March 31, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russian Orthodox Church defrocks priests who refuse to support invasion of Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) reportedly directed all its clergy to change their liturgy to include pro-war prayers in support of Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine and is likely threatening to defrock ROC MP clergy who do not support the war. A Russian Telegram channel with insider sources within the ROC MP amplified on March 31 a document dated March 29, in which Head of the ROC MP Affairs, Metropolitan Gregoriy of Voskresensk, instructed clergy to read a prayer — the “Prayer for Holy Rus” — on a daily basis during Lent. Metropolitan Gregoriy of Voskresensk also called on the clergy to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus” at home and to offer to read this prayer to parishioners. The “Prayer for Holy Rus” is a new prayer that the ROC MP officially introduced in September 2022. This prayer is a highly politicized and pro-war and pro-Kremlin prayer filled with Kremlin talking points and other false Russian narratives. The prayer asks God to “to help [Russian] people and grant [Russia] victory” against “those who want to fight [and] have taken up arms against Holy Rus, eager to divide and destroy her one people.” The mention of “Holy Rus” and “one people” echoes Putin’s long-term false narrative that Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians comprise one Russian nation, and is a misappropriation of the history of Kyivan Rus. ROC MP Head Patriarch Kirill — reportedly himself a former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) officer and a known staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin — first read the “Prayer for Holy Rus” (which he supposedly authored) on September 25, 2022, following Putin’s unpopular call for partial mobilization. The ROC MP had previously instituted politicized prayers in June 2014 and March 2022 supporting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and ISW has long assessed that the ROC MP is a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit that promotes the Kremlin’s interests and nationalist ideology domestically and abroad.

The ROC MP leadership has intensified internal scrutiny against ROC MP clergy and has reportedly defrocked several clergy members that refused to promote Kremlin-introduced prayers supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A guest researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ksenia Luchenko, noted that the ROC MP regards individual ROC MP clergy members’ refusal to use assigned prayers in liturgy as perjury and a sin punishable by defrocking under the 25th Apostolic Canon. The Christians Against War Project, a Russian organization that tracks persecutions of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian priests, reported that ROC MP or Russian state authorities have already disciplined no fewer than 28 ROC MP clergy members from Russia, five from Belarus, one from Kazakhstan, and six from Lithuania for anti-war rhetoric or refusing to read the assigned pro-war prayers during liturgy. The ROC MP has reportedly administered various punishments, including defrocking, demotions, and excommunication. Local Russian state officials opened administrative cases and issued fines for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” against several such anti-war ROC MP clergy members. Patriarch Kirill, for example, approved a decision in February 2024 to defrock one of the most famous and respected ROC MP priests, Archpriest Alexey Uminsky, for refusing to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus.” The Court of the Moscow Diocese also defrocked a priest in May 2023 for substituting the word “victory” with “peace” when reading the ”Prayer for Holy Rus.” Luchenko also reported that clergy members are increasingly self-censoring themselves out of fear that their own parishioners will report them for sharing anti-war sentiments. Parishioners, for example, reportedly called the police on a ROC MP priest in March 2022 after he prayed for peace in Ukraine. The ROC MP recently intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” and the Kremlin will likely continue to use the ROC MP to promote its imperialist and aggressive goals in Ukraine and elsewhere to secure long-term domestic support for Putin’s war efforts. The ROC MP also recently approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) reportedly directed all its clergy to change their liturgy to include pro-war prayers in support of Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine and is likely threatening to defrock ROC MP clergy who do not support the war.
  • The ROC MP leadership has intensified internal scrutiny against ROC MP clergy and has reportedly defrocked several clergy members who refused to promote Kremlin-introduced prayers supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia conducted another series of missile and drone strikes largely targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of March 30 to 31 as delays in US security assistance continue to degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and enable Russia to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Ukrainian forces appear to have repelled a Russian battalion-sized mechanized assault near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on March 30 — the first battalion-sized mechanized assault since Russian forces began the campaign to seize Avdiivka in late October 2023.
  • French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu announced on March 31 that France will provide an unspecified number of Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles and “hundreds” of armored vehicles and other equipment to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed on March 31 the scheduled decree authorizing Russia’s semi-annual spring military conscription, which will conscript 150,000 Russians between April 1 and July 15.
  • The Russian military command reportedly appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lapin as commander of the newly formed Leningrad Military District (LMD).
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to enforce Russian federal laws in post-Soviet countries where Russia has no legal jurisdiction.
  • Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and detained suspected terrorists in the Republic of Dagestan on March 31.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and southwest of Donetsk City on March 31. 
  • The Russian government continues to fail to properly compensate volunteer and irregular forces fighting in Ukraine, despite recently passing new legislation that simplifies the access to veteran statuses for these servicemen and their families.

For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-31-2024 

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