- LEW NESCOTT, JR
Earlier this month, Metropolitan Epiphanius of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine spoke to Religion News Service in an exclusive interview on the grounds of the golden-domed monastery of St. Michael in Kyiv.
During the interview, the leader of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians portrayed Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril as a politician dressed in the fine clothes and jewel-encrusted miter of a clergyman. As such, Epiphanius said, “he bears as much responsibility as Putin for all the war crimes the Russian military is committing in Ukraine.”
The head of the Ukrainian Church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, left, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, right, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, led a Mass at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, August 22, 2021. PHOTO: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky.
In your Easter message, you quoted the words of Saint Paul, repeated in the famous Easter sermon of Saint John Chrysostom: “Death, where is your sting? Where is your victory? How comforting are these words for those who have lost loved ones?
“The task of the church is to support and inspire Ukrainians. And my task as the primate of the church is to support the spirit of [the] the Ukrainian army, to support the spirit of [the] Ukrainian people in the ongoing struggle. It is a struggle between good and evil. The Russian evil has entered our peaceful home. We are called to stop this evil in Eastern Ukraine. Because if we Ukrainians don’t stop this, it will spread to other territories. So the words of John Chrysostom are very real today.”
You have called on all Orthodox Christians to throw off the spiritual yoke of Moscow. Are you specifically addressing those 400 Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine who have called for a religious tribunal against Patriarch Cyril?
“It’s not just for those priests. It’s for everyone in the Russian Orthodox Church. In Ukraine, it’s the only state institution that has a connection with Moscow. That’s why I call on all to unite around Kyiv, because the spiritual part is very important. Putin is using the Russian Orthodox Church very successfully in Ukraine. But we see that little by little the Ukrainians understand all this.
“According to the latest poll conducted in early March, before Bucha’s atrocities came to light, 70% of Ukraine were Orthodox Christians. Among them, 52% support [the Orthodox Church] from Ukraine. Only 4% support the Russian Orthodox Church. Last year in December they had 15 percent support.
“That’s why I am convinced that eventually we will all be in one local Orthodox Church of Ukraine. As long as we have the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, it creates an illusion for Putin. He had an illusion before the large-scale invasion that in three, four days he will capture all of Ukraine. He thought that Ukraine would accept him, meet him with flowers, but it did not happen. Every parish in Ukraine must have free choice.
How many parishes in Ukraine have left the Russian Orthodox Church to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since the beginning of the war?
“More than 300 parishes have joined [the] the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Russian Orthodox Church during these three months.”
The European Union is considering sanctioning Kirill for his role in supporting Putin’s war. Do you think the European Union or the United States government should sanction it?
“We know that [he] is the main ideologue of the theory of the “Russian world”, which envisages the so-called unity of three peoples: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. He preached this ideology every time he visited Ukraine. This is why he bears as much responsibility as Putin for all the war crimes that the Russian army commits in Ukraine.
“Everyone should understand that the Russian Orthodox Church is part of the Russian state. It’s like the religious affairs department. Kirill is more of a state authority than a religious pastor. He’s an oligarch , a tycoon covered with a church cassock. He has his property in Europe. That is why the world must sanction him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill applaud during the unveiling ceremony of a monument to Vladimir the Great on National Unity Day outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Friday November 4, 2016. PHOTO: AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko.
There is a growing consensus among some members of the World Council of Churches that the Russian Orthodox Church should be expelled from its ranks. Would you support such a move?
“It does not depend on us, it depends on the World Council of the Church. But if there is such a movement, then it is justified. The Russian Church preaches an ideology of racism. This ideology has brought death, murders, murders and atrocities in Ukraine. This ideology aims to eliminate the Ukrainian people. That’s why it is almost equal to the ideology of Nazism. If this church has anything to do with this ideology, it cannot be member of this organization.
You said on Greek state television in March that shortly after the start of the war, Russian agents tried to enter Saint-Michel three times to assassinate you. You said you were “informed by foreign agencies that you were number five on a blacklist of prominent Ukrainian leaders”. Do you still worry about your personal safety?
“From foreign sources we know that there were lists of authorities who were to be killed. That is why during the first three days there were attempts to enter this residence, to enter St Michael Every day we found little [GPS] devices on the grounds of the cathedral and the monastery to direct the artillery. It was moral suasion. I continued to do my job. I continued the services and I supported our authorities and our soldiers.
“But we see that Ukraine can be bombed anytime, anywhere. Not only eastern Ukraine, but also western Ukraine. That’s why we rely on God’s will, first of all, and believe that God will protect us. He has protected us for these three months.”
If this war were to continue next year or beyond, what would be the long-term effects on Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine?
“We all want this war to end as soon as possible. Every Ukrainian is doing everything possible. But we have to foresee that this war can be very long. Every day Ukrainians are gradually understanding which church is really Ukrainian and which Church is Russian. Unfortunately, the more destruction there is, the more understanding those who believe in the ideology of one Russian people will be. This war strengthens the unity of the Orthodox people in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian serviceman takes a photo of a damaged church after a bombing of a residential area in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, March 10. PHOTO: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.
What do you need from the United States to win the war?
“First of all, as Christians, we need spiritual support and prayer. We feel this spiritual solidarity during this ordeal. But we also need, of course, material support because in Ukraine almost all our infrastructure are in ruins. This is why we need financial support to stand up and resist the aggressor country”.
And the weapons?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.