Church leaders, including those in Estonia, are joining national leaders in calling on Russia to end its war in Ukraine, but as Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has openly supported and justified the ongoing war, efforts to stress the Christian love of one's neighbor have thus far been in vain.
Churches are among those offering humanitarian aid to Ukraine and helping those who have fled the war. In addition to material aid, churches are also seeking to provide pastoral care. Immediately following the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, for example, some Ukrainian troops who had been in Tartu went to confession at the Immaculate Conception Church in Tartu prior to returning to their homeland.
"They told [the priest], 'Yes, we know that some of us will die there,'" recalled Bishop Philippe Jourdan, apostolic administrator of Estonia for the Roman Catholic Church. "That priest has actually told me already that he already knows several of them have died already. I believe that this is precisely the kind of specific work that the church can do. Our job is to care for one's soul."
All churches aim to provide pastoral care, regardless of their precise confession. Alongside this work, however, churches have another role as well. If countries cannot find a diplomatic solution, church leaders will attempt to bring their message of peace to Russia. As the world is home to nearly two and a half billion Christians, church leaders also have a wide audience.
"Particularly with the Roman pope, of course," said Priit Rohtmets, associate professor of church history at the University of Tartu (TÜ). "Roman Catholics account for the largest part of Christendom; there are more than 1.3 billion of them. On such an ideological level, precisely by speaking of war as a moral deficit, speaking about the worth of the human soul, speaking about a person's worth — churches without a doubt have their own role to play in that respect."
Pope wanted to meet with Putin
Last week, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, wanted to travel to Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, however, would not agree to meet with the pope.
"The pope's traditional title in Latin is summus pontifex, and pontifex means 'bridge-builder' in Latin," Jourdan explained. "If there is one person in the world whose moral authority is such that they could talk with Putin about peace, then it certainly can't be [US] President [Joe] Biden, [French President Emmanuel] Macron or [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz or others. To some extent, our only hope is the pope; I don't believe that Putin would heed anyone else."
In order to build a bridge, however, support is necessary on both banks. Jourdan said that the pope understands that a message of peace would likely be sent in vain, but as the ending of the war depends primarily on Putin, he must nonetheless try to convince him.
It is also worth bearing in mind, however, that the majority of Russians are Orthodox, which is why Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) Urmas Viilma doubts that even the pope has sufficient influence in Russia to bring peace.
"The only one who could sufficiently influence this process on the religious level is actually still Patriarch Kirill, who — I believe — is still very well informed regarding what is happening in Ukraine," Viilma said. "But I'll have to get back to you on who could influence the patriarch, as various confessions and churches are not subordinate to one another."
EU weighing sanctions against Kirill
Another potential hope may be international church organizations involved in pursuing peace.
"Such as the World Council of Churches, which is headquartered in Geneva," Viilma cited as an example. "I myself participated in a roundtable a month ago involving church leaders from this region — also invited to these talks were church leaders from the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate — precisely for the purpose of discussing how to achieve peace and how much churches can contribute. Unfortunately, due to various sanctions, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate could not enter Europe."
Meanwhile, Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is himself one of the authors of the ideology being used to justify the ongoing war in Ukraine.
"Since the beginning of the war, Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, has made a whole slew of statements in which he underscores that Russia has not ever attacked anyone, and that this entire war is like a metaphysical struggle between good and evil," Rohtmets said.
"As such, in justifying Russia's actions and defending the concept of a Holy Russia with its great Christian history, he is still one of the ideologists and one of the co-conspirators of this war," the theologian stressed. "Not a collaborator or someone somehow forced to adopt these positions — he has taken this position upon himself. He did not just take up this position at the beginning of the war; rather, these have been his convictions and views for decades already. This is a concept that has been devised by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the state."
This is why the EU is discussing imposing sanctions on Kirill personally.
Viilma stressed that this war must be condemned. "But if it is now expected that other churches in this same area should somehow call these sanctioned people to order, or hold a dialogue with them, well, it isn't possible to hold a dialogue if it isn't possible to sit down at the same table together with them," he said.
"So these sanctions on one hand send a very clear political message to the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate, for example, but on the other, they prevent other churches in the world from holding a dialogue with them," the head of Estonia's Lutheran church continued. "It's hard to say what would be right and what would be wrong here. Thankfully, here in Estonia, all of us church leaders are able to discuss everything together, including discussing the war, and develop common positions."
Metropolitan Yevgeny choosing his words
Viilma referred for example to the joint statement issued by the Estonian Council of Churches in March echoing the UN General Assembly's condemnation of Russia's war in Ukraine. Among the signatories was Metropolitan Yevgeny (Eugeni), head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (MPEÕK), one of two distinct Orthodox churches represented in Estonia.
In an appearance on ETV+'s Russian-language program "Nädala intervjuu" later that month, the metropolitan said that the leaders of other major countries should acknowledge their responsibility as well. Nonetheless, he has not rescinded his signature from the churches' joint statement.
"I haven't heard of him praising or justifying Putin's war in Ukraine either," Viilma noted. "Rather he is truly neutral. I personally wouldn't be that neutral, but that is his decision and his church."
Yet Yevgeny's carefully chosen messages aren't coming from a place of wanting to avoid Moscow's displeasure. Rohtmets noted that compared with the head of the Estonian Orthodox church, the heads of Latvia and Lithuania's Orthodox churches, both of whom fall under the Moscow Patriarchate, have unequivocally condemned the war.
"They have also declared that they don't agree with Patriarch Kirill," the professor said, adding that nothing bad whatsoever has happened to them by now as a result.
"I believe that this isn't so much a matter of the personal sanctioning of Metropolitan Yevgeny, or a matter of personal fear," he continued. "It's still a question of what he as the head of the church deems right to say to members of his congregation."
The MPEÕK is diverse and includes many members with varying opinions, and thus the Orthodox church in Estonia cannot be deemed an extension of Moscow's influence, Rohtmets found. Nonetheless, the metropolitan is still issuing ambiguous statements.
"Ultimately, the head of the church is still the voice of the church, who makes statements on behalf of the church — even if some pastors or congregation members may not agree with this," Rohtmets said. "There is indeed a question — whether Yevgeny, the head of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate here should reflect and address Orthodox believers here with a clear and affirmative message. Right now, indeed, many Russian-speaking people are awaiting affirmation, as there is a lot of information — and contradictory information — first and foremost in the Russian-language sphere."
ERR was unable to contact Metropolitan Yevgeny directly for comment. Representatives of the MPEÕK offered that the next opportunity to do so would be after May 9.
Editor: Aili Vahtla