On March 16, Pope Francis held a video meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the 75-year-old leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin.
The head of the Catholic church warned the Russian patriarch against hiding behind religion to justify armed aggression and conquest.
“Once upon a time there was also talk in our churches of holy war or just war,” the pope said, according to the Vatican press office. “Today we cannot speak like this.”
Ten days earlier, in a sermon, Patriarch Kirill appeared to endorse Moscow’s so-called “special peacekeeping operation,” as the war on Ukraine is officially called in Russia.
“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” the patriarch said.
He referred to gay pride marches as an example of what outsiders were trying to force on the people of Donbas in eastern Ukraine, on whose behalf Moscow was ostensibly intervening.
“He expressed his view that behind the war in Ukraine there is a spiritual difference between the West and the Orthodox world, and it is obvious that for him, the latter is the better,” Thomas Bremer, who teaches Eastern Churches Studies at the University of Münster in Germany, told Al Jazeera.
“So according to him, the war is not about political aims or influence, but about spiritual, or, as he put it, ‘metaphysical’ aims. Thus, he gives the official Russian point of view a theological underpinning.”
Putin and the patriarch enjoy close ties, with Patriarch Kirill describing Putin’s 2012 election victory as a “miracle of God”.
And as Putin sees Ukraine as part of the “Russian world”, so Patriarch Kirill claims dominion over the churches in Ukraine and Belarus.
But despite their shared origins in 10th century Kievan Rus’, when Byzantine missionaries converted the pagan Prince Vladimir, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018.
Disappointed, Moscow then cut its ties with the Istanbul-based Eastern Orthodox Church, which backed the independence of the Ukrainian clergy.
“Today, the real schism seems to be between the Russian Orthodox Church and its [remaining] branch in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” said Bremer.
“After the war, the Russian Orthodox Church will probably lose a large share of its faithful in Ukraine, as they feel betrayed by the Patriarch,” he added.
And as the war continues, more figures of the Russian Orthodox Church are becoming frustrated with Patriarch Kirill, signalling a deepening split.
Nearly 300 priests and deacons, including military veterans, recently signed an open letter titled Russian Priests for Peace.
“We respect the God-given freedom of man, and we believe that the people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East,” the letter reads.
Three signatories spoke to Al Jazeera.
“I don’t follow politics, but now I only see one thing – people are dying,” said Alexander Vostrodymov, a priest from a village near Moscow, who was among those who signed. “The rest doesn’t matter to me.”
“All wars, even those lasting a century, always end in one thing – negotiations and peace. Is it worth all these orphans, widows, cripples and mountains of the dead, only to sit down and agree later? Why don’t we skip this uncivilised part altogether? Every mother gives birth to a son in the hope of having grandchildren in old age. And for her, her Vanya or Magomed – it doesn’t matter – he is the best. There’s no need to interrupt this natural life with bullets or shrapnel.”
Abbot Andrey Sokolov, based in Damascus, Syria, said while a few hundred signed the letter, others shared similar views but would not identify themselves out of fear.
“I considered it my pastoral duty to sign this appeal. It is impossible to remain silent at such a moment when a bloody fratricidal ‘special operation’ is unleashed,” he said. “There are those who, although they agree with the content of the letter, did not sign it: some of them are shackled by fear, some are afraid of losing their position as rector, some are worried about their career.
“I already know cases of repression against signatories. From one of them, his boss, the ruling bishop, demanded to withdraw his signature under the threat of removal from office.”
A third priest, based in Russia, requested anonymity.
“This is a catastrophe and a crime of enormous proportions. This is a complete violation of the commandments of God. And we, Russians, will have to answer for this and compensate for all the destruction,” he said.
The priest said signatories of the letter have come under pressure from ecclesiastical authorities and state bodies. The only permitted position is to pray for peace, he said.
“Without in any way rejecting prayer as such, it should be noted that we will definitely answer for such silence later,” the priest said. “Of course, religious duty obliges us to raise our voice against such a terrible war.”
Others who signed the letter, in Russia and abroad, were reluctant to give further statements when contacted by Al Jazeera.
Priests have not been spared in the crackdown on dissent. One clergyman in central Russia was reportedly fined $330 for using the word “war” in an article on his church’s website. It has become illegal to refer to the ongoing invasion as a war; rather, the Kremlin approved “special military operation” euphemism must be used.
Meanwhile, Orthodox clergy worldwide have condemned the invasion, including Patriarch Daniel of Romania, Archbishop Leo of Finland, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and all Africa, and the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris and Estonia.
In an open letter on March 9, Metropolitan John of Dubna, archbishop of the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe, urged Kirill to raise his voice “against this monstrous and senseless war and to intercede with the authorities of the Russian Federation so that this murderous conflict ceases as soon as possible”.
A Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam split from the Moscow Patriarchate in protest, joining their rivals in Istanbul instead. The Amsterdam church received a solemn visit from a senior Russian archbishop and then threats; the pro-war Z symbol was painted on the Amsterdam church’s gates.
In recent Russian history, the role of the church has transformed.
The communists who came to power after the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s tried to stamp out religion by burning down churches and shooting priests, only to revive it to rally the faithful during World War II.
Since the end of Soviet atheist rule, religion has made a comeback and more than 70 percent of Russians now identify as Orthodox, though considerably fewer are regular churchgoers.
Observers say President Putin, an Orthodox Christian, views the church as a symbol of Russian nationhood. The Kremlin has embraced “traditional values” as an ideology, passing laws against the “propaganda” of same-sex relationships.
Cyril Hovorun, a Professor of Ecclesiology and International Relations at the Sankt Ignatius Theological Academy in Sweden, described the church’s relationship to the state as “complex”.
“It is not just about the church’s complete submission to the political authorities,” he told Al Jazeera. “The church also tried to influence the Kremlin. In a sense, the Russian Orthodox Church was successful, because the Kremlin at some point adopted the political language of the church, which became known as the ideology of the ‘Russian world’. This ideology originated in the church and then was weaponised by the Kremlin.”