“The Church and the State leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression, and share the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of Ukrainian children. They have provoked enormous suffering not only to the Ukrainian people, but also to the Russians, who count more than 100,000 casualties, and the responsibility for terrible atrocities,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said, speaking at a seminar organized in the Lithuanian Sejm on 22 March, according to the press service of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The Orthodox leader stressed that Lithuania’s fear of Russian aggression is not unfounded. “Although Lithuania is protected since 2014 by membership to NATO, the existing anxiety and fear are not unfounded. Lithuania’s tragic history has provided its citizens with a profound and rare geopolitical sensibility and wisdom,” he stressed.
The Patriarch pointed out that the current crisis in Ukraine, occurring due to unprovoked Russian aggression, is the epicenter of a geopolitical earthquake.
“Europe wakes up from a deep illusion, according to which war in its continent was a thing of the past. Materially and intellectually unprepared, Europe, however, adapted rapidly to this unexpected situation, intellectually assisted by its new members, like Lithuania,” he said of the country actively pushing to support Ukraine in the EU.
Russia’s rivalry with Constantinople and fundamentalist “Russian World” ideology
The Ecumenical Patriarch reminded that Ukraine, as well as Russia, were born out of the Byzantine Empire and Patriarchate of Constantinople, referring to the baptism of Kyivan Rus in 988. However, soon Moscow turned on its mother church, and the idea that Moscow could succeed Constantinople as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world emerged after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.
Successive Russian Tsars imposed their will on the Church, using it as a tool for their strategic objectives. While some monasteries have maintained the authentic religious faith, religion has often been instrumentalized in Russia. Putin’s Russia has continued and intensified this trend, Bartholomew said. In doing this, it exploits the fundamentalist ideology of Russkii mir, or “Russian world”:
“This expression describes a supposed sphere of civilization including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus as well as ethnic Russians all around the world, politically and religiously led and directed by the Moscow center. The ‘Russian World’ is presented as the answer to the ‘corrupt West.’ This ideology is the main instrument for a ‘spiritual’ legitimation of the invasion in Ukraine,” he explained.
It is a type of pseudo-religion that emerged with the end of the Soviet Union and the bankruptcy of the communist ideology when old imperial strategies were combined with the cynical techniques and mechanisms developed and inherited from the Soviet Union.
In its antagonism towards the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to play a divisive role in world Orthodoxy, Bartholomew says. This includes Russia’s “uncanonical infiltration” in Africa, which challenges the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria on this territory.
However, the Ukrainians’ quest for ecclesiastical independence from Moscow, which was granted by Bartholomew in 2019, deprives Moscow substance to its claim of an attempted leading role, the patriarch stressed.
After the war’s end, apart from the reconstruction of Ukraine, the question of a “spiritual regeneration” not only in Ukraine but also in Russia must be raised, the Patriarch said, implying that the Russians must abandon their pseudo-religious ideology of the “Russian world” and return to the “springs of Orthodox faith.”
But even now, the inter-religious dialogue must focus not only on resisting the Moscow Patriarchate’s incitement of division and theological legitimization of criminal behavior; the “common Christian duty” includes bringing back Russian Christians to “our community of shared values,” Bartholomew said.