Putin's grip on power under threat as Russian Orthodox churches vow to revolt over war

A growing conflict inside the Russian Orthodox Church over the war in Ukraine could plunge Vladimir Putin into crisis. President Putin counts the Russian Orthodox faith as one of his country’s greatest soft powers and has developed a strong personal alliance with the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill. At the start of the war, Patriarch Kirill even blessed the invasion, turning a military conflict into a “holy war” in the eyes of many Russians.

However, a leading religious expert has warned that President Putin’s grip on power could be tested as more priests inside the Orthodox Church voice their anger at the war.

The Russian Orthodox Church is facing an exodus of members from its parishes in Ukraine, where it maintains a strong presence.  

Dr Sergii Bortnyk, an adviser to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, told the BBC that half of the 12,000 parishes from the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine are already discussing breaking away from Moscow.

Catherine Pepinster, a former editor of The Tablet, told BBC Dateline that the war was putting a “huge strain” on the Russian Orthodox Church and its 90 million followers of the Church.

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The former editor of the Catholic weekly said: “It is particularly putting strain on members of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine itself.

“Already there is an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“Now we are seeing more and more priests from the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine feel that was Patriarch Kirill is doing by endorsing the war and blessing it – making it a holy war in effect – is completely unacceptable and they too are talking about splitting.

“I read today that half of the 12,000 parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine could break away, so this is really significant.

“There are also some Orthodox priests in Russia itself who have started to be more and more anxious about what is happening but it’s extremely tough for them to speak out.

One Russian based priest, speaking on the basis of anonymity, told Al Jazeera this week: “The war is a catastrophe and a crime of enormous proportions.

“This is a complete violation of the commandments of God. And we, Russians, will have to answer for this and compensate for all the destruction.”

Earlier this week, Patriarch Kirill boasted that his church and its faithful were holding back the antichrist. 

At the start of the war, the Russian Orthodox leader declared: “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.”

In 2012, the patriarch described Vladimir Putin’s election victory as a “miracle of God”.

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