Russia is Weaponizing Religion

We currently have two teams in Ukraine interviewing Protestants who have endured torture and persecution at the hands of the Russians. One evangelical pastor recounts a Russian Orthodox priest participating in his torture. A Baptist minister recounts how Russian soldiers hunted Protestants who fled occupied Mariupol. The youth pastor of a megachurch that was converted to the Russian Ministry of Culture in occupied Melitopol says “This war is not only about trying to capture Ukrainian territories, land and resources. This is a war against our faith and against our God.”

To fully understand Russia’s war on Protestants in Ukraine, one must understand that the Russian Orthodox Church is not a church like most Americans understand it, but a working arm of the Kremlin.

The Russian Orthodox Church is hierarchical and has a patriarch, Kirill, who is the equivalent of a pope. Last year, Patriarch Kirill promised Russian soldiers that if they died in Ukraine it would “wash away all their sins.” Kirill’s statement was made at the same time as the Kremlin’s announcement of draft of new soldiers to send to the front, attempting to bolster conscripts.

Kirill has called the presidency of Vladimir Putin a “blessing from God.” Some speculate that Putin and Kirill have been associates since the 1970s, when both Putin and Kirill were in the KGB spying for the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church has a department in the Lubyanka, the headquarters for the Russian successor agency to the KGB.

A few months after the start of the full-scale invasion, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, warned his Orthodox counterpart Kirill to avoid becoming “Putin’s altar boy.” This was in response to Patriarch Kirill calling Pope Francis to help him understand the pro-invasion point of view. Again, the Russian Patriarch tried to convince the Roman Catholic Pope of the upside of invading a sovereign country, killing civilians and kidnapping thousands of children.

More broadly, all levels of the Russian Orthodox Church are active in the war. Googling “Russian Orthodox priests blessing tanks,” will yield dozens of photos of priests in robes sprinkling holy water on weapons of war. A Russian tank company released a corporate promotional video featuring Russian priests.

Early in the war, a paramilitary unit called the Russian Orthodox Army terrorized Protestants and Catholics in occupied Ukraine. More recently, the Russian Orthodox Church has begun creating private military companies to train and mobilize mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. In one such group, St. Andrew’s Cross, the men are chosen for previous combat experience and their faith in the Russian Orthodox Church.

To get a sense of just how pervasive the holy war narrative has become in Russia, the Kremlin-backed tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story of military units in Donbas receiving fewer casualties after renaming themselves for Orthodox saints.

The Russian Orthodox Church also has a branch in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarch (UOC-MP) reports to Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, as the name implies. While not all clergy of UOC-MP are bad actors, enough are that 85% of Ukrainians want the government to crack down on the church – 66% want it banned completely.

In Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Russians executed 560 civilians ranging in age from 2 to 92 and raped girls as young as 14, a UOC-Moscow Patriarchate clergyman reportedly told invading Russian soldiers who there would be most likely to oppose them. 

A priest reporting to Kirill in Kherson is on trial for trafficking in arms. Another priest was arrested for spying for Russia in Sumy oblast. More than 20 priests are currently on trial.

Stories of UOC-MP priests who report to Patriarch Kirill collaborating with Russian soldiers are common in all parts of Ukraine. Also in Sumy oblast, the Ukraine Freedom Project visited a monastery that, according to locals, housed Russian troops and served as an ammunition dump in the opening days of the war.

Most of the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church are yet to be learned. Some 6 million Ukrainians – including hundreds of thousands of Protestants – are living under daily threat of torture and murder. With information about the occupied territories hard to get, nobody yet knows how many of those threats have been carried out.