How the Ukraine war is dividing Orthodox Christians

St Basils cathedral on Red Square in Moscow

Source: The Conversation

There is a famous tale within Russian Orthodox Christianity that goes like this:

In the 16th century, Ivan IV – the Terrible, arguably the first Tsar of Russia – sought to extend his power and sent men to ravage those towns that had not submitted to him. At that time, Basil, a “fool for Christ”, came and offered him a gift of raw meat. It was Great Lent, the time when Christians fast from meat and dairy foods in preparation for Good Friday and Easter, and Ivan said that as an Orthodox Christian he would not eat meat. Basil responded: you drink the blood of humans, why not eat meat?

Ivan was shocked and repented his violence, and called off those attacks.

A house divided

When it comes to Russian ambitions, not much has changed since Ivan’s days, except the range and power of the weapons. But the current war has an important religious dimension, because both sides of the conflict are not merely Christian, they are members of the same church, sharing a thousand years of religious history.

Today, 71% of Russians and 78% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians. In fact, until 2019, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was part of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), and many parishes remain there (UOC-MP), in conflict with a self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine (UCO).

Moreover, on both sides, Orthodox Christianity is deeply woven into political life. Priests bless Kalashnikovs and tanks, and Russian cathedrals are monuments to imperial ambition.

Likewise, a majority of both Ukrainians and Russians believe that being Orthodox is necessary to being Ukrainian or Russian, and both populations expect their religious leaders to play a role in political, even military, actions. In this world, the statements and actions of Orthodox leaders will have a profound effect on the war.

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1 reply

  1. This kind of politics and association between organized religion and politics, incidentally, also explains why many Muslim theologians suggested capital punishment for apostasy and did not consider it as a religious freedom issue.

    It was politics of the time and not the Islamic faith.

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