Head of Orthodox church: Bombing civilian objects is a crime

Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Source: Gergey Lukecha/ERR

Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (MPEÕK) does not deny Russia's invasion of Ukraine but stops short of condemning the Russian leadership for unleashing war, pointing to different interpretations of the ongoing aggression. The metropolitan tells ERR in an interview that he does not believe the war and different attitudes are causing a schism.

You called for an end to the fratricidal conflict [in Ukraine] in a recent address to members of the congregation. Can we still refer to Russians and Ukrainians as brothers after February 24?

They will still be kin no matter how events unfold. Because decisions that lead to conflict are made by politicians. The entire nation cannot be equated with politicians. That is why Russians and Ukrainians will always be brothers.

The media is reporting on a rift inside the Russian-speaking community in Estonia based on different attitudes toward the war. How do Estonian congregations and members of the clergy see the war in Ukraine?

All manner of war needs to be seen negatively, which is the normal reaction of an Orthodox person.

It needs to be said that as soon as these events started – they were unexpected for everyone – we urged congregations to intensify their prayers for the conflict to stop and talks to begin. Solving conflicts behind a negotiating table is normal.

You joined the Estonian Council of Churches' March statement condemning Russia's military activity in Ukraine, also the bombing of "humanitarian objects, including churches, and endangering civilians." How difficult was it for you, as the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, to sign something like that? Did you coordinate the move with Moscow?

No, I did not.

But I would direct your attention to another sentence: "Battles cost the lives of men who are defending their country but also those who have been made the tools of evil." This context suggests that while the Ukrainians are defending their country, Russians are the tools of evil in the second part of the sentence.

I would also point out something no one knows. The initial version of the text referred to Putin and no one else. We were opposed to that. We discussed it and proposed also naming other leaders or no one.

Is that to say that Putin's name was pulled from the address following pressure from you?

It was not pressure. Our proposal was as follows: "Leaders of the Russian Federation, but also the leaders of other major world powers who must acknowledge their responsibility for events in Ukraine, must take energetic and wise steps to restore peace." This phrasing was not supported and a different project was approved. The one I read out.

Allow me to repeat it: Battles are costing the lives of men defending their country" – Ukrainians, considering the context – "but also those who have been made the tools of evil" – Russians, considering the context.

I agreed to this phrase as no names were mentioned. Because Russia's treatment is very different.

I do not want to get involved in politics, while it is inevitable here.

Please answer the question directly: do you condemn the Russian leadership's military invasion of Ukraine?

The direct answer is that this would require us to have in-depth knowledge of the situation. But because I am a layman in politics, I cannot speak to how events develop or how they should be interpreted.

But Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. There is no way to contest that.

We cannot contest that. But can we say for sure what were its reasons for launching the operation?

I will say again that while I am loathe to intervene in politics, we must admit that Russia's interpretation is that they anticipated an imminent invasion by Ukraine. I will not be evaluating this [claim]. Because it is one side's argument against the other.

But it is war. Whatever its reasons, can a clergyman justify war?

I don't know. That is why I'm saying that I don't know whether it was right or not. That is why we are not saying anywhere that we support this operation. But we're also not saying that we don't, because we simply don't know enough.

But do you consider it a war?

I do consider it a war.

Allow me to read a passage from the March 11 statement of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church: "You know this conflict did not begin today. I am convinced that it is not the fault of the Russian and Ukrainian people that begun under the same Kyiv church and cross, is united in faith, with common saints and prayers, tied to the same historical fate. The origins of the conflict need to be sought in the relations of the Western powers and Russia." Do you share the patriarch's view?

That is precisely why we proposed the phrasing, "but also the leaders of other major world powers who must acknowledge their responsibility…"

How can we blame the West for Russian forces invading Ukraine on February 24?

I already explained that Russia's interpretation is that Ukrainian forces could have otherwise invaded in a few days' time.

It is a political matter. I do not want to get involved. I don't know whether it is the case or not. Members of the clergy must not get involved in such matters because we don't know.

It is possible that documents to completely overturn current interpretations of these events will be found three, five or 50 years from now.

Therefore, you do not condemn the Russian leadership over the invasion?

I don't know. I have no right to have a position since I don't know.

Then, how do you know Ukraine could have invaded Russia a few days later?

I'm saying that is how Russia interprets it. It's their interpretation. I am not taking it upon myself to say that it is the correct interpretation, that it's truthful. I'm simply distancing myself from answering.

Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Source: Gergey Lukecha/ERR

Nevertheless, you joined a statement that condemns Russia's military activity on the territory of Ukraine, including the bombing of civilian objects.

Yes, because bombing civilian objects is a crime. I agree with this part, there can be no question.

I would, however, clarify the church's position from a spiritual perspective. I happened on the words of an ascetic: we must say a prayer for everyone. If we pray for those who are not in the right, we are complying with what Christ said about praying for thy enemy. If we pray for those who are in the right, we are undoubtedly doing the right thing.

During the initial days of the invasion, head of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow, Metropolitan Onufriy turned to the Russian president and later to Patriarch Kirill but never received a reply. Why is the Russian Orthodox Church holding its tongue and refraining from commenting on the invasion?

I can only speculate, and this is purely my interpretation, that it is to avoid being accused of a statement not in line with reality should new documents come to light and everything be turned on its head after the fact. That's all.

Dean Igor Prekup of the Paldiski Orthodox Church (of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow – ed.) has written in the media that the Russian Orthodox Church is yet to take a clear stand on events in Ukraine. Do you agree that we still don't know where the church in Russia stands on the war a month after it started?

