ANTALYA – Standing in an old Orthodox church in Antalya with a Bible in one hand and a candle in the other, the Rev. Ioann Koval led one of his first services in Turkey after Russian Orthodox Church leadership decided to defrock him following his prayer for peace in Ukraine.
Last September, when President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists, Moscow Patriarch Kirill required his clergymen to pray for victory. Standing in front of the altar and dozens of his parishioners in one of Moscow’s churches, Koval decided to put the peace above the patriarch’s orders.
“With the word 'victory' the prayer acquired a propagandistic meaning, shaping the correct thinking among the parishioners, among the clergy, what they should think about and how they should see these hostilities," Koval said. “It went against my conscience. I couldn’t submit to this political pressure from the hierarchy.”
In the prayer he recited multiple times, the 45-year-old priest changed just one word, replacing “victory” with “peace” — but it was enough for the church court to remove his priestly rank.
Publicly praying or calling for peace also poses risks of prosecution from the Russian state. Shortly after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed prosecuting thousands of people for “discrediting the Russian army,” a charge that in reality applies to anything that contradicts the official narrative, be it a commentary on social networks or a prayer in church.
Similar to Putin’s authoritarian regime, Kirill built a harsh hierarchy in the church that demands total conformity, Andrey Desnitsky, professor of philology at Vilnius University in Lithuania, told The Associated Press. If a priest refuses to read the patriarch’s prayer, his loyalty is suspect.
“If you are not loyal, then there is no place for you in church,” added Desnitsky, a longtime expert on the Russian church.
When the war started, most priests remained silent, fearing pressure from the church and state authorities; only a small fraction have spoken out. Of more than 40,000 clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church, only 300 priests signed a public letter calling for peace in Ukraine.
But each of the public voices against the war is crucial, said Natallia Vasilevich, the coordinator for the human rights group Christians Against War.
“It breaks what seems to be a monolithic position of the Russian Orthodox Church,” she told AP.
Since the beginning of the war, Vasilevich’s team has counted at least 30 Orthodox priests who faced pressure by religious or state authorities. But there might be even more cases, she says, as some priests are afraid to talk about repressions, fearing it will bring more.
The Russian Orthodox Church explains the repressions against the priests who spoke against the war are punishment for their so-called engagement in politics.
“The clergy who turn themselves from priests into political agitators and persons participating in the political struggle, they, obviously, cease to fulfill their pastoral duty and are subject to canonical bans,” Vakhtang Kipshidze, the deputy head of the church’s press service, told AP.
At the same time, the priests who publicly support the war in Ukraine do not face any repercussions and moreover are supported by the state, Vasilevich said.
“The Russian regime is interested in making these voices sound louder,” she added.
The priests who refuse to join this chorus or stay quiet can be reassigned, temporarily relieved of their duties, or defrocked — losing their salary, housing, benefits, and most importantly their ministries to their flock.
“I never questioned the choice I made,” Koval said. “I, my whole soul, my whole being opposed this war. It was impossible for me to support the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine with my prayer.”
After a Russian Orthodox Church court decided he should be defrocked, Koval appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has asserted a right to receive petitions of appeal from other Orthodox churches' clergy, over Russia's objections.
In June, the Constantinople patriarchate decided that Koval was punished for his stance on the war in Ukraine and ruled to restore his holy rank. The same day, Bartholomew allowed him to serve in his churches.
The Rev. Ioann Burdin also wanted to leave the Russian Orthodox Church after he spoke out against the war at a small church near Kostroma and the local court fined him for discrediting the Russian army. He asked the patriarch to approve his transfer to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but instead, Kirill banned him from service until the priest made a public apology.
“My position, which I first stated on the website, then in the church, and later during the trial was an expression of my religious convictions,” the priest told AP. “Since all people are brothers, then any war, any military conflict, one way or another becomes fratricidal.”
Not allowed to serve in the church, Burdin brought his sermons to a Telegram channel where he guides Orthodox Christians confused by the patriarch’s support of the war.
During his more than two decades in power, Putin has massively boosted the Russian Orthodox Church's standing, increasing its prestige, wealth and power in society after decades of oppression or indifference under Soviet leaders.
In turn, its leaders, like Patriarch Kirill, have supported his initiatives. The church has thrown its weight behind the war in Ukraine and it has been commonplace to see its clergymen blessing troops and equipment heading into battle and invoking God’s blessings in the campaign.
The Rev. Iakov Vorontsov, a priest in Kazakhstan, was shocked and desperate when he first heard the news of the war. He was hoping the church would step in to mediate the conflict. But neither his peers nor his superiors supported his calls to preach peace.
“I realized that no one hears the words about peace,” the 37-year-old priest says. “It should have been conveyed to the people, to our flock, but it was not. And then I realized that I have another tool: social networks.”
While his anti-war posts on Facebook received support online, the offline reaction was hostile. His superiors reassigned him several times, forbade him from giving sermons, and told parishioners to stay away from him. In the end, the priest lost hope and decided to temporarily stop serving in the Russian Orthodox Church.
“They wanted me to leave, and in the end, they got it,” the priest says, sitting in his apartment without a black robe that he wore for the past 13 years. “But I didn’t renounce my rank, I just decided for the time being that I can’t be among these people in this situation.”
The patriarch’s influence goes far beyond the boundaries of his country and his orders apply even to priests serving abroad. In February, Kirill suspended for three months the Rev. Andrei Kordochkin, a priest at an Orthodox church in Madrid, for his anti-war stance.
Kipshidze said Kordochkin was punished for “inciting hatred” among his parishioners. But the priest says it’s a warning to dissuade him from further criticism.
“I don’t think that there is something that I have done wrong canonically,” Kordochkin said. “If there is no canonical crime, then it means that canon law is simply used as a mechanism of political repression.”
Since the first days of the war, Kordochkin has publicly condemned the Russian invasion and has been regularly praying for peace in Ukraine. He believes priests should not remain silent and must convey a Christian message to people.
“We have a duty to speak out, whatever the cost of that will be.”
Associated Press journalists Iain Sullivan in Madrid and Vladimir Tretyakov in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed.
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