(RNS) — Metropolitan Epiphanius I of Ukraine, leader of the independent Orthodox Christian Church based in Kyiv, celebrated Ukrainians’ defense of his country against Russian invaders on Sunday (Feb. 27) while likening Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Antichrist and deriding the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“The spirit of the Antichrist operates in the leader of Russia, the signs of which the Scriptures reveal to us: pride, devotion to evil, ruthlessness, false religiosity,” he said, according to an automated translation of his statement. “This was Hitler during World War II. This is what Putin has become today.”
Epiphanius lauded “heroic people” who are “defending themselves from the attack of Russia,” saying, “every hour of our resistance inspires more and more people around the world to support Ukraine.”
The prelate’s remarks reflected a rift within Orthodox Christianity that began in 2018, when many of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians declared independence from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Russia, a move Russian Orthodox leaders rejected. But the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, recognized the Ukrainian body, making Ukraine home to at least two different Orthodox Christian factions — one based in Moscow, the other in Kyiv.
The rift complicated Russian political interests in the region, as the Kremlin has partnered with the Russian Orthodox Church to help exert power at home and abroad. Ahead of the 2018 split, hackers linked to the Kremlin reportedly tapped into the email accounts of Bartholomew’s aides.
But Epiphanius argued on Sunday that Russia’s attack on Ukraine may be changing the Russian faithfuls’ minds. He said that, while efforts to achieve church unity should be postponed until “after victory” against Russia, there are nonetheless “many hierarchs, priests, and laity of the Moscow Patriarchate who are already asking themselves about their future, which they do not associate with the discredited Patriarch Kirill.”
For his part, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow issued a very different statement on Sunday that appeared to call Russia’s opponents in Ukraine “evil forces.”
“God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand,” Kirill said, according to a translation of his remarks.
The patriarch also invoked a version of history that insists Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine share a common cultural bond and are all part of “Russian land.”
“May the Lord preserve the Russian land,” he said. “When I say ‘Russian,’ I use the ancient expression from ‘A Tale of Bygone Years’ — ‘Wherefrom has the Russian land come,’ the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.”
However, many Ukrainians reject the prelate’s historical argument, which experts argue is baked into Putin’s own justifications for aggression against Ukraine. Among the critics: Archbishop Daniel, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, who refuted what he described as the Kirill’s “history lesson” in an interview with Religion News Service.
“You cannot rewrite the history, Ukrainians and Russians,” Daniel said last week when asked about a separate statement from Kirill. “I’m not being divisive here, but we’re not sharing the same history. … To say that we share the same ethnic background and what have you — I think it’s a mistake. It’s an incorrect statement. And I wish the religious leaders would correct that terminology (when Kirill is) utilizing it.”
The pursuit of peace has become an ecumenical cause: Pope Francis called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday to express “his deepest sorrow for the tragic events that are taking place in our country,” according to the Ukrainian Vatican Embassy. Francis also recently made an unexpected personal visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See in Rome to express his “concern over the war,” and the Vatican has offered to mediate peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
Adam DeVille, a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, told RNS that “the religious dimension of this is quite central” to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. DeVille is working on a book that deals with the Russian religious national imagination, which, he says, is deeply ingrained in Russian national identity. Part of this, DeVille says, is the idea that Moscow is the Christian center of all Slavic Christian churches.
“The idea that the Ukrainians could have an independent church not under the jurisdiction of Moscow is just unfathomable,” he said.
But images of Russian missiles raining down on Ukraine may have further stymied efforts by Russian leaders — religious or otherwise — to convince Ukrainians on that point. In addition to the possibility of frustrating Russian Orthodox leaders, Russia’s military aggression — which includes the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — has increased solidarity between the 5 million Ukrainian Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church they split from long ago.
“The thing Putin doesn’t realize is that it was precisely the invasion of 2014 that drove people together,” DeVille said.
Renée Roden contributed to this report.