I do agree, because decisions are made by politicians, while members of the clergy cannot know all things. That is all. But that is my personal opinion.

There have been reports that bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow are refusing to mention Patriarch Kirill during their services. I believe you are well aware. You visited Moscow on March 20 and worshipped with Kirill at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Do you not consider it a mistake under the circumstances and that you would have been better served standing in solidarity with the clergy of Ukraine currently under fire, instead of traveling to Moscow?

I went there to attend the ordination of a bishop I know. That was the only reason. It was not an ordinary service but something that had been long planned but postponed several times. There is no political backdrop to this.

I would refrain from passing judgment on the decision to stop mentioning the patriarch. They are in a different situation. It is a canonic moment in a way. But members of the clergy choosing to name or not name the patriarch does not amount to a divide or schism.

Ukrainian clergymen are talking about autocephaly (independence – ed.). The Amsterdam congregation is talking about breaking off from the Moscow patriarchate. Is this not all part of the same process?

Look, talk of autocephaly emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, which is why none of this is new. All manner of political events either promote or hold back the process.

But talking about the congregation you mentioned, I disagree with the decision. That is all.

Did you perchance have a private conversation with Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, perhaps he said something else in private? As things stand, it looks like he supports the invasion.

No, we did not speak at length. It was about him, as a normal Christian, not supporting war in any form.

War is evil, which we cannot stop emphasizing. The shedding of blood, loss of life and destruction of civilian objects cannot be justified in any way.

Writer and former clergyman Andrei Kurajev said in an interview that the Russian Orthodox Church could share in the responsibility for the war for having "cultivated imperial phantom pains in Orthodox propaganda." What would be your comment?

Kurajev has always tried to be original. I would refrain from offering comment for that reason. It is his personal opinion. Let it remain that.

It has the right to exist. Do you agree there might be something to it?

Everyone has the right to think how they think. Personally, I do not agree.

Deutsche Welle observer Konstantin Egert recently wrote that by supporting the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has entered a serious moral crisis that may erode its moral authority and, more importantly, its unity. What do you say?

I think that some will cave, in reference to what you said about the congregation in Amsterdam. I believe things like that could be realistic. They have always cropped up in difficult situations. And this definitely is one. Will everyone come through this test the same – I think not.

There will be temptation and attempts at departure. What excuses are used is another question. If the patriarch has made a canonic error or committed an offense, it can only be decided by the synod and not individual congregations.

Apostle Paul said to pray for the ruler. Who was the ruler during the time of the apostles? The Roman emperor who drowned Christianity in blood. And yet – "pray for the ruler." True, the ruler and patriarch are different concepts here.

Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Could this war cause the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy to distance itself from Moscow?


Are you certain?

I am certain that it is not a reason to create a schism.

Around 300 Russian Orthodox clergymen joined a public letter urging an end to the war. Isn't a schism obvious?

It is not a schism. They expressed their opinion, which is noteworthy to an extent, so to speak. It is their right. They spoke their minds and so what? It is not a schism.

Members of the clergy urged peaceful protesters not to be punished in the letter. Why do you think Russia is punishing those who have taken to the street with anti-war posters?

A question for politicians.

What about a clergyman's perspective?

I find it is not right.

But why is it persisting and how to stop it?

Another question for politicians.

How to prevent conflicts between Russians, Estonians and Ukrainians?

I do find it to be a problem as Ukrainian arrivals have been infected with a measure of anti-Russian sentiment. It is a problem.

Why do you say that?

Based solely on the local press. There are some, while not everyone is like that, of course.

Some refugees have also come to me. We had a very good conversation. They are worried about what is happening. They regret these events unfolding in this manner. But the local media is once again talking about tension in these relations. I believe time will heal that tension. And that we need to be above ambitions and umbrage. I believe time will remedy the situation.

What is the MPEÕK doing for war refugees arriving in Estonia?

We got a letter looking for volunteers right after the Council of Churches' meeting with the internal ministry's undersecretary on helping refugees. We found suitable people and they are working in Tallinn, Rakvere and Tartu.

All of our churches are collecting donations and have been for the past month. I believe we will tally up the contributions in early April and see where they could be used.

Allow me to return to my previous question. Is there a divide among MPEÕK clergymen?

There is no divide.

Everyone is united, in what?

Everyone agrees that the situation must not be allowed to lead to a split. It is a political situation. We need to intensify our prayers. It is a fact. But it must not come to a split.

There are different opinions, and that is completely natural. Why condemn the mundane and the faithful who sport a different view? They have the right to a different perspective.

Are you in full support of the Estonian church heads' statement?

I will not back out of it, while I will also provide no interpretation for the phrasing. Let everyone decide for themselves who is the aggressor, who is defending and who is more to blame for what. I will say again that I cannot place blame or absolve anyone 100 percent. I am not active in politics. But such assessments can only come through political thinking.

Pardon me, but look at the amount of controversy in the press. Also, fake news. How can anyone draw ironclad conclusions or decide something with so much controversial information?

At the very least, one can be vocal in criticizing the war, regarding statements from Moscow. Why aren't we haring any?

I find – again, this is my personal opinion – that it is avoided not to get stuck in inaccurate interpretations.

What should be the church's role in ending this war?

Looking at history and feuding between the princes, the church served as a unifying factor, managing these conflicts between the prices who were often related by blood. Therefore, the church has a role.

The situation has changed in terms of modern technology etc. But the church can and must influence people's souls. We can first and foremost affect those who come to us for spiritual guidance. But we cannot influence politicians in this manner.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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