Kremlin, Targeting Churches, Tries to Steal Ukraine’s Christmas

In an echo of Bolshevik-era atrocities, Russian soldiers now target churches in Ukraine, damaging or destroying houses of worship at the rate of two churches a day.

AP/Efrem Lukatsky
Metropolitan Oleksandr delivers a religious service inside the Transfiguration of Jesus Orthodox Cathedral during a blackout at Kyiv, December 3, 2022. AP/Efrem Lukatsky

Silence the church bells! This was the order the Bolsheviks gave out one century ago. Competing for the hearts and minds of the Russian people, one million bronze bells were still ringing out after the fall of the Russian Empire.

Sometimes called “singing icons,” bells summoned Orthodox faithful to baptisms, burials, and Christmas services. By 1941, the communists had closed or destroyed 92 percent of Russia’s churches. Some bells were melted down for Lenin statues.

In an echo of this not-so-distant past, Russian soldiers now target churches in Ukraine, damaging or destroying houses of worship at the rate of two churches a day, reports the Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom.

During the first four months of the war, the survey found that the Russians also hit nine synagogues and seven mosques. In Mariupol, a mosque sheltering more than 80 people was bombed.

Destruction of churches is part of a root and branch drive to eradicate Ukrainian culture. This includes looting museums, burning libraries, toppling monuments, imposing pro-Russian narratives on schools, and blacking out Ukrainian language street signs. On Monday, The New York Times posted an illustrated survey of Russia’s war on Ukrainian culture.

By attacking churches, Russia’s artillerymen target civil society in Ukraine. In villages and cities, churches are hubs for the distribution of food and clothing. “Churches have been functioning as the central organizing force to mitigate damage to civil society,”  write two Washington-based researchers,  the Hudson Institute’s Mónika Palotai, of, and the Center for Immigration Studies’ Kristóf György Veres.

“A large portion of internally displaced people, and those whose houses were irreparably destroyed, are still quartered in churches,” they say. “Russian forces presume that priests and pastors are agents of the Ukrainian government.”

The survey found that almost half of the 224 churches damaged or destroyed through June 16 belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The largest branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, this church for centuries answered to the Patriarch in Moscow. But, after Russia’s February 24 attack on Ukraine, 749 parishes migrated to its Kyiv-based rival, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Adding a religious component to the Kremlin’s desire to subdue Ukraine, Ukraine has the world’s largest number of Eastern Orthodox faithful outside of Russia – about 25 million people.  

Together, Ukraine’s two churches account for 19,000 parishes. If these parishes were one day to return to the control of Russia, Moscow Patriarch Kirill would see his empire swell by 25 percent.

The Patriarch, who has an apartment inside the Kremlin walls, is a big backer of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On April 3, as reports came from Bucha of widespread killings of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers, he spoke in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow.

He praised the armed forces for “feats” of service. He declared that Russia is a “peaceful” nation. This fall, the Patriarch assured draftees that if they give their lives for their country they will be with God in Heaven.

In May, Pope Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had a 40-minute Zoom call with Patriarch Kirill. Reading from a sheet of paper, the Muscovite prelate listed justifications for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “I listened, and then told him: I don’t understand anything about this,” Pope Francis told Corriere.

“Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus.”  The Pope urged the Patriarch not to support the war, telling the Italian newspaper: “The Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

In contrast, the primate of the Russia-aligned Ukrainian church, Metropolitan Onufriy, has blasted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a disaster.” On day one of the attack, he said it “is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.” This Moscow-centered church hurriedly held a synod on May 12. The clergy and bishops approved a statement supporting Ukraine’s armed forces, condemning Russia’s invasion, and cutting ties with Moscow.

Suspecting lingering loyalties, President Zelensky called this month for the banning of religious organizations loyal to Moscow. Since October, 33 Orthodox priests have been arrested on charges of aiding Russian forces in the war. In the field, Russian gunners probably may not be well-versed in the finer points of church politics. But, in their determination to demoralize Ukrainians, they seem to understand what their Bolshevik great grandfathers knew one century ago: churches can be pillars of communities.

Speaking Wednesday to the Congress, Mr. Zelensky signaled that this winter will offer Ukrainians a Christmas of the catacombs. Five years ago, in a move that angered the Kremlin, Ukraine added “Catholic Christmas” — December 25 — to the nation’s traditional Orthodox Christmas, on January 7. 

“In two days, we will celebrate Christmas. Maybe, candlelit,” the President, who is Jewish, told the American legislators. “Not because it is more romantic. But because there will be no electricity. Millions will have neither heating nor running water. All of this will be the result of Russian missile and drone attacks.”


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