Russian priests speak out against war despite threat of prison, sanctions from church

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A pair of Russian priests have spoken out against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine despite the risk of prison or, worse, angering the Russian church

The church has backed the state’s “special operation” in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leader, has remained a vocal proponent of Putin’s war, saying that God is on Russia’s side even as Russian soldiers allegedly commit atrocities against civilians. 

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But some priests have started to speak out despite the incredible risk they face by doing so. 

Father Georgy Edelshtein, 89, spoke with AFP, expressing his disappointment with the state and claiming he has been a “bad priest.” 

  • Ioann Burdin Russian Priest

    Father Ioann Burdin, the 50-year-old Russian Orthodox priest, attends an AFP interview in his house in the village of Nikolskoye outside the city of Kostroma on April 25, 2022. – Since Russia launched its military action in Ukraine on February 24, only a handful of priests from the Russian Orthodox Church led by Moscow Patriarch Kirill — which counts some 150 million believers across the world — have spoken out openly against the Kremlin’s military campaign.  (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Patriarch Kirill

    FILE – Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill delivers the Christmas Liturgy in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

  • GettyImages 1235206051

    PSKOV, RUSSIA – SEPTEMBER,11 (RUSSIA OUT): Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (R) attend the opening ceremony of the monument to Prince Alexander Nevsky and His Guard at the supposed location of 1224 Battle on Ice, also known as Lake Peipus (Chudskoye) Battle, on September,11,2021, in Samolva villiage outside of Pskov, Russia. Russians marks the 800th Annivesrary of Alexander Nevsky’s birthday this year. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images) (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

  • Putin Kirill

    FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill on the 13th anniversary of his enthronement in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“I’ve never been against all wars but I’ve always been against any land-grabbing, aggressive war,” Edelshtein said. He supported Ukraine’s independence and right to “build their state as they see necessary.” 

Only a handful of priests have found the voice to speak out against the war, and therefore speak out against Kirill. The patriarch has called for Russians to “rally around” the state and accuses “enemies” of trying to destroy historic unity between Russia and Ukraine. 

The church maintains a distinctive interest in the Ukraine war: The Russian Orthodox Church obtained the right to ordain the top bishop of Kyiv – effectively putting it in control of the church there for almost 300 years. 

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The Ecumenical Patriarch – head of the orthodox churches – maintained that the power was temporary and in 2019 formally recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as independent of the Moscow patriarch. 

Kirill fiercely opposed the move as “illegitimate.” Many monasteries and parishes in Ukraine remain under Kirill’s purview, even if the parishioners remain unaware of the fact. 

But Edelshtein and Father Ioann Burdin have stood in opposition to their leader, saying “the blood of Ukrainian residents will remain on the hands not only of the rulers of Russia and soldiers carrying out this order. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who … simply remain silent.” 

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The priests wrote their comments in a letter posted online, which has since been deleted, AFP reported. 

“For me, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional,” Burdin, 50, explained, adding that opposition carries the risk of sanctions and prosecution. He remains active while Edelshtein has retired. 

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“If a person commits a personal sin, he himself rebels (against God), not the whole Church with him,” Burdin said. 

“If I’m within the Church but censoring myself as I speak, if I’m silent about a sin being a sin, and about bloodshed being unacceptable, then I will just gradually, without noticing, stop being a pastor.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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