religion and politics are also seen as things to be left out of conversation, as points of conflict to be discussed in certain arenas yet left out of typical dinner discussion. This, however, is a luxury not afforded to those in countries teetering on the verge of tyranny.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has been fought on many fronts, one of which being the pulpit, or altar of the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of Moscow, Patriarch Kirill has publicly supported the war and specifically Vladimir Putin. At the end of the liturgy on March 13th, the first week of Great Lent (a notable week in the Orthodox liturgical calendar), Kirill referenced the war as “the path of defending the Fatherland,” per the official press release.
Russians and Ukrainians hold their national identity within Orthodoxy. At the individual level, Pew Research found that over half of Ukrainian and Russian people say that to be “truly nationally identifying” you must also be Orthodox. At the national level, nearly half of both countries’ populations believe religious leaders have at least some influence on politics. It should be noted that in this region, Orthodoxy makes up over 70% of the population, meaning the religions influence can be more pointed. This contrasts with a country like the United States where no one religious leader holds influence over more than half the population.
Religion both encapsulates and consumes national identity, with even the symbol of each nation being displayed in the onion domes of orthodox churches (St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia and St. Sophia’s in Ukraine). When the war broke out between these two countries, connected by this One Orthodox Church, a battle was waged not only in the physical world but in the spiritual as well. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has historically been hierarchically within the Russian Orthodox Church, but the Ukrainian Church has held a complex history under that authority. The Russian’s attained de facto control after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in the 15th century and has held its grip until recently.
Internationally, the Orthodox Church is decentralized, meaning that there is no one person in control. Rather, there are many “leaders” making logistical and theological decisions while still being in communion with one another. As an Orthodox Christian in America, it feels as if there’s a fight within our family. It seems internal, with every person holding strong personal opinions. Bloggers who typically offer spiritual guidance have shifted to political commentary; some priests have found the pulpit as a place to speak their minds while others have regressed to absolute silence on the subject.
It is a feeling amplified for Ukrainian and Russian people. I have spoken with Ukrainians feeling helpless while also hearing Russian’s that believe this war is a necessary defense. It is clear to those outside the fray what injustices are occurring in the hands of the Russians; however, within these circles, especially within the Russian border, the issue becomes far less clear. As the war began months ago, the Ukrainian church justifiably made the decision to sever ties with the Russian Church officially. This move brought the under-the-table battle to the light, and the church became a battleground as well.
Places of worship can often be an escape from the reality of the world, pointing to a higher power and a greater plan, rather than the circumstances that plague someone’s current situation. This is a luxury Ukrainians no longer feel. The Orthodox Church has rich, ethnic traditions that have united and sustained the church over millennia. We are experiencing an internal bleed right now with no end in sight. The story of the war is not just told in the videos of the bombings or the speeches made by political leaders. For the Ukrainian people, war is not just fought for their land and lives but also for their spiritual survival. We must not forget that every aspect of life, including religion, is under siege in Ukraine.
Peter Nassif is a Business Consultant who has worked previously within campaigns using data to analyze voters. He has been featured writing on religion in politics and enjoys pursuing that subject in any way possible.